FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
Campus research efforts now expend more than $67 million annually.
A rundown of science stories during the past year
THE OUTER LIMITS
New University research center studies the edge of human endurance.
THE ROOTS OF SOCIAL INEQUALITY
Digs in British Columbia offer a groundbreaking view of hunter-gatherer societies.
Research reveals another public health threat from asbestos contamination.
A young UM researcher studies flying rhinoceros beetles in Taiwan.
The Milltown Dam removal allows trapped sediments to travel.
How do prey species react when predators are returned to ecosystems.
THE NEW NOTE-TAKING
UM develops new software to aid college students.
A UM legal scholar reveals Constitution's original intent.
FLIP THROUGH CURRENT ISSUE
Cover: Jeff Cincoski, a triathlete and UM employee, puts a research bike through its paces in a 100-degree, temperature-controlled room at the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
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|The Outer Limits
UM research quantifies human exertion
By Jennifer Sauer
|Man of extremes: When he isn’t doing cutting-edge science as director of UM’s new Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, Brent Ruby competes in triathlons. (Left) Ruby races in the 2006 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The scientist used himself as a study subject during the race, taking muscle biopsies from his right leg before and after the grueling competition.
Things were not going well for Runner 162.
Just 42 miles into the Badwater Ultramarathon – a 135-mile, two-day race in California dubbed “the world’s toughest footrace” – the runner staggered into the aid station at Stovepipe Wells and collapsed into a waiting chair.
Temperatures of more than 110 degrees and the challenge of covering a distance on foot that many people don’t drive in a day were beginning to take their toll.
Fortunately Runner 162 was not just a Badwater participant. He also was a research subject in a hydration study conducted by University of Montana Research Professor Brent Ruby.
So in addition to taking in food and fluids at the aid station, Runner 162 gave blood and urine samples to a handful of UM researchers working out of a modified Airstream trailer. Ruby and his fellow scientists tested the samples immediately for serum electrolytes and stored a portion of the urine sample to evaluate the hydrogen trace (2H2O) their subject had ingested hours before starting the race.
Within two minutes, they provided Runner 162 with a printout detailing why he was suffering: High water turnover because of excessive sweating had depleted his sodium levels to a point where his ability to continue was in jeopardy. Armed with this knowledge, Runner 162 could reverse his downward spiral.
“We said, ‘Here is your data,’” Ruby explains as he recounts the story from his office in McGill Hall. “‘It’s not that hard. Just up your sodium intake and you should come right back to normal.’”
Runner 162 heeded the scientific advice he received from the researchers.
“He finished and had a time that was quite a bit faster than his previous time,” Ruby says. “Having that data at that point really helped him to make the necessary adjustments to bounce back.”
The data also gave Ruby the opportunity to use groundbreaking science to gauge the limits of human energy expenditure.
As director of UM’s new Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, Ruby and center research staff Dustin Slivka, John Cuddy and Walter Hailes strive to create a better understanding of applied human physiology, working in both laboratory and field settings.
Center researchers study how much the human body can endure, using their results to ensure safety and high performance in tough work environments such as special military operations, wildland firefighting and ultra-endurance races.
The WPEM facility, which was completed as an addition to McGill Hall in fall 2008, includes a 3,550-square-foot biochemistry lab and a 10-by-10-foot climate-controlled environmental chamber that researchers can use to manipulate temperature and humidity. WPEM researchers also can take their lab on the road with a solar-powered Airstream trailer.
Ruby, who also is a research professor in UM’s Department of Health and Human Performance in the College of Education and Human Sciences, uses the new state-of-the-art facility to push the limits of energy expenditure research much like the endurance athletes he studies push their bodies in competition.
To gauge energy expenditure, Ruby uses a technique modified by Dale Schoeller of the University of Wisconsin. The method involves using water labeled with two stable isotope tracers, one oxygen (18O) and one hydrogen (2H). These tracers “label” the water in the body, and researchers can then monitor those tracers as they exit the body through respiration, sweat, urine and possibly – on a bad day – tears.
