Researchers Leonid Moroz emerges from a dive off the Florida Keys archipelago, and displays a plastic bag holding a creature that shimmers like an opal in the seawater.
This translucent animal and its similarly strange cousins are food for science. They regrow with amazing speed if they get chopped up. Some even regenerate a rudimentary brain. “Meet the sea aliens,” the neurobiologist at the University of Florida says.
Moroz is decoding the genomic blueprints of fragile marine life, like these mysterious comb jellies, in real time — on board a ship where they were caught — so he can learn which genes switch on and off as the animals perform tasks such as regeneration.
No white coats needed on this unique floating lab — a retrofitted steel shipping container, able to be lifted by crane onto any ship.
Inside, researchers in flip-flops operate a state-of-the-art genomic sequencing machine secured to a tilting tabletop that bobs with waves. Genetic data is beamed via satellite to a supercomputer at the University of Florida, which analyses the results in a few hours and sends it back to the boat.
The work is part conservation. “Life came from the oceans,” Moroz says, bemoaning the extinction of species before scientists even catalogue all of them. It’s also part brain science. “We can’t regenerate our brain, our spinal cord or efficiently heal wounds without scars,” Moroz notes.
But some simple sea creatures can. Moroz cuts off part of a comb jelly’s lower lobe while putting it into a tank. A few hours later, the wound no longer is visible. By the next afternoon, the lobe had begun to regrow. “We need to learn how they do it. But they are so fragile, we have to do it at sea,” says Moroz, who studies human brains when he’s back on shore.
Two trial-run sails off the Florida coast showed that the shipboard lab can work. Moroz’s team generated information about thousands of genes in 22 organisms, including rare comb jellies. Moroz’s goal is to take the project around the world, to remote seas where it’s hard to preserve marine animals for study. “If the sea can’t come to the lab, the lab must come to the sea,” he says.
Flying fish zip alongside the 141-foot yacht Copasetic as it bounces across the giant ocean current known as the Gulf Stream. Inside the lab, a genetic sequencer is rocking on its special tabletop. Molecular biologist Andrea Kohn wedges her hip against cabinets to stay upright, prepping the machine for the day’s first run. With a pipette in hand, she drips precious samples from a comb jelly experiment onto a chip the size of a digital camera’s memory card.
Graduate student Rachel Sanford had given a series of the animals a cut, and then biopsied the healing tissue. She’s looking for molecules that control that regrowth. If she can find some, a logical next step would be to investigate whether people harbour anything similar that might point to pathways important in brain/spinal injuries.
A clue, Moroz says, can be found in the differences between comb jelly species. “Why does one regenerate, and another not?” Evolution shows “there is more than one design for how to make a cell, how to make a brain”.
The floating lab was born of frustration, Kohn says as she keeps close watch on the sequencing.
While there’s been an earlier attempt at less complex DNA fingerprinting at sea, traditionally marine scientists collect animals, freeze samples and ship them home for genetic research. But often, Moroz had shipments lost in transit or held up at US Customs, thawed and ruined. Plus, some creatures’ genetic material begins breaking down almost immediately after they’re caught.
“When I think of all the animals we’ve lost through years and years,” Kohn says, shaking her head. To completely map the genome of a single comb jelly species, “it took us a year to get DNA that wasn’t degraded.”