April 23, 2014

A Collaboration Called the MBL

The collaborative spirit defines the very way science is done at the MBL, and it always has. For more than a century, the world’s biologists have known they can come to the MBL, meet up with colleagues from far-flung institutions, roll up their sleeves and accomplish much in an environment devoted to scientific inquiry and discovery.

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MBL visiting scientists Rodolfo Llinás, left, and Mutsuyuki Sugimori, both of New York University School of Medicine.

“We come to the MBL every summer for the squid, and also because the lab is beautiful, the facilities are superb, and the intellectual climate is second to none,” says Rodolfo Llinás of New York University School of Medicine, an MBL visiting scientist since 1970. Llinás investigates neural dysfunction and drug discovery in Alzheimer’s disease, using the squid as a model system.

While Llinás plans to meet his longtime collaborators from other places at the MBL, as many scientists do, collaborations also spring up spontaneously in Woods Hole. This is especially true during the summer, when the Whitman Center for Visiting Research and the MBL courses are

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“The larger the number of specialists working together, the more completely is the organized whole represented, and the greater and the more numerous the mutual advantages.”— Charles O. Whitman, MBL Founding Director, 1890

in full swing, and the campus is teeming with scientists doing and discussing science at a powerfully energized pace.

“The MBL is a full-immersion environment. We carry on 24 hours a day,” says resident scientist Jennifer Morgan, who previously was an MBL visiting scientist and Grass Fellow. “In the lab, at evening lectures, at Stony Beach—we are intersecting with other scientists, on a formal and informal basis, nonstop. You can randomly run into a colleague on the street and say, ‘Hey, I read this paper today,’ and a collaboration is born right there.”

Morgan’s current research focus is a result of one such fruitful encounter. Four summers ago, she came to the MBL from University of Texas-Austin to study vertebrate spinal cord repair along with Ona Bloom of Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. Their research model was the sea lamprey, a fish that has robust regenerative capacities. After severe spinal cord injury, the lamprey can regenerate damaged nerve cells and swim again within 10 to 12 weeks.

At first, the team focused on aspects of regeneration relevant to Morgan’s background in neurobiology and Bloom’s in immunology. But then they happened to meet Joseph Buxbaum, an MBL visiting scientist from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

“Oddly enough, Joe had worked on a project to sequence lamprey genes several years earlier. So he had all this sequence information, and we had this problem we were studying but no sequences,” Morgan says. “One day, while we were having lunch in the MBL’s Waterfront Park, Joe said, ‘We should really think about doing some genomic analysis with the lamprey.’ There, sitting under a tree, our collaboration began.” The three recently contributed to publishing the lamprey’s whole-genome sequence, which provides an invaluable reference for their current focus.

The collaborative spirit upon which the MBL was founded also permeates its resident research program, which began in 1975. “I love working at the MBL,” says Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer in the Bay Paul Center. “It’s small enough that you know everybody, and everyone’s doors are always open. A lot of facilities are shared, such as the sequencing facility, and it creates a very open and generous scientific community. It’s a very collaborative environment. I think that makes your science better.”

The Micro-Eco Discussion Group at MBL, which includes about 45 scientists and graduate students, is a manifestation of the interdisciplinary spirit among resident researchers. The group meets weekly during the academic year to discuss microbes, ecology, and microbial ecology, the interface at which most of them conduct research.

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Collaborators Zoe Cardon (MBL), Stefan Sievert (WHOI) and Anne Giblin (MBL) with a soil sample from a Falmouth salt marsh.

“There is a real desire here to reach across those disciplinary boundaries. Actually, we don’t even think of them as boundaries,” says Zoe Cardon, an Ecosystems Center scientist who coordinates the Micro-Eco Group with Huber. “We start with the tiniest organism present, the microbes, and think about links all the way up the scale, to the ecosystems and even to the globe. The MBL is a really unique crucible for linking across scales.”

The breadth of micro-eco research at MBL is large. Huber, for example, will lead a research cruise this year to Axial Seamount, an undersea volcano site off of Oregon, to obtain samples of the microbial and viral communities that live in its rocky outer layer. She is interested in how these communities alter the flow of carbon and nutrients in the subseafloor environment, also called the “deep biosphere.”

Closer to home, Cardon is involved in “an incredibly exciting collaboration” to explore how a certain group of microbes, the sulfur oxidizers, may affect the fate of pollutant nitrogen in salt marshes. Cardon, Anne Giblin of the Ecosystems Center, and Stefan Sievert of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution bring varied expertise to the project. “I love that this collaboration incorporates so many components that are central to MBL: imaging, microbial diversity, biogeochemistry of salt marshes, plant-microbe interactions—all in the context of a really pressing problem: coastal nitrogen pollution,” Cardon says.

Yet collaborations across disciplines don’t just happen magically, Cardon notes. “To even speak each other’s language, you have to have time to learn the language. Otherwise it’s just a chunk here, a chunk there, and the parts of the project aren’t melded. “ MBL scientists, she says, devote the time and effort to forging those links.

“There’s an intellectual vibrancy here, but it’s more than that,” Cardon says. “It’s a flexibility. People like thinking beyond the box.” • — DK