Floating laboratory helps preserve "aliens of the sea"

In this handout photo taken March 30, 2014, provided by University of Florida neurobiologist Leonid Moroz, a species of comb jelly called a Beroe has swallowed another comb jelly, called a Bolinopsis.
AP Photo/Leonid Moroz

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 -- a comb jelly -- and its similarly strange cousins are food for science. They regrow with amazing speed if they get chopped up and some even regenerate a rudimentary brain.

"Meet the aliens of the sea," the neurobiologist at the University of Florida says with a huge grin.

These gelatinous creatures have neurons connected in circuitry that Moroz says works as an elementary brain. For some species of comb jellies, injured neural networks can be generated in three to five days, he says, if they're in a habitat where they survive that long.

In an effort that's part conservation, part brain science, Moroz and other researchers are on a quest to decode the genomic blueprints of fragile marine life. In a unique floating laboratory, a specially retrofitted steel shipping container, the team works to find the secrets hidden in the animals' genetic structures.

For Rachel Sanford, a graduate student, she's trying to figure how what genetic activity spurs healing in these animals, studying their regenerated tissue as well as their brain.

"I work on these things that are kind of like jellyfish, but they're not jellyfish at all. And I take out their brain. And then it grows back. And then I try to figure out how it grows back," Sanford explains.

A clue may lie in the differences between comb jelly species, Moroz says, adding that evolution shows that "there is more than one design for how to make a cell, how to make a brain."

Two prior trips, using the floating laboratory off the coast of Florida, have generated information about thousands of genes in 22 organisms, including some rare comb jellies. The rapid information generated has some scientists interested.

With Moroz's new floating laboratory, "there's a lot more preservation," says University of Washington biology professor Billie Swalla. "If you have unused animals, you can return them."

Prior to the creation of the floating laboratory, the traditional method required scientists to collect animals at sea, freeze samples and ship them home.

But often, Moroz had shipments lost in transit or held up at U.S. Customs, thawed and ruined. Plus, some creatures' genetic material begins breaking down almost immediately after they're caught.

"When I think of all the animals we've lost through years and years," Andrea Kohn, a molecular biologist says, shaking her head. To completely map the genome of a single comb jelly species, "it took us a year to get DNA that wasn't degraded."

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 -- looking for so-called "master regulators," key molecules that control regrowth.

"If the sea can't come to the lab, the lab must come to the sea," he says.