Two Illinois State University professors are investigating whether turtles can provide insights to keep the human gut healthy.

Illinois State University’s Professor of Immunology Laura Vogel and Distinguished Professor of Ecological Physiology Rachel Bowden received an award of more than $430,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the study of immune systems in reptiles.

headshot of Laura Vogel

Laura Vogel

Biology Professor Rachel Bowden turtles climate change

Illinois State Distinguished Professor Rachel Bowden

“The immune system is critical for protection from infection, yet its function declines in elderly individuals,” said Vogel, who has dedicated her career to studying B cells, a type of white blood cell that contributes to the immune system. “Other animals, such as reptiles, have very similar immune system components, but are able to maintain their immune function in old age.”

Bowden’s lab studies red-eared slider turtles, and the connection between the reptile systems and humans. “Turtles are long-lived reptiles that encounter many microbes while feeding, yet scientists know very little about their gut immunity,” said Bowden.

Working together, Bowden and Vogel will investigate how the reptile immune system is different from that of humans, focusing on the function and distribution of B cells in the intestine. The grant will support the work of graduate and undergraduate student researchers in the Bowden and Vogel labs.

“Both Dr. Vogel and Dr. Bowden have been extraordinary scholars producing ground-breaking research in the fields of biology and immunology,” said Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Diane Zosky. “Their work will continue to advance the study of how white cells can protect against infection.”

The immune system plays an essential role in controlling what are known as “good gut microbes” and keeping out disease-causing microbes, noted Vogel. “Our research laboratories at Illinois State University are interested in how the immune system in the intestine helps keep you healthy. Our work focuses on a population of white blood cells called B lymphocytes that make antibodies that coat the intestinal walls and bind to microbes.”

Bowden has published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers in national/international scientific journals and given over 25 invited talks on her research. She has received more than $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for her research on maternal hormonal effects on offspring sex ratios in her model system­­­. During her tenure at Illinois State she received both the University Research Initiative Award and University Teaching Initiative Award.  She was named Outstanding College Researcher and Outstanding University Researcher.

Vogel has served on NIH grant-review teams, served as a manuscript reviewer for a number of peer-reviewed research journals, and was the director of research exchanges for the NSF Research Coordination Network in Ecoimmunology Steering Committee. Also named Outstanding University Researcher, Vogel’s work has been supported by more than $1 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. She has also been honored with the ISU Leadership Initiative certificate, the Outstanding University Service Award, the Outstanding College Researcher Award, and the Outstanding College Teacher Award.