Unique Floating Lab Showcases ‘Aliens of the Sea’

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

Due to their ability to regenerate parts of their bodies and neural networks (similar to a primitive brain), some species of comb jellies (ctenophores) are being studied to shed light on human healing and regrowth.  These creatures are so delicate, however, that they cannot normally be brought back to shore (even frozen) to have their DNA successfully extracted in a traditional lab.  Dr. Leonid Moroz took advantage of a unique opportunity to create a full lab in a shipping container that could be put on large boats so he could sequence the comb jellies’ DNA immediately after catching them at sea. (You’ve gotta see the slideshow of the setup and the video.)  The lab has a genome sequencing machine that sends results via satellite to the University of Florida’s supercomputer, which sends the analyzed data back to the boat a few hours later. The sea lab also has plenty of tanks to store the animals in before they are sampled, which allows the scientists to identify and observe the different kinds of comb jellies they collect.This article doesn’t discuss results found from this research, since it is still underway, but does a good job demonstrating the process of marine research on a boat through the slideshow and videos.  So many science articles do not show what’s happening behind-the-scenes, and I think that is part of what is so fascinating about the scientific process.  Who wouldn’t love to look at these glowing and iridescent creatures while wearing flip-flops and exploring the ocean on a really nice boat?  It almost makes me want to give up studying plants and butterflies and go join them (almost).  I was very close to choosing marine biology for my undergraduate major, and have always been fascinated by marine research.  Sure, you have to watch out for sunburns and rough waters and are in tight quarters with other people, but you don’t have to worry about encountering dangerous animals, poisonous plants or biting insects, getting lost while hiking or falling down a hillside.  Plus, there’s no commute time from your bunk to the lab or your sampling site!  It sounds like a great deal to me.


A comb jelly called a Beroe.  Photo Credit:  Leonid Moroz
The equipment setup outside the shipping container lab, and all the scientists working on the ship.  Photo credit: Suzette Laboy
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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.