MBL, Woods Hole, MA -- Summer on Cape Cod is synonymous with a surge of tourists, but also a surge of scientists at the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory). For more than a century, researchers have come to the MBL each summer from around the world to immerse themselves in biological discovery. Many make use of the variety of marine organisms available for study and the wealth of experts who gather here, including the MBL's community of year-round scientists, visiting investigators, and advanced-level students participating in MBL courses.
Much of the research at the MBL focuses on understanding basic life processes that are fundamental to all living things. Although marine organisms such as the squid, sea urchin, clam, and countless others are considered more "simple" organisms, they perform many of the same biological processes as humans. Scientists can study the mechanisms of disease in its simplest form using these organisms in the hopes of contributing to more effective treatment or prevention.
The resident MBL population of about 275 grows to more than a thousand in the summer, with seasoned and budding scientists congregating to investigate infertility, neurological disorders, immunology, diabetes, cancer, and other medical problems. They come from universities across the United States and across the globe, including Spain, Israel, Canada, England, China, and Germany.
Researchers enjoy the casual, collaborative atmosphere, the access to high-tech equipment and expertise, and the escape from academic duties at their home institutions. Here is a sampling of some of the research underway this summer at the MBL.
Diabetes meets nanotechnology
Testing potential diabetes medications on the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas of a human being is somewhat problematic. Dr. Peter J.S. Smith, director of the BioCurrents Research Center at the MBL and Dr. Ronald Pethig, professor of electronic engineering at the University of Wales, Bangor, are trying to solve the problem by creating artificial versions of these cells using the tools of nanotechnology. About 1-2% of the cells in the pancreas are contained in structures called islets of Langerhans. These islets secrete insulin, which regulates the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. In Type 1 diabetes, the islets do not properly make insulin, leading to excessive blood sugar. Scientists could use the artificial islets of Langerhans to study insulin release, but also to test diabetes treatments or even potentially to use as implants for people with defective islets.
The quest for synthetic blood
Transfuse the wrong blood type and the patient's immune system may destroy the new blood cells, in some cases leading to death. John Harrington, professor and dean of the School of Science and Engineering at SUNY-New Paltz, hopes to one day develop a red blood cell substitute that would make matching blood types for transfusions irrelevant. Harrington is especially interested in a primary component in red blood cells called hemoglobin, the chemical that carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues where it is needed. He is researching the possibility of synthetic substitutes for hemoglobin, which would not have the molecules that cause blood type rejections in natural blood. At the MBL, Harrington studies the chemical properties of hemoglobin from the lugworm, a marine organism, to understand why it has a more stable structure than mammal hemoglobin. Understanding what properties make it more stable could lead to developing safe substitutes, reducing the problems that result from blood shortages and mismatched blood types.
Mom, where do stem cells come from?
Much ado has been made about the ethical issues regarding embryonic stem cells, but we don't have much of an understanding of just what stem cells are and where they come from. David Albertini, professor of molecular medicine at Kansas University Medical Center, believes that to truly understand embryonic stem cells, you must first understand what gave rise to those cells: the egg. At the MBL, he uses both imaging and molecular analysis as he studies starfish and sea urchins to see how eggs are built and maintained. Molecules in egg cells may seem randomly distributed, but in fact scientists know there is a specific organization that is important for embryo development. But little is known how the egg got to be that way in the first place. Albertini also studies various crab species to understand the effects of the environment, such as toxins, on developing eggs. His research could lead to better understanding of infertility, ovarian cancer, birth defects related to the mother's age, and the derivation of embryonic stem cells.
The hidden dangers of food preservatives
Food manufacturers are trying to prolong the shelf life of goods such as wine, dried fruit, potatoes for French fries and even local anesthetics such as lidocaine, by adding sulfite. However, they may be causing a lethal lung constriction in a specific subset of people. Why these people respond this way and how sulfite causes this constriction is unknown. Dr. Antoinette Steinacker, researcher at the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico, uses the white mouse to study just how sulfite causes the bronchial constriction. Her research could also contribute to restrictions from the FDA on the inclusion of sulfites in food and medicines.
Common ground for nerves, eggs, and flu
An electrical signal zips along a nerve cell. When it reaches the end, it triggers small packages of neurotransmitters to fuse with the membrane. The packages, called vesicles, release the neurotransmitters into the space between nerve cells, where they can pass the signal on to the next nerve cell. Joshua Zimmerberg, chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biophysics, believes that the fusion with the membrane happens so quickly, that the vesicles must be partially attached to the membrane before the electrical signal even arrives. He is testing the hypothesis that the vesicles are connected to the membrane via a stalk-like structure. When the electrical signal arrives, the stalk opens, allowing the neurotransmitter to flow into the space between nerve cells. If this hypothesis is accurate, it could answer questions about membrane fusion in other biological processes, such as after a sperm enters an egg and how flu viruses enter cells. Zimmerberg is testing the stalk hypothesis on sea urchin eggs and the nerve cells of the Woods Hole squid.