Visiting Research


By Aviva Hope Rutkin

Visiting scientist Guillermo Yudowski wants to make sea anemones happy.

Every morning, he arrives at his MBL laboratory and looks into a group of plastic tanks. Inside are samples of Aiptasia pallida, a hardy strain of anemone found in abundance near the University of Puerto Rico, where Yudowski conducts neurobiological research. Happy A. pallida, he says, are “colorful and open”; sad ones are closed and white. The white samples are near death and will only last three to four days in their containers.

Top view of a day-old spawned Porites spp. coral larvae. Composite image seen under a fluorescent microscope. Symbiotic zooxanthellae autofluorescence in red, larvae epidermis autofluorescence in green. Courtesy of Guillermo Yudowski.

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Turning white—becoming, in Yudowski’s words, “sad”—is called bleaching. The anemone’s tissues are home to zooxanthellae, vibrant photosynthetic algae that produce food for the anemone and give it a characteristic brown color. Bleaching expels this algae from their home. The bleaching process is thought to be triggered by stress: a decrease in light availability, for example, or changes in the water’s temperature or pH. And these changes don’t need to be dramatic. A difference of a couple degrees Celsius can be enough to effectively bleach an anemone.

Yodowski and his colleagues hope their research will point to a cost-effective treatment for bleaching, which poses a serious threat not only to anemones, but to the world’s coral reefs. Though anemones and corals are different, strategies that work for the one organism may be effective for another. The changing climate has already led to mass bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef, as well as coral reefs in the Indian Sea, the Caribbean Sea, and the Florida Keys.

“If you read the literature, some say that all the coral is going to die in 50 years. Others say, maybe 50 to 100,” says Yudowski. “It doesn’t make a big difference.”

To move toward a solution, Yudowski wants to understand what’s happening to the anemones on a microscopic level. If we figure out why bleaching occurs on a cellular level, then perhaps we can discover how to stop it from happening altogether.

“We don’t really know much about the basic molecular mechanics of the process,” explains Yudowski. “We are trying to understand how stresses like increased ocean temperature and acidification induce the expulsion of the algae.”

Yudowski and his student, Michael Marty-Rivera, are treating anemones with antioxidant compounds found in red wine and green tea. Previous research shows that reactive oxygen species, a kind of chemically reactive molecule, can trigger the bleaching process. Yudowski and Marty-Rivera think that these antioxidants might be able to counteract the effects of these trigger molecules. They will test the efficacy of their treatments by measuring the amount of photosynthetic activity in the anemones, as well as the number of zooxanthellae present.

Yudowski and Marty-Rivera will spend two months at the MBL this summer before returning to the University of Puerto Rico where, in close collaboration with Professors Loretta Roberson and Joshua Rosenthal, they run several different coral research projects. They want to understand the mechanism of calcification in corals and how environmental variables, such as temperature and pH, impact corals’ ability to form reefs and maintain a healthy symbiosis with their zooxanthellae partners.

Funding for the research is provided by the Puerto Rico Center for Environmental Neuroscience and the National Science Foundation Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology.

Ron Vale may not be the next Woody Allen, but he seems at ease with the role of film director and, you might say, born to the part.

Vale, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator from the University of California-San Francisco, regularly spends his summers at the MBL as a Whitman Center researcher.

This year, Vale also transformed a conference room in Lillie Laboratory into a mini-Hollywood set. There, he has been videotaping scientists for a site called iBio Seminars, a free, open-access, educational resource Vale founded in 2007 that has blossomed into a treasure trove for anyone interested in the life sciences.

iBio Seminars founder/director Ron Vale frames a shot. Photo by Diana Kenney

iBio Seminars are videos of the world’s best biologists lecturing on topics of their expertise. Some are seminar length, while others are insightful nuggets just a few minutes long. They can be downloaded and used by professors, scientists, journalists, historians of science, or just perused by anyone seeking enlightenment on contemporary biology. A companion to the lectures is iBio Magazine, which has short videos that highlight “the human side of research.”

Vale’s father was a screenwriter, and his mother was an actress before her marriage. When I saw him bounding out of Lillie Laboratory wearing a Motörhead T-shirt the other day, I asked, “Have you always harbored a latent interest in filmmaking?”

“Absolutely not,” he replied firmly, and went on to joke that a modeling contract might be interesting.

Vale’s real rationale for founding iBio Seminars, he said, is that places like MBL, Harvard and UCSF “offer great opportunities to hear scientists talk about their work. It’s a privilege to have that available to us. With the Web, iBio provides a way for students and scientists around the world to hear these talks. The goal of iBio is to make science as available as possible.”

