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.”