“And so it’s a really creative idea, it resulted in a huge number of advances that we were able to make and others in the field were able to make. But it's not going to happen but it doesn't mean that it wasn't useful trying to make it happen. Because, again, it's just like the creativity that we talked about earlier when you're having free play, when you have something that's so ambitious, that these kinds of transitional or frontier projects, you have to create things in order to get there. And so in the process of trying to create these motors, we created all these other machines and tools and all these other things that the people around the world are using now.” This episode of the Smart Athlete Podcast is brought to you by Solpri, Skincare for Athletes. Whether you're in the gym, on the mats, on the road or in the pool, we protect your skin so you're more comfortable in your own body. To learn more, go to Solpri.com. JESSE: Welcome to Smart Athlete Podcast. I'm your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today, although he's wearing coat he’s in beautiful Davis, California. He is the head of the functional molecular biology lab and a professor at UC Davis. He has his PhD in physiology, and lots and lots of research papers to his name. Welcome to the show, Keith Barr. KEITH: Thank you very much. Thank you. Yeah, I didn't know you were going to do a YouTube video of it or else I probably would have hid the down jacket that I'm wearing when it's like 70 degrees outside. JESSE: It's okay. It kind of adds to the mystery of what's happening at Davis why you’re in a coat when it's 70 degrees outside. KEITH: Yeah. Why is a Canadian wearing a coat while he's in California, that's just not good. JESSE: Yeah. I mean doesn't that come like inborn where you're born in Canada, you never need a coat. You can just go outside at any temperature and be fine. KEITH: Yeah, pretty much, pretty much. Oh, well, so much for that theory. JESSE: So, I've kind of listened to various interviews you've done. You've done several different podcasts, and I listened to one of your lectures I think you gave last year but I haven't quite figured out what you did growing up. Did you play hockey like a typical Canadian or what kind of sports background did you have growing up? KEITH: Yeah, so I did not play hockey. I was one of the rare Canadians who didn't. We're now a growing number of Canadians who play basketball. So, I played basketball for years and years. I got up probably over 1,000 shots every day and did a lot of work to try and get really good at it. And so had some success, but it was kind of mediocre success. But then, of course, I went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and the year that I went there, I was going to-- The plan was to try out for the team and to make the team and... Yeah, that team went on to win the national championship that year. So, it was a little difficult and one of the guys that I was there with was a guy named Eric Riley and we would go to the gym and we’d play together. And I'm like, yeah, I got about the same kind of skill level as this guy. But he's seven foot two, so I don't think I'm gonna do quite as well. So, yeah. JESSE: How tall are you? KEITH: I'm six two, but that's not really tall enough for much of anything. JESSE: Yeah, it's kind of a tough rage. It's you sort of, I’m just trying to think, you really kind of be a little bit shorter for I'll say the average like professional runner if you went the opposite direction kind of went endurance sports like I do. And then yeah, basketball needs to be a little bit taller. But you're in this kind of land where you are, I think by general measures are tall, you know, it's not like-- KEITH: Yeah. So, I'm tall enough so that I have to play forward when I play pickup basketball, but I was a point guard. And that's about what I should be given my height. So, it is a very difficult thing to play at a variety of different levels. But yeah. So, I did that, I also played volleyball in college because growing up in Canada, we had outstanding physical education. And I had a great PE teacher who had played as a national team player for the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia, as it was called at that time. He was a Czech national volleyball player. So, he trained us extraordinarily well in the gym for playing volleyball. So, even though I didn't really play that too much, I was able to jump onto a college team because he had trained us that well. JESSE: Was that a club team or was that actually-- KEITH: Yeah, it was a club team but still, it was good. We played against a lot of Varsity teams. And so the Varsity teams, we would still be able to be competitive with them, so it was good. JESSE: Yeah, I was like I hadn't really thought about men's volleyball. I mean, obviously, it's played all over the place. Funny enough, my guest from two weeks ago, Will ?? 5:34>, he wrote a book, I had him on talking about the book, and he also played club in college. And I was like, I didn't even have it in my mind that that was a thing going on. KEITH: It's one of those interesting things where in the US women's volleyball is the key sport. And there's clubs from when you're 10 years old. And yet the women aren't the ones who win gold medals. They the US men, actually are better at winning medals historically than the women are even though they don't actually have a program. And that really tells you something about kind of elite sport is that if you actually don't have as much structured time, you probably create creativity, and you improve your skills by creating them yourself, rather than doing what the coach is telling you. And I think that's one of the reasons why the men's team, actually at the national level tends to do extraordinarily well, given that there's no infrastructure in the US really for men’s volleyball. JESSE: So, is it a matter of just like, throw the couch out the window, get together and play? KEITH: That's the ideal thing to do when you're a kid. Yeah. Worst thing in the world is to have grown-ups there if you're playing