Making space for marine science in human health

Leonid Moroz, a professor of neuroscience and zoology at the  University  of Florida Whitney Laboratory  for Marine Bioscience, has found that gene sequences in a simple marine snail called “Aplysia” have a lot to say about the human brain and neurological disease. (Photo by Sarah Kiewel/University of Florida)Leonid Moroz, a professor of neuroscience and zoology at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, has found that gene sequences in a simple marine snail called “Aplysia” have a lot to say about the human brain and neurological disease. (Photo by Sarah Kiewel/University of Florida)

Charismatic megafauna they are not, but a few strange and bizarre looking creatures that inhabit the ocean, like sea slugs, horseshoe crabs and spiny lobsters, hold an attraction for scientists - they can supply a wealth of insight into human health.

In fact, for researchers at the UF Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, which is situated on a spit of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway about 12 miles south of St. Augustine, crustaceans and other marine animals offer "model" behavior for smell, sight and other human systems.

The research animals thrive on the natural light and clean seawater the Whitney Lab has in spades. Now, at long last, the lab's 32-year-old facilities and the researchers who rely on them are soon to benefit from a material upgrade that will augment the surrounding natural abundance.

This August, a completed 17,000-square-foot building, the Center for Marine Studies, will anchor the west end of Whitney Lab's campus, giving researchers who use simple marine animals in basic biological research a new facility to further their explorations and to educate future scientists.

Peter Anderson, Ph.D., is the lab's director and a professor of physiology and functional genomics, neuroscience, and zoology. He said the new building, outfitted with wet labs, classrooms and a 272-seat auditorium, allows the Whitney to expand its upper level educational offerings, and to recruit talented undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. And, he said, it offers a taste of things to come for the growth of the Whitney.

"This is phase one of a coordinated expansion," Anderson said. "While upgraded research labs may be the most important thing for our facilities, by offering courses and expanding our educational options, this will help raise our profile and raise awareness of our work."

In addition to being able to hold undergraduate and graduate courses, the new building will allow the Whitney Lab to hold two- and three-week research-intensive resident courses in the Center for Marine Studies that will draw students from across the country and be taught by both UF researchers and invited scientists, Anderson said.

The Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience's growth spurt has resulted, in part, from the shrinking of its next-door neighbor, the old Florida attraction Marineland. When bankruptcy forced the aging facility to restructure about eight years ago, it offered land for sale that bordered the Whitney campus. The UF institute bought up the precious elbowroom and has been plotting a new future ever since.

The next stages of construction include new 72-bed dorms to house the soon-to-be-increasing number of students, new research lab space and a new Center for Marine Animal Health, a sort of vet school for marine mammals - all part of Anderson's five-year plan for the coastal campus, which is modeled, in part, on an existing facility.

Founded in 1888 in Massachusetts, Woods Hole marine biological lab is a national center for marine-based biological research, where researchers also use marine animals as models and its graduate education programs have trained scientists from all over the world.

Surrounded by 30,000 acres of protected lands and home to world-renowned researchers, the UF's Whitney Lab is perfectly situated to become just what Peter Anderson envisions - a Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory of the South.

Education today

As the finishing touches are added to the Center for Marine Studies building, the Whitney Lab is preparing to add to its current educational offerings.

In addition to its pre-collegiate, science teacher education courses and a Latin American exchange program, the Whitney Lab offers docent-led courses for children in fourth through eighth grade called "A Day at the Whitney," where the grade-school students get hands-on lessons about some of the animals, equipment and scientific approaches used to study marine animals.

The labs also host a regular lecture series, "Evenings at the Whitney Lab," which covers a range of marine topics and is open to the public.

Barbara-Ann Battelle, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and zoology who conducts research on circadian rhythm and visual function in horseshoe crabs, was the founder of the educational outreach programs.

"I think it is important to have an easy connection between scientists and the community, not build fences around the laboratory," Battelle said. "The programs get people excited about science and the scientific enterprise, and it helps kids appreciate how cool the animals are!"

