Honey, I shrunk the shrew (and maybe your kidney)

The incredible shrinking mammal: The shrew can shrink by as much as one-fifth its size in winter, then quickly regrow in the spring. With an eye on revolutionary new approaches to degenerative diseases, Stony Brook University evolutionary scientist Liliana Davalos wants to know more.

Cutting-edge evolutionary science meets a Rick Moranis movie in an innovative international study of a surprisingly shrinkable furball.

Freshly supported by a three-year grant from the international Human Frontier Science Program, Liliana Dávalos, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution in Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences, will dive even deeper into the world of the shrew  a remarkable, mole-like mammal known to shrink its mass, including its brain, up to 20 percent during the winter months, without hibernating.

Dávalos goal: To better understand the process of neurological degeneration and regeneration in mammals, a potential key to unlocking new treatments for degenerative illnesses such as multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s disease.

Liliana Dávalos: Shrew-d thinker.

One farther-flung idea even has humans developing the evolutionary capability of shrinking their bodies (or select organs) for periods of time to preserve their functionality.

Dávalos, whose laboratory focuses on “the forces shaping biodiversity in time and space,” acknowledges this is not currently possible. But along with her research partners, the award-winning professor – an oft-published scholar and frequent contributor to United Nations programs – now has $330,000 of HFSP money to get into the shrew’s unique ability to shrink down in the harsh winter months and then quickly regenerate come spring.

Her collaborators include John Nieland, a technician in the Department of Health Science and Technology at Denmark’s Aalborg University, and research scientist Dina Dechmann of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

Human Frontier Science Program grants are intended to fund cutting-edge, high-risk/high-reward research projects. Current Management Supporting Parties of the HFSP Organization include the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Norway, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, the UK and the European Commission.

More information on this year’s radical grant-winners available here.