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By Diana Kenney

The startling discovery of a contagious cancer in steamer clams, published this week in the journal Cell, had its origins at the MBL.

Carol Reinisch began studying a fatal, leukemia-like disease of soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria) at the MBL in the mid-1970s, when it was causing major die-offs among distinct bivalve populations. This week, scientists announced that the disease is a contagious form of cancer that has been transmitted between clam populations from New York to Prince Edward Island, Canada. The study was conducted by Michael Metzger and Stephen P. Goff of Columbia University, Jim Sherry of Environment Canada, and Reinisch.

The soft-shell "steamer" clam, Mya arenaria. Photo by Scott Bennett, MBL

The soft-shell “steamer” clam, Mya arenaria. Photo by Scott Bennett, MBL

Infectious cancer (or “super metastasis”) is known in only two other instances in nature: as a venereal disease in dogs and as a facial tumor in Tasmanian devils, according to an article about the clam leukemia in Science.

Reinisch, a few years ago, thought the clam disease might be caused by a virus, and she brought it to Goff’s attention. Metzger and Goff, she says, “conducted the truly elegant molecular biology to show the cancer is externally derived.”

Through genetic analysis of numerous sick clams, the team showed that while their cancer cells were nearly identical, the cancer cells did not match the genomes of their host clams. This indicates the cancer cells likely descended from a single, original clam cell “gone rogue,” which then multiplied and spread to nearby clams. How the disease was transmitted is still unknown.

Steamer clams are eaten by human beings and are an important commercial fishery. However, researchers say there is no health risk to humans who eat diseased clams. “Nobody eats them raw. When you steam or boil them, it kills all the cells,” Reinisch says.

Reinisch has studied this clam and bivalve disease for decades because “it’s one of the best and unique models of carcinogenesis in nature that we have,” she says. She carried out research at MBL for more than 30 years, first as a Whitman summer investigator and then, from 1998 to 2005, as a year-round scientist. She moved her lab to the MBL in order to explore Mya arenaria as a model system for cancer. Formerly, she was a Department Chair of Comparative Medicine at Tufts Veterinary School.

Reinisch’s earlier work indicated that the spread of the clam leukemia has an environmental component. “For whatever reason, the [cancer] transmission seems to be easier in stressed areas,” she says. “When we used to collect clams in New Bedford, Mass., we knew exactly where to find the ones with leukemia. The clams in a PCB contaminated site were much more liable to have the disease.”

Currently, Reinisch collaborates with Environment Canada in Burlington, Ontario, and is identifying the range of this transmissible cancer. She has studied bivalves as far north as Alaska and the Arctic and hopes to conduct field research in Antarctica in the coming year.

Citation:

Metzger, MJ, Reinisch C, Sherry J, and Goff SP (2015) Horizontal transmission of clonal cancer cells causes leukemia in soft-shell clams. Cell 161: 255-263.

 

The Oosight(R) product line of microscopes, developed at the MBL  and commercialized by Cambridge Research & Instrumentation, Inc. (CRi), has been acquired by Hamilton Thorne, Ltd., a provider of precision laser devices and image analysis systems for the fertility, stem cell, and developmental biology research markets.

Widely used in fertility clinics to assess the health of unfertilized eggs (oocytes), the Oosight system provides live, high-contrast images and captures quantitative data on important oocyte structures using a patented, non-invasive, polarized-light technique. The technology was developed at the MBL by Rudolf Oldenbourg, Michael Shribak and colleagues in the 1990s and 2000s and commercialized by CRi as LC-PolScope(TM) technology. The Oosight system’s visualization capabilities have enabled breakthroughs in assisted reproductive technology, stem cell generation, and developmental biology research.

Visualization of the meiotic spindle in a rhesus monkey oocyte (egg) using the OosightTM spindle imaging system during enucleation. The spindle is near the 12 o'clock position in the egg. Credit: From Byrne, et al. 2007. Nature 450: 497-502 (Supplementary Material).

Visualization of the meiotic spindle in a rhesus monkey egg using the Oosight spindle imaging system during enucleation. The spindle is near the 12 o’clock position in the egg. Credit: Byrne et al (2007) Producing primate embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer. Nature 450: 497-502.

“The Oosight system is a unique instrument that is complementary to our laser products in both fertility and developmental biology research labs,” remarked David Wolf, President and CEO of Hamilton Thorne. “As a long-term distributor of the Oosight system we have already completed the technical integration of the Oosight with our laser products. We believe that by leveraging our established, world-wide sales channels and investing in product marketing, we can generate incremental sales of the Oosight product.”

Additional information on the Oosight product and its multiple applications can be found at www.hamiltonthorne.com/index.php/oosight-overview.

 

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The Arctic researchers who gathered at the MBL in late February found the village in a winter deep-freeze, but this hardy group seemed nonplussed by the cold and piles of snow.

They were in Woods Hole for the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) annual meeting, hosted by Gaius Shaver and other scientists from the MBL Ecosystems Center. Shaver directs the Arctic LTER—a consortium of environmental scientists from around the country who base their research out of Toolik Field Station, a remote outpost on the North Slope of Alaska.

“You are in the middle of nowhere,” says Samuel Miller about Toolik, which is operated by University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “Besides researchers, nobody goes up there but hunters and oil workers. It’s about as pristine and undeveloped as you can get in the United States.”

Miller, a Ph.D. student with Albert Colman in the University of Chicago’s Department of the Geophysical Sciences, went to Toolik last summer to collect soil samples from various plant communities and from plots of tundra of different glacial ages.

His research taps into a central concern at the Arctic LTER: How do soil microbial communities interact with the vast stores of carbon that are locked in the permafrost (frozen soil), and what will happen to that carbon as the climate warms?

