Open Access Research article

Modulation of gene expression in heart and liver of hibernating black bears (Ursus americanus)

Vadim B Fedorov1*, Anna V Goropashnaya1, Øivind Tøien1, Nathan C Stewart1, Celia Chang2, Haifang Wang3, Jun Yan3, Louise C Showe2, Michael K Showe2 and Brian M Barnes1

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA

2 Systems Biology Division, the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

3 CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology, Shanghai Institutes of Biological Sciences, 320 Yue Yang Road, Shanghai, 200031, PR China

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:171  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-171

Published: 31 March 2011



Hibernation is an adaptive strategy to survive in highly seasonal or unpredictable environments. The molecular and genetic basis of hibernation physiology in mammals has only recently been studied using large scale genomic approaches. We analyzed gene expression in the American black bear, Ursus americanus, using a custom 12,800 cDNA probe microarray to detect differences in expression that occur in heart and liver during winter hibernation in comparison to summer active animals.


We identified 245 genes in heart and 319 genes in liver that were differentially expressed between winter and summer. The expression of 24 genes was significantly elevated during hibernation in both heart and liver. These genes are mostly involved in lipid catabolism and protein biosynthesis and include RNA binding protein motif 3 (Rbm3), which enhances protein synthesis at mildly hypothermic temperatures. Elevated expression of protein biosynthesis genes suggests induction of translation that may be related to adaptive mechanisms reducing cardiac and muscle atrophies over extended periods of low metabolism and immobility during hibernation in bears. Coordinated reduction of transcription of genes involved in amino acid catabolism suggests redirection of amino acids from catabolic pathways to protein biosynthesis. We identify common for black bears and small mammalian hibernators transcriptional changes in the liver that include induction of genes responsible for fatty acid β oxidation and carbohydrate synthesis and depression of genes involved in lipid biosynthesis, carbohydrate catabolism, cellular respiration and detoxification pathways.


Our findings show that modulation of gene expression during winter hibernation represents molecular mechanism of adaptation to extreme environments.