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Encyclopedia of Life names Dr. Rebecca Johnson a 2011 Rubenstein Fellow

Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher and sea slug expert at the California Academy of Sciences, has been named one of 16 Rubenstein Fellows by the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). These early-career scientists will use EOL as a platform for sharing their biodiversity research with colleagues and the general public.

The Encyclopedia of Life ( is an international collaboration that aims to provide freely accessible information about all of the 1.9 million known species on our planet. EOL Rubenstein Fellows awards are made possible through a generous donation by David M. Rubenstein to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. The program provides partial stipend or salary support for early-career scientists who wish to use EOL as a platform for outreach and encouraging other young scientists to do the same. More than 60 fellowships are expected to be awarded over the four years of the program, which began in 2010.

Johnson began her career at the California Academy of Sciences 15 years ago, first as a post-college intern, then as a master's and Ph.D. student under the guidance of Dr. Terry Gosliner, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Academy. Her specialty is chromodorid nudibranchs (also known as sea slugs), a family of about 300 species that display beautiful, vivid colors and live in tropical shallow waters worldwide. These Technicolor invertebrates aren't just notable for their brazen beautythey are also a potential source of medical treatments for a variety of human ailments, from heart disease to cancer. In addition to working as postdoctoral researcher at the Academy, Johnson also works with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to train tide pool naturalists at Duxbury Reefa marine protected area in Marin Countyand contributes to the Academy's exhibits and education programs, including a recent display on the Farallon Islands.

"I am honored and excited to be a Rubenstein Fellow," says Johnson. "With this award, I will use the Encyclopedia of Life as a platform with which to consolidate and organize historical data, new research findings, and information on chromodorid nudibranchs that is only found in the scientific literature, libraries, natural history museums, and scattered across the web. As a fellow, I look forward to sharing the beauty of these animals with a larger audience and to making scientific information about them more widely available."

It's easy to see why nudibranchs have captured Johnson's attention for so many years. Despite the common name of "sea slug," nudibranchs are breathtaking in their beauty and variety. Ranging from less than an inch to up to two feet long, nudibranchs occupy a wide range of aquatic habitats, from polar waters to tropical seas, shallow reefs to deep-sea trenches. Over 3,000 species have been discovered and described to date, and scientists estimate that another 3,000 species are yet to be named.

The name nudibranch means "naked gill"unlike their close relatives, the snails, they have no shell covering their body and gills. In some species, these gills take the form of feathery projections on the back; other species have them along the sides of their body; and some don't have gills at all, but instead use their highly branched digestive system for respiration.

Perhaps the most amazing trait of nudibranchs is their ability to exploit food in unique ways. For example, some nudibranchs graze on corals and anemonesrelatives of the jellyfishwithout triggering the stinging cells of their prey. They are then able to sequester these stinging cells into projections on their back. As a result, any predator that comes too close will be stung by these co-opted cells. Other nudibranchs feed on toxic sponges and sequester the toxins in their body without being poisoned themselves.

Johnson's research is helping to further our understanding of these fascinating animals, many of which may hold the key to future medical breakthroughs. Scientists have studied sea slugs' simple nervous systems for clues to learning and memory, and have raided their suite of defensive toxins in search of pharmaceuticals. They are also isolating chemicals that may help treat a variety of heart, bone, and brain conditions. A nudibranch relative known as a sea hare offered up a cancer-fighting compound that made it into clinical trials.


Contact: Stephanie Stone
California Academy of Sciences

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