sport as a kid because you're gonna do things, and they'll tell you what to do, and then you start doing what they tell you instead of figuring out a different way of doing it and coming up with creative ways to do things that are then going to make you exceptional once you get a little bit older. JESSE: Yeah. See, I know, I've thought about that in terms of injury risk, thinking about not starting kids too early on weights and those kinds of things, but I hadn't thought about it in terms of skill acquisition. So, I mean, is there a preferred age where you say, okay, now you're old enough to need a coach or for a coach to progress your skills? KEITH: If you talk to David Epstein and you read his book, Range, he would say that the more diverse things you do, the better you're going to be in the long run. And that's certainly true for sport. So, we know that most of the most creative players, like if you look at a Messi or you look at all of these guys, yeah, they were in a club from about 11ish, but before that, they were playing just on the street, wherever they could. And most of the play that they would do even though they were on a club team would be out in the street or in a park with nobody watching, they can try a lot of things. And you go to South America and they say that the worst thing that's happened to their football skills is that they've put in a bunch of really nice parks that have like a flat astroturf or ?? 8:18> turf surface. Because in the old days, they used to have bumps in all of this stuff, and you had the good on a really bad surface. So, you had to be even better to handle the ball. And so all of those things really kind of indicate that for your creative labor end, the long view where you're going to get to as your maximum, the more time you have as kind of free play and as create creative time where you're encouraged to try crazy things, the better you're going to-- your upside is going to be. JESSE: So, I think that's a really good example of whenever my coach gives me, kind of I’ll call it interesting workouts, he'll say diverse workouts make diverse athletes. The whole key is not necessarily doing this exact thing, but let's do something a little bit different and that's a little more stimulating. KEITH: Yeah. Yeah. Because after a certain period of time, the tissues of the body need a different stimulus in order to adapt. JESSE: Yeah, yeah. So, I want to jump a little bit into your research. It seems like you kind of made a transition over time. I watched, I believe, was you doing a TEDx talk at Davis talking about exercise and happiness. And then now, the more recent stuff talking about tendon strength and kind of more focused, it seems like into I’ll say functional molecular biology, but I'll call it more technical rather than more easily adapted to like pop culture. How do you get from kind of where you were, that was, I think, was like 2011 to where you are now? KEITH: Well, so the lecture I gave, the TEDx lecture, that was just something that basically is a general physical activity component. So, how do you live the longest, happiest life possible, and that was nuts. You know, there's this idea that that exercise is going to do a lot of things to promote that. But my PhD was in muscle physiology, I was a molecular biologist and really coming up with the molecular mechanism underlying why a muscle grows and response to lifting weights. And then I went on to work with John Howse and discovered a specific gene that was activated by endurance exercise that basically causes all of the endurance adaptations. So, a gene called ?? 10:48>, I was able to show that - was activated when you did endurance exercise, and that you actually produced a smaller version of it that was more active and that a lot of what you get when you do endurance adaptations. Or when you do endurance training and your body adapts to that is actually, that you turn on this gene and it increases your mitochondrial mass, it increases your fat oxidation capacity, and it increases your ability to or the number of capillaries within the muscle. So, a lot of these things that you would consider endurance adaptations are down to that one gene. So, most of the time I had been working in muscle trying to really understand how muscle is responding to exercise, nutrition, and age. And then what we started doing at a certain point, I went to a postdoc with this incredibly smart guy named Bob Dennis, the University of Michigan, and what he was doing was engineering muscles. So, we make muscles in a dish. And what we discovered is that every-- The reason we were doing this is because we wanted to build machines that had muscles as the motors for the machine. And what we had discovered is that whenever you attach a muscle to a machine it would always fail at the attachment between the muscle and the machine. You would suture it on, you’d sow it on, and then that would be where the muscle would tear off. And so we decided that in order to really build a machine that used muscles, you had to have that transitional tissue, the tendon. And so we started looking into kind of what was the physiology of tendon, and what was its role and how did it function to protect the muscle from injury? And over the years, we're still working on molecular mechanisms underlying a lot of the muscle responses to exercise, nutrition, and age. But we've started to pay more and more attention to tendons and ligaments and fascia because what we're realizing is that these tissues are as important or more important for performance because the tissues that are going to determine whether you are healthy or injured. And if you're healthy, and you can train more, the likelihood of you performing at a high level is higher. And so for us, those are the key things. JESSE: As we kind of go through this, just pretend that I'm a freshman, essentially. I'm doing my best to like, digest all your stuff, but obviously, you can speak at a much higher level than me. So, I'll try my best to ask purposeful questions here. So, I want to back up just a little bit. So, what was the purpose