There’s a new course on the block at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), joining other Advanced Research Training Courses that are renown by biologists worldwide.

Focusing on symbiosis – the long-term biological interaction of different species --  the Molecular and Cell Biology of Symbiosis course ran May 10-June 8 and immersed the inaugural cohort of 12 students in essential concepts, current research questions, and state-of-the-art experimental approaches.

“The emergence of really powerful tools to study the molecular and cellular biology of organisms has revolutionized our ability to study symbiotic relationships of diverse organisms at the microscopic level,” said Philip Cleves, staff scientist at the Carnegie Institute of Science, who co-developed and co-directs the course. “The goal of the course is to get students who either study or are interested in symbiosis – simply put, how organisms in close proximity to each other interact – to think about applying these new molecular and cellular techniques.”

Approximately 50 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from around the globe applied for the course, of which 12 were selected to participate.

The students’ days were split into morning lectures followed by afternoons of hands-on research. Each week covered a different organism or set of organisms, including insects, aquatic plants, squid, sponge, amoebas, and cnidarians, a type of aquatic invertebrate that includes corals, jellyfish, and sea anemones.

The students explored questions such as how the microbial community inside the gut of Drosophila (fruit fly) interacts with its host or how pathogenic bacteria affect sponges. Eleven faculty and seven guest lecturers participated. At the end of each week, students gave presentations about their laboratory explorations.

“Our inaugural cohort of students was really quite amazing,” said Yixian Zheng, senior staff scientist and director of the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institute of Science, who co-developed and co-directs the course. “They asked wonderful questions and were very enthusiastic. Our hope is that they take the tools that they learned in this course to further explore understudied organisms and really revolutionize our understanding of how they interact.”

Insights into these relationships could also lead to a better understanding of how similar interactions work within more complex organisms, Zheng added, laying the groundwork for advancements in fields from human health to agriculture to climate science.

To provide symbiotic organisms for the course, the MBL constructed a new aquatic culturing facility, adding another element to the deep resources and cutting-edge equipment the laboratory offers. Eventually, the culturing facility will also provide these organisms to the research community at large.

Funding for the course and associated infrastructure comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a philanthropic organization with interests in environmental conservation and scientific discovery. The foundation’s funding supports the course faculty, the new aquatic culturing facility, and full scholarships for all students.

hawaiian bobtail squid
The Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) has a symbiont in its light organ, the bioluminescent bacteria A. fischeri. It is a well-established model system for studying animal-bacterial symbiosis. Credit: Tim Briggs

The MBL will offer the fully funded course for the next two years and plans to expand the class to 16 students, with the goal of securing enough philanthropic support in the meantime to permanently add the course to its roster.

“This new Advanced Research Training Course illustrates the mission and vision of the MBL ,” said Linda Hyman, the Burroughs Wellcome Director of Education. “It brings together students and postdocs with world-renowned scientists to focus on a particular subject and immerse themselves in the field.

“The combination of its focus on symbiosis, a growing field that’s relevant throughout biology, with the latest imaging modalities, genetic tools, and use of new model organisms epitomizes the type of research we want to do and the innovative courses we want to offer at the MBL,” Hyman said.

The MBL’s immersive Advanced Research Training Courses welcome about 500 students from about 300 institutions and 60 countries every year.