“However water leaves the body,” Ruby explains, “the hydrogen tracer leaves the body through those exit routes. The oxygen tracer leaves the body through all of those exit routes, but it also leaves the body attached to expired CO2 as the result of metabolic activity. If you look at the exit rates, you can calculate CO2 production.
“If you have that in hand, then you can calculate the total energy expenditure in a number that most people understand, which is kilocalories per day,” he says.
Ruby has worked closely with Schoeller since the mid-1990s to hone the tracer technique for short-term measurement periods and take the research method to a new level. Recently, Ruby and his team have captured human energy expenditure measurements for 12 to 24 hours during endurance competitions.
It all began in the late 1990s, when Ruby first used the technique to study wildland firefighters over a three-day period. By taking urine samples before, during and after shifts on the fire line, the researchers could monitor both energy expenditure and water turnover. The study found that the firefighters’ daily energy expenditure was between 4,000 and 6,000 calories, while water turnover was about seven liters per day.
That study was funded by the U.S. military to gauge the caloric needs of soldiers in combat.
“The energy demands of the (firefighting) job are pretty much what the military has shown for Marines, Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, during all sorts of jungle or arctic activities,” Ruby says. “So we were pretty happy with that study because that was the first time we had ever used that technique.”
Like the adrenaline junkies he would come to study, Ruby was hooked.
His future studies focused on Iditarod mushers, Air Force Special Ops teams, mountaineering expeditions and arctic explorations.
“Everything seemed to come back to the 4,000 to 6,000 calories in a 24-hour period,” Ruby says. “We kept thinking there has got to be some other situations out there that certainly have higher rates of energy expenditure for a single day.”
In 2005 Ruby, a triathlete himself, set his sights on studying racers at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Ironman participants compete in a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run – raced in that order and without a break.
“We thought the environment is perfect for this because the rate of water turnover is going to be exceptionally high, meaning they are going to lose a lot of sweat,” he says. “And they are going to have to replace that, otherwise they are not going to be able to finish.”
But without a grant to fund the study, Ruby could only commit limited resources. Using just a handful of subjects in 2005 and at the championships the following two years, the UM team of researchers found that the racers were averaging an energy cost of between 8,000 and 9,500 calories over the course of the 10- to 12-hour event. At the time, their findings were some of the highest measurements obtained using this technique in humans.
“There are other ways to capture it, but this double-labeled water technique is the gold standard for free-living human measurements in the field,” Ruby says.
Still not satisfied with the 9,500-calorie limit, Ruby looked to the most prestigious endurance running event in the United States: the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in Northern California.
Using funding from the U.S. Air Force, Ruby, Slivka, Cuddy and Hailes traveled to California with their mobile Airstream lab and found 12 runners willing to participate in their energy expenditure study. Ten finished the grueling race.
“The average finish time of our subjects was around 24 hours,” Ruby says. “The average energy expenditure for the whole race was approximately 16,000 calories, which is enormous for a single day. The range was from about 11,000 (calories) all the way up to 19,000, and very much related to body size.
“Nobody has even come close to these calculations with humans before,” Ruby says. “We think this is probably close to the human ceiling for a single day.”
The following year at the Badwater Ultramarathon demonstrated that race participants had water turnover of about 36 liters during the two-day event. The racers started with an average total body water of approximately 40 liters and “turned over” nearly 90 percent of their total body water – an extreme example of hydration needs.
“That’s almost a total replacement of your body water, which is incredible,” he says. “That was probably one of the most impressive measurements that we’ve got in all of the studies.”
Obtaining data from subjects who are midway through a race or between shifts on the fire line presents its own set of challenges for Ruby and his researchers. To meet its unique needs, WPEM purchased and customized a 25-foot Airstream in 2006.