of trying to make a machine with muscles? Is that in the sense of, we can't find a better mechanism to operate I'll say like the future of robotics or what was the point of that? KEITH: Essentially, some of that was actually funded by the Department of Defense, with the idea that if you are going to do long term spaceflight, or you're doing really long missions or voyages, what you would do is you would want to have a machine that could fix itself. And muscle if there's any damage it can self-regenerate, it can self-repair. And so the idea was to generate something that could be a self-regulating, self-repairing motor that could power these long term spaceflights. And again, part of what grant funding is there for is to really open up completely incredibly unimaginable areas. Because nobody would ever think of, oh, let's just power these spaceships with muscles. Not necessarily something most people would think of, but somebody had this idea that, well, if we could do it, then we'd have basically a machine that could basically work forever. And all we’d have to do is supply it with energy. And so it’s a really creative idea, it resulted in huge number of advances that we were able to make and others in the field were able to make. But it's not going to happen but it doesn't mean that it wasn't useful trying to make it happen. Because, again, it's just like the creativity that we talked about earlier when you're having free play, when you have something that's so ambitious, that these kinds of transitional or frontier projects, you have to create things in order to get there. And so in the process of trying to create these motors, we created all these other machines and tools and all these other things that the people around the world are using now. JESSE: Yeah, it seems like sometimes, from the various kind of professors and people who are doing research I've spoken to oftentimes, you kind of go down a rabbit hole, and then that will be the genesis of maybe even the next 10 years of somebody’s research. Because they'll say, oh, but wait, what about this problem within this problem? And then it kind of spawns off on a whole other path. I think I saw, please correct me that you have or are working on trying to recreate tendons for people. Was that kind of ?? 16:22> from there? KEITH: Yeah. So, we've engineered ligaments and that was spun off from the muscle work. Because when you're trying to attach your muscle to a machine, you need to have something like a tendon or a ligament. So, rather than start with a tendon which is a bone tendon and a muscle which, so three tissues, we started with a bone, a tendon and a bone which is a ligament which is only two tissues so it's a little bit easier. And so we've been engineering ligaments now for probably about 15 years. And so they're super cool tissues and they have given us a huge amount of information as to everything from nutrition, loading, all of these types of things we've learned from having made ligaments in a dish that we can now have complete control over. So, I can take blood out of your body, after you've done certain exercise or after you've eaten a certain meal, I can isolate the serum and put it into our engineered ligaments and I can tell you in a week's time, whether what you ate or what you did is going to make your tendons and ligaments bigger, stronger and more resilient. So, we've got a huge number of tools now. JESSE: What are those artificial tendons created out of? Is it the same kind of cellular structure or is it a different material? KEITH: These are human ligaments. So, basically what we do is we take-- So, we're in Davis, we're about an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe, world-class skiing. So, about this time of year, people are getting all excited, they're going up and skiing, they're going to come down the hill, with a ruptured ACL, they're gonna go to our medical center and get it replaced. And as they're getting it replaced, we get the remnant of the tissue. And so that remnant of the tissue has the human ACL fiberglass, which are dedicated cells that are the cells that make the ligament. So, we then just take away all of the collagen, the protein there, isolate the cells, and now we can use those cells to make ligaments in our laboratory. And so from a single individual, we can make about 1,000 engineered ligaments. JESSE: Okay. So, this is a kind of personal curiosity, but how does that tissue gets stored or does it have a shelf life or how does that aspect work? KEITH: Yeah, so we've taken-- We take we normally will take our tissue and the same day will digest it down and will isolate the cells. And the cells will start growing that day. So, they’ll attach to a dish and grow. We've also done it from categoric tissue, so from people who have passed away. They've donated their body to science and as part of that they get, so their tendons and ligaments will get put into a media. And we've been able to isolate functional cells from ligaments from people who had been dead for 45 days. So, the cells within your tendons and ligaments, they're not really metabolically highly active, they can be kept alive relatively easily. Once we have the cells, then what we do is we freeze those cells down in liquid nitrogen in a special solution that protects them from damage. And then anytime we want to use a vial of those cells, we just thaw them out and we start growing again. JESSE: Okay, okay. So, I mean it's effectively I’ll say an almost indefinite period of time that you have those for use? KEITH: Yeah, pretty much as long as they stay minus 180 degrees in liquid nitrogen we’ll be able to use them. If there are fluctuations in temperature, the cells deteriorate. Go to Part 2 Go to Part 3
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 30 - Dr. Keith Barr - Unlocking Athletic Potential - Part 1 of 3
And so it’s a really creative idea, it resulted in a huge number of advances that we were able to make and others in the field were able to make. But it's not going to happen but it doesn't mean that it wasn't useful trying to make it happen.