“In a way, the fate of that reservoir of Arctic carbon is the fate of humanity,” Miller says. “It would be a huge positive feedback [to global warming] if a significant portion of it were released from the soil as methane or CO2,”—gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere.

Miller is using leading-edge methods of extracting proteins from his samples to assess the soil’s biology. “Hopefully, we can get some insight into what controls microbial processing of ancient organic matter stored in Arctic soils,” he says.

Ashley Asmus of the University of Texas at Arlington explains her poster at the 2015 Arctic LTER annual meeting at the MBL. Asmus is studying the impact of a tundra fire on the canopy insect food web. Credit: Diana Kenney

Ashley Asmus of the University of Texas at Arlington explains her poster at the 2015 Arctic LTER annual meeting at the MBL. Asmus is studying the impact of a tundra fire on the canopy insect food web. Credit: Diana Kenney

Along with other scientists, Miller showed his Toolik data at a poster session/reception in Loeb Laboratory. For much of the meeting, the 65 scientists discussed the major insights gained from the last six years of Arctic LTER research, which focused on interactions between climate and ecosystem disturbances, such as tundra wildfires. They also worked to chart a course for the next several years at the LTER, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

John Hobbie, retired director of the Ecosystems Center, founded Toolik Field Station in 1975 with a small band of pioneers of Arctic long-term ecosystems studies. Recently, Hobbie and George W. Kling edited a volume that synthesizes forty years of Arctic LTER research at Toolik Lake, including valuable contributions to the emergent field of climate change science.

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David Johnson was standing in a salt marsh tidal creek north of Boston, Mass., when he scooped up a blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, 80 miles north of its native range. The northern migration of this commercially important species, Johnson says, could be yet another sign of climate change. Johnson, then a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) Ecosystems Center, recently published his observations in the Journal of Crustacean Biology.

A blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, caught in Ipswich, Mass., 80 miles north of its historical range. Credit: David Samuel Johnson

A blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, caught in Ipswich, Mass., 80 miles north of its historical range. Credit: David Samuel Johnson

The historic northern limit of this species of crab (also called Atlantic blue or Chesapeake blue) is Cape Cod, Mass. They typically weren’t found in the Gulf of Maine due to its cold Canadian waters. From 2012 to 2014, however, scientists and resource managers observed blue crabs as far north as northern Maine and Nova Scotia, Canada. Johnson hypothesizes that warmer ocean temperatures in 2012 and 2013, which were 1.3°C higher than the previous decade’s average, allowed the crabs to move north.

“Climate change is lowering the thermal barriers that kept species from moving toward the poles,” he says. “Climate change presents a challenge not only for ecologists, but for fisheries managers as commercially important species shift their ranges in response to warming oceans.”

Ephemeral populations of blue crabs have been documented previously in the Gulf of Maine. Johnson notes that in the 1950s blue crabs were observed in the gulf during a time of warmer waters. But once the waters returned to average temperatures, the crabs disappeared.

“It’s too early to determine if the current blue crab population in the Gulf of Maine is permanent or ephemeral,” Johnson says. “However, models predict an increasing warming of the world’s oceans and recent observations of blue crabs may be a crystal ball into the future ecology of the Gulf of Maine.”

Other researchers have documented the northern movement of other commercially important species in northeastern United States such as lobsters, hake and flounder. Johnson’s work, however, is the first to document the movement of a commercially important species into the Gulf of Maine.

This is the second crustacean Johnson has documented as expanding into the Gulf of Maine. In 2014 he published his findings on the rapid expansion of the fiddler crab, Uca pugnax, into the gulf. “As the world’s oceans continue to warm, we will continue to see climate-driven range expansions,” he predicts.

Johnson, now an adjunct assistant scientist at the MBL, recently joined the Virginia Institute of Marine Science as an assistant professor.

Citation:

Johnson DS (2015) The savory swimmer swims north: a northern range extension of the blue crab Callinectes sapidus? J. Crustacean Biology 35: 105-110.

 

Buzzards Bay, Eel Pond, Great Harbor are in a deep-freeze. Our hardworking MBL grounds crews have been plowing, shoveling, sanding, and carving narrow walkways throughout campus since January. Shoes, cars,and stairwells are filthy, parking lots are flanked by ugly snow mountains, and patience with snow shovels, overcoats, scarves, gloves, boots, ear warmers, etc., is quickly waning. Even the Eel Pond ducks seem to be crying “UNCLE!” And more snow is predicted for this week.

So how are we surviving the tough winter weather?

Woods Hole’s natural, transient beauty (less the parking lots) keeps us charmed and impressed. Gorgeous sunsets, glimmering snowscapes, ice-capped shorelines, and oddly translucent waters make Woods Hole appear extraordinarily shiny and picturesque. It’s cold and inconvenient, but we all agree the village looks pretty darned good in snow.

Along with breathtaking winter views, good old New England fun energizes and entertains us, despite the bitter cold temperatures. Just today, at lunchtime, a hearty handful of ice skaters ventured out onto a solidly frozen Eel Pond. (The last time the pond froze was more than a decade ago, so this was quite a novelty for most.) Colleagues bundled up and headed out to the dock to watch the skaters, or to embark on their own personal historic walk across the water they are used to boating on. (Yes, that is MBL’s Gemma Captain Bill Klimm donning skates and joining in a round of pick-up hockey. No collecting boat trips today!)

Yes, Woods Hole is exceptionally beautiful and interesting under winter’s weight. But, really, spring is welcome anytime now….

— by Beth Liles

Photos by Hunt Willard, Pam Wilmot, and Beth Liles.

 

 

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