ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Amanda Bundgaard is an author on ‘ Are reactive oxygen species always bad? Lessons from hypoxic ectotherms’, published in JEB. Amanda is a postdoc in the lab of Angela Fago at Aarhus University, Denmark, investigating metabolism in oxygen deprivation.

Amanda Bundgaard

How did you become interested in biology?

I've always loved everything to do with animals, whether catching bugs in the local lake, going to the zoo or the Natural History Museum with my dad and grandparents or watching animal programmes on TV. When I had to decide on an education after school, I read an article about haemoglobin adaptations in high-flying geese and was immediately fascinated by the extreme molecular adaptations that allow animals to survive extreme conditions like oxygen deprivation. So I decided to study biology, and to pursue a career as an animal researcher.

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

In my PhD, I studied mitochondrial responses to anoxia (no oxygen) in freshwater turtles. These animals survive winter by hibernating in anoxic mud, and I studied how they avoid oxidative damage when oxygen returns. I found that their low metabolic rate in winter meant that they avoid many of the metabolic disruptions that normally cause trouble and lead to oxidative damage, especially in mammals. Now, I've changed to another model organism which is extremely anoxia tolerant, the naked mole-rat, which I've studied for 2 years during a postdoc in Cologne with Dr Jane Reznick. We've found several interesting modulations to their metabolism which I'm looking forward to publishing soon. I've recently started as assistant professor at the Department for Zoophysiology, Aarhus University, Denmark, to start my own group focusing on naked mole-rat physiology.

How would you explain the main message of your paper to a member of the public?

When animals experience fluctuations in oxygen levels, toxic levels of oxygen radicals can be produced, leading to oxidative tissue damage. This has been mostly studied in disease conditions in mammals such as with thrombosis, stroke or organ transplantation, where tissues locally experience oxygen fluctuations and resulting oxidative tissue damage. However, it's less clear whether animals that experience fluctuations in environmental oxygen levels such as during diving or in hyperoxic tide-pools also acquire oxidative damage. In this paper, we review the existing literature, and find that animals (in particular ectotherms) generally don't experience toxic levels of oxygen radicals and oxidative tissue damage with environmental oxygen fluctuations. We argue that this is due to their low metabolic rate, which allows them to avoid the conditions that lead to overwhelming oxygen radical production. Furthermore, we suggest that moderate production of oxygen radicals in fluctuating oxygen may instead be involved in cellular signalling, which could lead to adaptive responses, for example in mitochondrial activity.

The anoxia-tolerant mammal, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber). Photo credit: Amanda Bundgaard.

The anoxia-tolerant mammal, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber). Photo credit: Amanda Bundgaard.

What is your favourite animal, and why?

Right now, my favourite animal is the naked mole-rat. They're so fantastically weird. Even though they're mammals and as rodents quite closely related to mice and rats, they have so many unique adaptations that makes it possible for them to survive underground. They have a bee-like social structure with a queen and inbred, sexually repressed ‘workers’, they thrive in an atmosphere of up to 10% CO2 and only 5% O2, they don't seem to age and they are very long-lived for their size (current record 38 years!).

Do you have a top tip for others just starting out at your career stage?

After my first postdoc in Denmark, I won a grant to go abroad to try a new research environment as a postdoc, and it was the best decision in my career. Trying a new way of doing things and getting new perspectives has been so stimulating for my way of doing research. I would warmly recommend it!

For me, there were a few challenges on the way. I got the grant in 2020, just before COVID broke out, Brexit was implemented which made it harder for me and my partner to go to England as I had originally planned and on top of that I got pregnant with my first child. Everything had to be postponed, and we decided to change the plan to go to Germany instead. I think my top tip for others in my career stage is that going abroad or changing your research environment, despite the potential initial difficulties, is totally worth it. Also, having children is not a dead-end to your career, and for me has made me more focused in the way I work.

What's next for you?

Very soon, I'll go on my second maternity leave, and when I get back, I am starting my own research group focusing on naked mole-rats and all their weird metabolic adaptations.

Amanda Bundgaard's contact details: Aarhus University, Department of Biology, CF Moellers Alle 3, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.


B. G.
G. Y.
Are reactive oxygen species always bad? Lessons from hypoxic ectotherms
J. Exp. Biol.