Vale confers with iBio's videographer/digital editor Isaac Conway-Stenzel. Photo by Diana Kenney

This summer at MBL, Vale videotaped a whole gallery of “stars” in biology, many of whom were on campus to teach, lecture or conduct research. They included Gary Borisy, Shinya Inoué, and Roger Hanlon of the MBL; Ed Taylor of University of Chicago; Alfredo Quiñonenes-Hinojosa of Johns Hopkins University; Jack Szostak, Matthew Meselson, Tim Mitchison, Andrew Murray, Xiaowei Zhuang, and Scott Edwards of Harvard University; Nancy Knowlton of Smithsonian Institution; Hugh Huxley of Brandeis University; Avram Hershko of the Technion in Haifa, Israel; and Melissa Moore of UMass Medical School. Vale also filmed a segment about BioBus, a biology classroom on wheels; and one about the state of Indian science and education with Satajit Mayor of NCMS, Bangalore, and Subhash Lakhotia of Banaras Hindu University.

One July morning found Vale prepping Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy (the MBL’s president and director) for an iBio taping. The topic? Their discovery of a fundamental structural protein in cells, now called tubulin, in the mid-1960s when Borisy was a Ph.D. student in Taylor’s lab.

Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy prepare for videotaping in iBio's "chroma key" studio set up in Lillie Laboratory. Photo by Diana Kenney

After a spontaneous and colorful discussion of how the two would enter the frame, Vale began coaching them on the do’s and don’ts of iBio conversations. One bump in the road soon appeared: Taylor and Borisy didn’t have the same version of the tubulin story in their heads. Their chronologies differed slightly; as Borisy noted, “Memories dim and we have different takes on things.”

Vale was nonplussed. “This could be a lot of fun!” he said. He positioned them in front of the “chroma key” green screen, a backdrop similar to what TV weather anchors use, upon which slides, maps, and other visuals would be displayed later, during editing. Vale then encouraged Taylor and Borisy to tell the story of their discovery, and to conclude with a message or lesson to young people about how science really happens.

Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy prepare to tell the story of the discovery of tubulin. Photo by Diana Kenney

With the camera rolling, Taylor and Borisy traveled back nearly half a century to a tale of discovery that included their mutual fascination with understanding how living cells divide, Borisy’s first visit to the MBL, tantalizing leads, intriguing paradoxes, several “red herrings and blind alleys” and ultimately, a fundamental discovery about cell structure that has had widespread and lasting importance.

Taylor’s takeaway lesson? “Choose an important problem when you are just starting out in science. Don’t work on a trivial problem. Then, if you succeed, you’ve really done something good.”

And Borisy’s: “Sometimes you encounter contradictory results, paradoxes. Don’t sweep those under the rug. Resolving those can bring you to your answer.”

Curious about the full story? You’ll just have to see the movie.

iBio Seminars is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the University of California-San Francisco.

A source of both constancy and continual change at the MBL is the Whitman Center for Research and Discovery. Every year, hundreds of researchers from other institutions migrate to the MBL (which they affectionately call “Woods Hole”) to rub elbows with colleagues from around the world, and collectively dive into an intense period of research. For some, their MBL stay lasts a few months, but for many, the relationship continues over years, decades or entire careers.

On Wednesday, a group of Whitman Center investigators gathered in the lobby of their “home away from home,” Rowe Laboratory, to celebrate the rich tradition of biological discovery that they are carrying into the future. MBL President and Director Gary Borisy noted that several of those in attendance wore a red carnation and a round lapel pin with the MBL’s double seahorse crest. These were Whitman investigators who have had a laboratory at MBL for the past 20 years or more. “You cannot buy this pin at any price! This is a precious pin, the MBL pin,” Borisy said, laughing, but most of those gathered would agree.

The leadership of the Whitman Center (from left): Gary Borisy, MBL; Joan Ruderman, Harvard Medical School; Peter Armstrong, University of California-Davis; Bob Goldman, Northwestern University. Photo by Beth Armstrong

Bob Goldman of Northwestern University, director of the Whitman Center, said he has been coming to the MBL since 1963, and that is what “turned me on to becoming a cell biologist.” Joan Ruderman of Harvard Medical School, who is speaker of the MBL Corporation, said she first came to the MBL as a student in the 1974 Embryology course and “it changed my life.” She then returned for many years as a Whitman investigator, when the program was conducted in the old Whitman Building. Eventually, she said, building renovations were necessary to stay abreast of advances in cell research technologies, and she applauded the $18 million transformation of Whitman to the cutting-edge Rowe Laboratory in the mid-2000s.

