Unique floating lab showcases 'aliens of the sea'

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 28, 2014 at 12:07 pm •  Published: April 28, 2014
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Researcher Leonid Moroz emerges from a dive off the Florida Keys and gleefully 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 aliens of the sea," the neurobiologist at the University of Florida says with a huge grin.

They're headed for his unique floating laboratory.

Moroz is on a quest to decode the genomic blueprints of fragile marine life, like these mysterious comb jellies, in real time — on board the ship where they were caught — so he can learn which genes switch on and off as the animals perform such tasks as regeneration.

No white coats needed here. The lab is a specially retrofitted steel shipping container, able to be lifted by crane onto any ship Moroz can recruit for a scientific adventure.

Inside, researchers in flip-flops operate a state-of-the-art genomic sequencing machine secured to a tilting tabletop that bobs with rough waves. Genetic data is beamed via satellite to a supercomputer at the University of Florida, which analyzes 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 catalog all of them. "We need a Manhattan Project for biodiversity. We're losing our heritage."

Surprising as it may sound, it's part brain science.

"We cannot regenerate our brain, our spinal cord or efficiently heal wounds without scars," Moroz notes.

But some simple sea creatures can.

Moroz accidentally cuts off part of a comb jelly's flowing lower lobe while putting it into a tank. A few hours later, the wound no longer is visible. By the next afternoon, that lobe had begun to regrow.

What's more remarkable, these gelatinous animals have neurons, or nerve cells, connected in circuitry that Moroz describes as an elementary brain. Injure those neural networks and some, but not all, species of comb jellies can regenerate them, too, in three days to five days, he says, if they're in a habitat where they can survive long enough.

"Nature has found solutions to how to stay healthy," says Moroz, who also studies human brains when he's back on shore. "We need to learn how they do it. But they are so fragile, we have to do it here," at sea.

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 some rare comb jellies. Moroz's ultimate goal is to take the project around the world, to remote seas where it's especially hard to preserve marine animals for study.

"If the sea can't come to the lab, the lab must come to the sea," says Moroz, who invited The Associated Press on the second test trip, a 2½-day sail.

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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 $50,000 genetic sequencer donated by Life Technologies 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 carefully 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 these animals a cut, and then biopsied the healing tissue 30 minutes, an hour and two hours later. She's trying to tease out what genetic activity spurs the steps of healing.

She studies the comb jellies' rudimentary brains in much the same way.

"I work on these things that are kind of like jellyfish, but they're not jellyfish at all. And I take out their brain. And then it grows back. And then I try to figure out how it grows back," is Sanford's simplified explanation.

She's looking for master regulators, key molecules that control that regrowth. If she can find some, a logical next step would be to investigate whether people harbor anything similar that might point to pathways important in spinal cord or brain injuries.

A clue, Moroz says, probably will be found in the differences between comb jelly species. "Why does one regenerate, and another not? That is the million-dollar question."

Evolution shows "there is more than one design for how to make a cell, how to make a brain," he adds.

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 U.S. 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."