On Cape Cod, science from the sea

SUN JOURNAL

Research: Every summer, scientists descend on Woods Hole to advance their study of sea life and its application to humans.

July 25, 1999|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,SUN STAFF

WOODS HOLE, Mass. -- Gertrude Stein never wrote that "a cell is a cell is a cell" when she studied here at the Marine Biological Laboratory a century ago. Nor did the celebrated writer's muse inspire contemplations on squid and clams and sea urchins.

But the thousands of scientists who have made the summer migration to this Cape Cod research center since its founding in 1888 have found that cells of sea creatures are, indeed, much the same as those of humans. And they have written reams on those matters of fundamental biological and medical importance.

Each summer, the campus swells with the arrival of 1,000 scientists, graduate students and researchers who seek to advance their knowledge in an atmosphere of unrivaled cooperation, intense lab classes and free exchange of ideas.

They immerse themselves in cellular biology, working in labs and collecting possibilities that might some day spark groundbreaking discoveries. "Here, you sweat the small stuff," quips one molecular biologist exploring the microscopic mysteries of life.

This is the oldest marine-biology institution in the Americas. It is private, with no tie to any university or government agency, though it depends heavily on grants from outside agencies and foundations. The keen competition for summer laboratory space is decided by scientific merit, not by organizational affiliation.

The list of scientists who have worked and taught at the Woods Hole laboratory features three dozen Nobel Prize winners, including James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, discoverer of vitamin C. And a science writer named Rachel Carson.

Brilliant science, specialized equipment and an abundant supply of sea creatures for the laboratory attract these summer people to the banks of picturesque Eel Pond.

"We come here to share our common curiosity and our individual research," says Robert Goldman, a biologist at Northwestern University's Medical School and longtime summer visitor.

The atmosphere is informal: Polo shirts, shorts and sandals are common attire. Technical issues are as likely to be debated at local waterside taverns or on Stony Beach as in the laboratory.

Projects can range from the social behavior of lobsters to the remarkably sensitive internal clock of the horseshoe crab. They are tied together by the common themes of marine biology and cellular biology. Marine animals, fresh from the Atlantic Ocean or Massachusetts Bay, are studied as human surrogates -- simpler models of complex organisms.

The emphasis here is on basic science, on how the biological processes work, not on specific medical or pharmaceutical research. But a host of medical advances has flowed from work done at the Marine Biology Laboratory, and current projects point toward future biomedical applications.

Take the Atlantic squid, long a popular item for researchers here. The tentacled creature's nerve cells are 100 times larger than those of humans, making them much easier to work with in pursuing understanding of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

The surf clam, with its large, clear eggs that divide at the same time, opens windows into basic cellular and reproductive biology. Clam studies look at chemical effects on cell division and the processes by which birth defects and cancer cells are formed.

Eggs of the purple sea urchin were used to develop the procedure of in vitro fertilization. Cancer is another focus of cellular research on the urchin.

Sea snails are used for brain research, demonstrating the mechanics of learning and memory and opening doors to understanding of mental illness.

Dogfish sharks form eye cataracts much as humans do, making them an enticing model for vision research. They have a gland that regulates the body's salt balance, a disabled function in people suffering from cystic fibrosis. These fish produce a strong hormone that controls blood pressure, the subject of studies on heart and kidney research.

Then there is the toadfish, with a menacing face and a fearsome array of sharp teeth. This estuarine fish is valued by researchers for an inner ear similar to the human ear; it can answer questions on hearing problems and motion sickness or dizziness. And the toadfish has a readily accessible pancreas that produces beta cells (which are deficient in human diabetics).

Collecting these live specimens in the ocean and keeping them healthy in a maze of bubbling seawater tanks is the job of Ed Enos, who has been doing it for more than 25 years.

With seines and dredge lines, the research institution's trawler hauls in a bounty from the sea, about which Enos is ever willing to expound knowledgeably, "except for the stuff that they do in the laboratories." Most of the catch is thrown back into the sea, because researchers have specific shopping lists: About 200 different species are collected.

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