Yet one person in the crowd topped everyone with his MBL “stripes.” Peter Armstrong of University of California-Davis, who studies immunity in the horseshoe crab, said he “may have been conceived in Woods Hole in 1938.” (Peter’s father, Philip, was a researcher and later director of the MBL from 1950-1965, and he secured the federal funds to have the original Whitman Building constructed.) Peter’s early years as “an MBL brat” aside, he has been a principal investigator in the Whitman Center since 1975, “and its been an enormously successful place to be,” he said. “Half of my publications list the MBL as a place where the research was conducted.”

Borisy also recognized several Whitman investigators who, in the past, had laboratories for two decades and more. To conclude, Borisy announced the establishment of a $2 million Whitman Endowment fundraising initiative, with an initial $500,000 matching commitment from MBL. This endowment will support two strategies: continuous building enhancements to maintain Rowe Laboratory as a state-of-the-art facility, and fellowship funds to continue to bring the world’s best researchers into the Whitman Center fold.

“The Whitman Center is a critical part of the MBL,” Borisy said. “It is a crossroads, a place where scientific ideas germinate and are tried out. The MBL will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2013, and since its very first year it has been a nexus for the world’s biologists. We aim to solidify support for the Whitman Center for the next 125 years.”

Some of the more than 200 Whitman investigators in 2011 gather on the steps of Lillie Laboratory. Those wearing red carnations have had a Whitman lab for the past 20 years or more. Photo by Beth Armstrong

Duncan Mitchison-Field by Susana Montenegro Gouveia

Susana Montenegro Gouveia, a student in the Physiology course, is the winner of @MBL’s “Photo of the Week” contest. Susana won a free ticket to the MBL Gala concert, featuring the Tokyo String Quartet, this Sunday at 8 PM in Lillie Auditorium. Congratulations, Susana!

Gouveia’s photo shows Duncan Mitchison-Field, son of MBL visiting investigators Tim Mitchison and Christine Field of Harvard Medical School, engrossed in his own intellectual pursuits while his parents help guide Physiology students through their lab work.

“Sometimes (Chris Field) brings the kids with her to the lab,” says Gouveia. “They adapt so nicely to the lab environment, as though they were at home. Duncan was just seated in a corner of the lab, very focused on reading his own book. He was there for hours, so concentrated that he didn’t notice me taking his picture…It really seems that love for reading and acquiring new knowledge is part of his family. Duncan is very young but already shows lots of curiosity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a great scientist in the future.”

@MBL welcomes submissions of photos to be considered for posting as “Photo of the Week.” Please send your photo, along with a caption that identifies any people in the photo (names correctly spelled) to: mblnews@mbl.edu.

As far as scary-looking fish go, the adult sea lamprey is right up there with the sharks. It’s about 3 feet long, with concentric rings of teeth inside a jawless, suction-cup mouth. After trapping its prey by sucking, the lamprey scrapes off the skin using a tooth at the end of its tongue, and then sucks out the blood. Since the lamprey has good taste in fish – preferring trout, salmon, bass –it’s the target of a federal lampricide program in the Great Lakes region, where it has nearly devoured some of these stocks.

The toothy mouth of the sea lamprey. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The toothy mouth of the sea lamprey. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

But no creature is all bad. “The lamprey has a really beautiful spinal cord,” says Ona Bloom, an MBL Research Fellow from The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. Together with Jennifer Morgan (Univ. of Texas at Austin) and David Parker (Univ. of Cambridge), who are recipients of an MBL sponsored Albert and Ellen Grass Faculty Research Grant, Bloom and her colleagues are studying the lamprey’s remarkable ability to recover from severe spinal cord injury. “We have been talking for years about collaborating on these studies,” says Bloom. “ The MBL gives us a wonderful opportunity to do that.”

One of the most primitive of living vertebrates, the sea lamprey is a good animal in which to analyze the acute response to spinal cord injury, which is Bloom’s focus, and how the nervous system functions are restored, which interests Morgan and Parker. “We want to understand the differences between the robust recovery in lampreys and how that contrasts with what happens in humans with spinal cord injury,” says Morgan. “If we can understand processes in the lamprey that contribute to recovery, then we can see if those processes can promote better recovery in higher vertebrates.”