With National Award, Hawaiian Bobtail Squid Rises to Top as Emerging Model System

Contact: dkenney@mbl.edu; 508-289-7139

WOODS HOLE, Mass.-- Senior Scientist Joshua Rosenthal has received a prestigious award to develop the Hawaiian bobtail squid as a new “super model” for biological research, capping a months-long search at the Marine Biological Laboratory during which several species of squid were considered for the part.

The grant is one of eleven awards announced today by the National Science Foundation’s EDGE (Enabling Discovery Through Genomic Tools) program. These awards support the development of new tools and approaches to test gene function in a variety of organisms beyond the classic model systems (such as mice and fruit flies) that dominate biomedical and biological research today.

Organisms from squid to voles, fungi to lizards will be studied with the new EDGE awards. “This research represents a grand challenge in biology and is part of a bigger effort in our field to predict how organismal traits arise from genetic variation in natural environments,” said TED Morgan, NSF EDGE program director.

MBL scientists are developing the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) as the first genetically tractable model organism among the cephalopods. In this video, a juvenile bobtail squid swims with its prey, a shrimp called Palaemonetes. Video Credit: Bret Grasse, MBL

Rosenthal’s award goes to the heart of the MBL’s strategic goal to be a world hub for creating novel model systems whose genomes have been deciphered, allowing scientists to explore how specific genetic changes may affect the organism’s embryonic development, growth, health, disease, aging, and responses to environmental change.

“To understand the basic mechanisms of life, we must look beyond the handful of species now studied in most labs, as these EDGE awards acknowledge,” said David Mark Welch, MBL Director of Research. “The MBL is proud to take leadership in developing new model systems, especially marine models, to interrogate novel life strategies. This award will further build the infrastructure and expertise at MBL to enable other scientists to work here to make their own organism of interest genetically tractable.”

Bobtail squid belong to the cephalopods (squid, octopus, and cuttlefish), a group of animals that offer a wealth of unusual traits that can stimulate broad areas of research. About 97 percent of all animal species are invertebrates, and the cephalopods are the most sophisticated of them all in carrying out complex behaviors. Their ability to camouflage, for example, is unmatched, with specialized organs in their skin allowing them to “disappear” into the background instantaneously. They have the largest brains of any invertebrates; the octopus brain has four times more neurons than the rat. Recent, exciting research provides mounting evidence of the cephalopods’ advanced capacity for learning and memory. And yet the cephalopods -- which are mollusks along with clams and oysters -- evolved these complex behaviors completely independently of vertebrates. How is their nervous system wired together, and how does it enable such innovative behaviors?

In addition to their interest to neuroscientists, the cephalopod "electric" skin inspires material scientists and engineers, while the agility of their appendages inspires robotics design. They can fine-tune their own gene expression through RNA editing at unprecedented levels, potentially allowing them to adapt on the fly to environmental change. Given these and other distinctive traits, the cephalopods offer vast potential to broaden our understanding of fundamental and unexplored areas in biology.

In addition to Rosenthal, two other members of the MBL community are among the 2018 NSF EDGE Awardees. MBL Embryology course faculty member Jonathan Henry of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received an award for “Generating tools to study Spiralian development”; and 2018 Whitman Center Fellow Lillian Fritz-Laylin of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was funded for “Genetic transformation of chytrid fungi.”

Feature photo credit: Tom Kleindinst


The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

Why is the Hawaiian bobtail squid an ideal species for model system development?

* The most difficult part of establishing a cephalopod model system, Rosenthal says, is working out how to culture the organism through multiple generations. Adults need to be mated and their embryos successfully brought to adulthood to mate and produce the next generation. Over the past year, a culturing system for Hawaiian bobtail squid has been perfected in the MBL’s Marine Resources Center, pioneered by MBL Senior Scientist Roger Hanlon and Manager of Cephalopod Operations Bret Grasse. More info on the MBL's cephalopod breeding program is here.

* An animal needs to reach reproductive age quickly to be useful for genetic studies across multiple generations. The Hawaiian bobtail squid reaches sexual maturity in 2.5 to 3 months.

* The bobtail squid is small, so its husbandry doesn’t require an inordinate amount of tank space. Currently, hundreds of bobtail squid are housed in the MBL Marine Resources Center.

* The bobtail squid’s genome has been sequenced and is in the final stages of interpretation for publication.

* The bobtail squid is already intensively studied in more than 20 laboratories in the world. Establishing tools and procedures to manipulate its genes and understand their function will benefit the entire community.