Michael Tift is a PhD graduate student with Dr. Paul Ponganis in the Center for Biomedicine and Biotechnology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
His research focuses on understanding extreme physiological systems found in wildlife organisms. As a comparative physiologist, his goal is to integrate the knowledge gained on these systems to advance our understanding of human and animal physiology.
Currently, his research focuses on oxygen store management in deep-diving birds and mammals. Most recently, he has been working with northern elephant seals, California sea lions and emperor penguins. As breath-hold divers, these animals are constrained by their need to exercise at extreme depths for food, and continually return to the surface for air. Large oxygen stores in the blood, muscle and lung assist them in prolonging their dive time, however management of these oxygen stores is poorly understood. Using miniaturized biologgers, he is able to match changes in exercise intensity with real-time fluctuations in oxygen-stores and heart rates while the animals are out diving at sea. The findings from this research will further our understanding of how these animals: 1) exercise under intense pressure, 2) manage oxygen stores to avoid decompression sickness and shallow water blackout and 3) regulate metabolic processes to optimize foraging dive times.
Another area of interest has been focused on the beneficial aspects of endogenous carbon monoxide production in wildlife organisms. Due to its’ intense binding to the oxygen-carrying protein (hemoglobin and myoglobin) carbon monoxide reduces oxygen-transport and therefore has the reputation of only being a toxic and deadly gas (a.k.a. ‘The silent killer’). However, carbon monoxide is naturally produced in virtually all bacteria, plants and animals. Ironically, the primary production of carbon monoxide in the body is a result of the natural breakdown of the heme-proteins, such as hemoglobin and myoglobin. Recently, it has been found that low concentrations of carbon monoxide exposure can provide powerful tissue protection against inflammation and cell death, and therefore carbon monoxide is currently being considered as a therapeutic potential for treating cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and ischemia-reperfusion injury. Therefore, in high concentrations, carbon monoxide can be harmful and starve the body of oxygen, but in low concentrations, carbon monoxide can be beneficial and provide potent tissue protection. We have recently shown that some deep diving species with elevated hemoglobin and myoglobin concentrations have carbon monoxide levels which resemble chronic human cigarette smokers. Although these levels are high, we’re finding they do not decrease oxygen stores enough to hinder diving performance, but instead could provide valuable tissue protection from injuries associated with prolonged deep-diving.