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 h elped 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 toxins.
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.