Researcher decodes blueprints of marine life

  • Updated: May 10, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Researcher Leonid Moroz emerges from a dive off the Florida Keys and gleefully displays a plastic bag holding a creature that shimmers like an opal in the seawater. This translucent animal and its similarly strange cousins are food for science. They regrow with amazing speed if they get chopped up. Some even regenerate a rudimentary brain. “Meet the aliens of the sea,” the neurobiologist at the University of Florida said. They’re headed for his floating laboratory. Moroz is on a quest to decode the genomic blueprints of fragile marine life, like these mysterious comb jellies, shown above, in real time — on board the ship where they were caught — so he can learn which genes switch on and off as the animals perform such tasks as regeneration. No white coats needed here. The lab is a retrofitted steel shipping container, able to be lifted by crane onto any ship Moroz can recruit for a scientific adventure. Inside, researchers in flip-flops operate a state-of-the-art genomic sequencing machine secured to a tilting tabletop that bobs with rough waves. Genetic data is beamed via satellite to a supercomputer at the University of Florida, which analyzes the results in a few hours and sends it back to the boat. The work is part conservation. “Life came from the oceans,” said Moroz. “We need a Manhattan Project for biodiversity. We’re losing our heritage.” Surprising as it may sound, it’s part brain science. “We cannot regenerate our brain, our spinal cord or efficiently heal wounds without scars,” Moroz said. But some simple sea creatures can. Moroz’s ultimate goal is to take the project around the world, to remote seas where it’s especially hard to preserve marine animals for study. “Nature has found solutions to how to stay healthy,” he said. “We need to learn how they do it.” Associated Press