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You mentioned that a foundation—and hope for success— of your work in mice is the ability of birds to restore dead hair cells. Do mammals and birds have comparable auditory systems?
DOETZLHOFER: In principle, the Organ of Corti (where the hair cells are located) of both animals operates in the same manner, though in mammals it is structurally more complex. Of course, songbirds have perfect pitch, so their ears are no less exceptional than ours. One intriguing difference is that the hair cells in birds are not arranged in neat rows like in mammals, so it will be interesting to see if that contributes to hair cell regeneration.
So if hair cell loss leads to a loss in hearing, would mutations that produce extra hair cells enable us to have some kind of super-hearing ability?
DOETZLHOFER: Actually, having too many hair cells is detrimental and impairs hearing. The reason is that extra hair cells disrupt the well-ordered arrangement of the inner ear, which disturbs some of the finer mechanics of sound perception. That’s one of the fascinating things about hair cells; both the number and position have to be perfect.
Have you always been interested in doing auditory research?
DOETZLHOFER: My introduction to hearing came through my studies in the cell cycle. In graduate school I worked on cell cycle control in cell lines to understand how it contributed to cancer. As I was finishing up my advisor had begun looking at cell cycle control in the inner ear, and I became drawn to this organ. I had always wanted to work on a complex in vivo system, and the ear seemed perfect.
One of the great benefits of working at Hopkins, and the Center for Sensory Biology, is the opportunity to collaborate with so many varied scientists. Are there any researchers or departments you are particularly looking forward to meeting?
DOETZLHOFER: One group is certainly the faculty in the Center for Hearing and Balance in the nearby Ross building, as they have a strong background in electrophysiology, which I don’t have. So they will be invaluable in determining how gene mutations in the knockout mice I’m going to work with affect hearing. Another important area is Hopkins’ Epigenetics Center. We know that epigenetic events can lock genes into a certain state, and that may be one of the key mechanisms that keeps supporting cells in mammalian ears from regenerating.