Text: Émilie Veillon
Photo: Eric Déroze

Ornithologist Alexandre Roulin and biochemist Stefan Kunz

With their large, piercing eyes and their hoo-hooing that resounds throughout the moonlit countryside, owls have fascinated since time immemorial. As protected species that can only be observed in the wild, they have been studied very little in scientific disciplines...except by keen ornithologist Alexandre Roulin. He has dedicated twenty years of research to the nocturnal bird of prey, which he has been monitoring through the two hundred and fifty nest boxes set up in barns and hangars in the Broye and Orbe valleys.

As professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), his field work on barn owls has led him to one conclusion in particular: they are not the same colour. Owls within a single group have feathers ranging from white to dark red, and they may be more or less spotted. Even more curious is that these differences in melanin levels are associated with certain behavioural patterns such as appetite, sexuality and stress resistance. “This colouring is believed to be caused by melanocortin, a hormone that stimulates melanin synthesis,” says Alexandre Roulin. “The higher the level of melanocortin in a dark-feathered owl, the more aggressive it will be, and the stronger its resistance to parasites and stress.”

On a hunch that the correlation between molecular factors and physiological behaviour could also apply to humans, especially sick people, he invited different researchers from the Faculty of Biology and Medicine to a presentation
of his research last year. One of his guests was Stefan Kunz, a biochemist and associate professor of Fundamental Virology at the Microbiology Institute (IMUL) of the Lausanne University Hospital, who recognised the need for scientific collaboration between their two fields.

Six months ago, a team was formed comprising Antonella Pasquato, a specialist in proteases (enzymes that break down proteins) at the IMUL, and post-doctoral student Karin Löw from the Department of Ecology and Evolution. They meet once a month to discuss the latest developments in their respective areas of research and to develop a shared methodology. Their goal is to target these gene systems and try to adjust them to influence certain metabolic diseases such as obesity.

“Laboratory researchers and field biologists rarely work together to try to develop a common language,” says Stefan Kunz. “Having access to an extensive database on wild animals featuring such genetic diversity is an extraordinary opportunity for microbiologists, who generally only have access to lab rats.” And the biologist adds that this collaboration is made possible because the UNIL is the only establishment in Switzerland where biology and medicine are part of the same faculty.