The bathroom now serves as small-scale sample-processing lab, while the beds in the front double as sleeping quarters and space to take muscle biopsies. Solar panels provide some of the juice necessary to power the lab’s computers and machines.
“That facility makes the fieldwork so much easier because everything is there – all the supplies for sample collection,” Ruby says. “We can store the samples; we can process the samples. We can do all the computer work that’s necessary and it’s great. And we can live in it, which is just awesome. That Airstream just makes life great.”
It also might help to bring more grant dollars to UM. Ruby currently has a grant proposal on the table with another military branch that sought WPEM’s involvement because it already has the capacity to conduct research in the field.
“People really like the idea of a facility being able to be that mobile,” he says. “When we did a fire study last summer, we were out in the middle of a pasture. And we had to have lights. We had to have computers. We had to have all that power because almost everything is collected in the dark. It seems like we can never get away from the early morning hours. We can never get out of the dark. So being able to use that trailer for sample collection is just priceless.”
The mobile lab’s maiden voyage took place during the summer of 2007 when Ruby hit the road with a dozen cyclists and followed them as they rode 2,000 miles from Missoula to Colorado and back. Along the way, the researchers used cycle computer systems to estimate daily energy expenditure from real-time power input.
“If we just used the Airstream for that cycling study alone and we burned it to the ground, it still would have been worth its weight in gold,” he says. “We would have never been able to do that study without it. And since then we’ve taken it to Badwater, Western States, fires, all over the place. We’ve had it all over the Western U.S. It’s awesome.”
The Airstream also helps Ruby convince research subjects that they can participate in his studies with minimal disruption.
“Most of the time when we swoop in, we have a really hard time getting subjects unless we’ve really planned it out ahead of time,” Ruby says. “Sometimes people are apprehensive to work with us, or they’re worried that their race is going to be disrupted or their job is going to be disrupted.
“I would say, at the end of the study, they have embraced the concept of being a participant,” he says. “They really have a great time with our small lab group and the data that we give them, they just totally dig it. It’s like we are this rolling goodwill tour of science just collecting data along the way.”
But what does all this data and research mean to the world?
“That’s always the million dollar question. The human body is mighty,” Ruby says of his latest energy expenditure findings. “I think this data provides an appreciation for the capabilities that the human body has. It’s tremendous and adaptable. It demonstrates how humans in general under use the physiological gifts that the body has to offer.”
Ruby maintains that ancient humans likely had similar energy expenditures during the hunts that their survival depended on.
“Thousands of years ago the human ceiling was probably identical to what it is now,” he says. “But now we don’t have the need to achieve it. So we create environments that are competitions to achieve it. Back then, it was survival. Now it’s just an expensive hobby.”
Ruby doesn’t think the human ceiling has changed by any means.
“There’s no reason why it should,” he says. “It’s changed for a lot of people just because they have no interest in jumping that high. They are content with living around what the food labels recommend at 2,000 calories a day.
“But I always say how boring life would be if you only expended 2,000 calories a day. You miss out on the poetry that the body has to offer when your energy expenditure is so dramatically low. It’s designed to withstand a tremendous amount of activity. It just shows what the human body can celebrate.”
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|(Top, left to right) Walter Hailes, Dustin Slivka, Ruby and John Cuddy brave the heat to examine athletes at an ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif. (Bottom) Ruby does a mid-race blood draw on a volunteer in the Western States 100 ultramarathon in Squaw Valley, Calif.
|(Top) This research caravan was used to study cyclists during the 2,000-mile Giro D’iscovery project.
(Bottom, left to right) Tyler Tucker, Cuddy and Slivka take a break outside the mobile Airstream trailer lab during a study on firefighters working near Elmo in 2008.
|Slivka (top) prepares muscle samples taken from riders in the Giro D’iscovery project (middle), which took riders from Montana to Colorado. (Bottom) Slivka and Ruby take a post-ride muscle sample.