Cape Cod Marine Life lures biomedical researchers to the Marine Biological Laboratory
WOODS HOLE, MA, June 2005 — It’s annual migration time on Cape Cod again, the time
of year when Woods Hole squid arrive by the tens of thousands. It’s a
sign of spring to the fishermen who make a living in this important New
England fishery. But here at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), it
triggers an influx of hundreds of scientists and students from around
the world, who return here faithfully every summer to study the squid
and other marine organisms.
Sea creatures, it turns out, have been at the center of numerous
medical research breakthroughs, and the MBL has been a center for this
kind of work for over a century. The laboratory’s proximity to the
Atlantic Ocean; its expertise in collecting and maintaining marine
creatures for study; and its casual, collaborative environment are key
reasons scientists return each year.
During a typical MBL summer, the year-round population swells
from 275 to over a thousand. Scientists from more than 133 universities
and institutions in more than a dozen countries make the MBL their
summer research headquarters each year.
U.S. and foreign students seeking intense, specialized science
courses taught by top researchers, flock here, too–to participate in
advanced-level offerings in numerous subjects, including cell
physiology, neurobiology, and embryology.
Why study marine creatures? In short, they are simple versions
of more complex organisms. By studying life processes in marine models,
MBL scientists and students learn how the same events occur in the
human body . . . and how they go awry when disease strikes.
Over the years, marine models have been instrumental in the
MBL’s advancement of the world’s understanding of cancer, neurological
disorders, vision, immunology, and even in vitro fertilization.
Here are some of the locally available organisms MBL researchers study and why:
Long-finned, or Woods Hole, squid (Loligo pealeii): This squid’s
large nerve cell fiber, called a giant axon, has helped neuroscientists
understand basic nervous system functions. MBL scientists studying
squid have learned how electrical signals are transmitted from cell to
cell, how nutrients and other important particles are transferred from
cell to cell, and how certain cells maintain the body’s pH level. Basic
research on the squid has led researchers and clinicians to a better
understanding of such debilitating human diseases as heart disease,
stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and kidney disease.
Horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus): The horseshoe crab’s
compound eye and the (easily accessible) optic nerve that connects the
eye to the brain are both relatively large, making this organism a
great model for the study of vision.
MBL scientists have also made significant research
breakthroughs related to the horseshoe crab’s blood. The crab’s
amebocyte cells clot in response to bacteria, enabling the development
of tools used to test humans, drugs, and sterile environments for
Skate (Raja erinacea): Human retinas have two kinds of
light-sensing cells: rods and cones. Skate retinas have only rods–yet
they can still sense light. MBL scientists have studied skate retinas
to learn how eyes adapt to light changes, and to understand diseases
that can cause blindness.
Green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis): The
female sea urchin can produce as many as a half million eggs during
spawning season, and fertilization and embryonic development are
external and rapid. Such factors make this research organism ideal for
the study of reproduction and development. Sea urchin research, much of
which was carried out at the MBL, has led to advanced reproductive
technologies including test-tube fertilization.
Oyster toadfish (Opsanus tau): The broad, flat head of the
toadfish contains a unique set of nerve wiring. The nerves leading to
and from the toadfish brain are less tangled than those in humans and
other creatures that must cram their nerves through relatively small
openings in the skull.
The human vestibular (balance) system relies on fluid-filled
ear canals that tell us which end is up. The toadfish vestibular system
is similar enough to the human version to make comparisons meaningful
but with an easier to explore nerve layout. MBL researchers have used
the toadfish as a model for research into neurotransmission; certain
hearing and balance disorders, including Meniere’s disease; and motion
sickness and dizziness.
Surf clam (Spisula solidissima): Surf clam eggs are popular
among scientists studying cell division and the proteins associated
with it. Female clams are fertile from May to July, and millions of
eggs can be harvested from a single female. By inducing the clam eggs
to undergo cell division at the same time, scientists can study
millions of cells in the same stage of division. Clam eggs are also
transparent, providing a perfect window on biology in action. MBL
scientists studying surf clams have made discoveries that may be
critical to understanding diseases such as cancer; progeria, a disease
that causes children to age unusually quickly; and muscular dystrophy.
For a list of MBL researchers and the organisms they use, or
for further information on summer research and education at the MBL,
please contact Gina Hebert at 508-289-7725.
Source : Marine Biological Laboratory