Creature Feature: MBL Organisms
The organisms studied by MBL scientists may not be spooky or scary, but many of them are incredibly unique. That’s what makes them such great research subjects.
Below are just a few of the amazing organisms scientists are working with at the MBL.
For scientists at the MBL, the rotifer (Brachionus manjavacas) is used as a model organism to study evolution, stress responses, the biology of aging, and maternal effects. Rotifers are small, easy to grow in the lab, have a short lifespan, and share many of their genes with humans. That makes them ideal specimens in which to address questions relevant to human health as well as understand basic biological and evolutionary processes. Brachionus rotifers produces eggs that can be completely dried and frozen for decades, then hatch within a day when exposed to water and light.
The Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) can functionally regenerate multiple body parts without forming scar tissue. MBL scientists are studying these animals hope to decipher how the cells in these animals respond to injury in the spinal cord, limbs, and skin at the cellular and molecular level, and how that process differs from healing in humans, who can’t regenerate. Researchers in the MBL’s Echeverri Lab are identifying critical molecules, regulatory pathways and cellular processes in the axolotls underlying scar-free regeneration.
At the National Xenopus Resource (NXR) at the MBL, there are thousands of western clawed frogs (Xenopus tropicalis), including many mutant and transgenic lines. It’s the only species in the Xenopus genus to have a diploid genome, making it ideal for genome editing. They’re widely used in research thanks to a powerful combination of experimental tractability and a close evolutionary relationship with humans. These frogs are used by MBL’s year-round and visiting researchers for a wide variety of research topics including sex determination, modeling genetic diseases, as well as developmental and evolutionary biology.
Cephalopods—the group of animals that include octopus, squid, and cuttlefish—never cease to fascinate. The MBL has a long, deep history of studying cephalopod biology, yielding many significant discoveries and even a Nobel Prize. Building on this expertise, the MBL launched a groundbreaking effort in 2017 to culture cephalopods in the laboratory—which is notoriously difficult—so they can be available to researchers at all life stages at any time of year. As part of the MBL’s New Research Organisms Initiative, the first genetically tractable squid species was developed at MBL, meaning scientists can manipulate its genes and study the effects over multiple generations. This provides essential information on gene function relative to the animals’ anatomy, physiology, advanced behavior, and evolution.
These are just a few of the fascinating organisms studied by the scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory.
By studying experimentally tractable organisms, we can better understand the mechanisms that underlie biological processes, often discovering that evolution has come to multiple solutions to the same problem. A significant amount of interesting biology is not well represented by current major models. Focusing on a few species means we are missing out on the vast biological diversity found in nature, most predominantly in the ocean.