Battelle should know. She has a complete appreciation for the horseshoe crab ' its eyes in particular. The horseshoe crab can see a million times better at night than in the daytime. The animals make perfect models of what night vision could be.

"We are particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms that permit these cells to change their sensitivity to light in response to changes in background illumination and to signals from an internal 24-hour circadian clock," she said. "These changes in sensitivity are critical for normal vision, allowing animals to see in both bright and dim light."

She and the two postdoctoral research associates (or postdocs) who work with her in her lab want to learn how the crab's eyes adjust, and how that ability could relate to the more subtle changes that take place in the human eye.

With its new educational potential, Battelle can see more possibilities for the Whitney Lab's scientists to interact with the public and students.

"It is very exciting," she said.

Graduate education

In the past decade, six or seven students have completed doctoral programs at the Whitney Lab, Anderson said.

The graduate offerings will be based on the current model, which is coordinated primarily for students through the HSC College of Medicine's Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences.

"In the future, we'll recruit students through the IDP program and elsewhere, and teach courses ourselves," Anderson said.

Whitney Lab faculty members based in the College of Medicine's departments of anatomy and cell biology, neuroscience, pharmacology and therapeutics, and physiology and functional genomics, as well as from the College of Agriculture's fisheries and aquatic sciences, and Liberal Arts and Sciences' zoology department, would teach the courses.

The way it works now, students first take up residence at the main campus in Gainesville where, for one or two years, they complete their course requirements and qualify for dissertation research. During this period, students maintain contact with the lab and their major professors through a program of periodic meetings, progress reports, seminars and summer research. After qualifying, students move to the Whitney Lab and carry out research. Having the new facilities will enable more students to participate in the program, and more students to live and take classes at the lab.

One of those students currently based at the Whitney is Thomas Ha, a Ph.D. student working with Leonid Moroz, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and zoology, on cellular communication in the sea slug, Aplysia californica.

The species of sea slug provides an excellent model of what happens in the human brain when neurons communicate. The large gastropod has unusually large brain cells, making it easier for Moroz and his team to identify specific neurons and track their roles in neural networks and behavior.

With Moroz, Ha aims to learn why individual neurons are so different from each other, how they maintain such precise connections between each other, how their fixed wiring results in such enormous neuronal plasticity and how this contributes to learning and memory mechanisms.

His faculty adviser, Moroz, and committee, made up of faculty both from the Whitney Laboratory and from the UF department with which the faculty advisor is affiliated, have guided and directed his course work and dissertation research.

Ha, working with Moroz's gene sequencing project, is conducting transcriptional profiling of some of the slug's 20,000 neurons. Because of the cells' large size, he said, he is able to get enough mRNA from one cell to sequence and analyze its transcriptome and compare it with other single cells.

Ha, who is originally from South Korea, has lived at Whitney's graduate student housing for three years and he is four months from finishing his degree. He said he enjoys the beautiful, if somewhat isolated, environment.

"A big advantage of the new setup is that it will allow graduate students to teach courses," Ha said. "Teaching skills are important for an academic career and this will provide that opportunity, which is missing now."

In fact, the new center will allow Whitney faculty, postdocs and graduate students to participate in teaching undergraduate and graduate course offerings, many of which are now taught on UF's campus.

Staff will begin to occupy the building in January 2007, as long as necessary water piping, held up by the approval of a residential development project in the area, can be put in place. In the meantime, Anderson is busy raising funds for the new dorms and the Center for Marine Animal Health.

With the addition of the planned Center for Marine Animal Health, the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience will become one of the first facilities dedicated to the treatment of marine animal diseases affecting aquaculture stocks, sea turtles and other animals. Combined with its research and educational activities, the marine labs will be on the forefront of marine biomedical science.

Perhaps in the process, as Anderson envisions, the campus will become known to the world as something of a Woods Hole of the South.