At MBL: The Gemma of Eel Pond


North Atlantic Squid swimming in a research tank at the Loeb Laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory. These squid have some of the largest nerve fibers in the animal kingdom. Scientists at the MBL dissect the squid to better understand how the brain works.

The 1st installment of “At MBL,” Joseph Caputo’s experience as a science writing intern at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Dr. Joseph DeGiorgis came to Woods Hole at 21 as a diver. For an entire summer he spent his mornings underwater, searching for research specimens to be used by scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). Now a post-doc at the National Instiitutes of Health, DeGiorgis has and will continue to come to the MBL each summer. He and a number of people on the campus have described a magic about this place, where thousands of scientists pass through the laboratories each year and several chapters in the history of biology have been written.

After hearing Dr. DeGiorgis tell his story, and describe some new research about kinesins, a family of motor proteins he specializes in, we walked over to his lab to dissect a squid. This wasn’t a special request by me of course, he wanted to show the squid giant axon to a group of science journalists taking part in a week-long course in biomedicine. The axon, a nerve fiber that connects with multiple nerve cells to control the squid’s jet propulsion system, is one of the largest in the animal kingdom.

After entering Dr. DeGiorgis’s lab, passing tanks with the squid, he chose one of the backwards swimming creatures, cut off its head with a pair of scissors and began the dissection. He needed to remove the squid’s ink sac and multiple hearts before getting to the axon, which was an easy to spot ridge along the animal’s side.

Later that afternoon, the journalists and I prepared for an exclusive sea voyage aboard the RV Gemma, the MBL’s collecting boat since the 1980s. (Its named after the Amethyst gem clam, a small mollusk). The boat is equipped with large trawling nets, which scrape along the bottom of the sea as well as nets that pick up life in the water column. We waited as the boat sailed under the Water Street bridge and past Martha’s Vineyard to our trawling destination. Diamond, the ship’s seadog, circled the boat, occasionally poking her head over the water.

When the nets came back, all kinds of sea creatures were scattered over the boat’s floor. Many different species of whelks, sea stars, yellow sponges, crabs, and sea urchins were quickly sorted into buckets by the ship’s crew. Any organisms that wouldn’t be used for research were thrown back. The journalists and I passed the animals around. We felt the odd tickle of a sea star extending its legs to grab hold of your arm, the pinch of a small shore crab in an unfamiliar environment and the prickle of a purple sea urchin.

For the crew, some who have been aboard the Gemma for decades, others just weeks, this is just another day at work.

Posted by Joseph, under At MBL  |  Date: June 13, 2008
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