Thursday, April 28, 2011

Squids In Space--Seriously

The last flight of the space shuttle Endeavor will be both manned and squidded.

The most famous science experiment on board, of course, will be the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will set up shop at the ISS to measure cosmic rays, dusting for the fingerprints of dark matter and antimatter. So that's cool. But is it as cool as baby squid in space?

...why exactly would you want to put squids in space? I mean, besides the cool factor, what is there to be gained? I did a little more poking around, and, bless the internet, there's a webpage on the project. It turns out that the particular species of squid to be shipped off-planet is our old friend the bobtail squid.

What makes this squid unique is its light organ, which glows at night and hides its shadow from prey lurking underneath. The light is powered by a particular bioluminescent bacteria (Vibrio fishceri) that the squid draws in from the surrounding water. Every day it expels the old bacteria and takes in a new batch. Newly born squid can’t produce the light, but within several hours they become bioluminescent as they take in the bacteria. This development gives scientists a close look at morphogenesis, which is the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape—one of the fundamentals of development biology. The squid experiment came about when Ned [faculty sponsor] learned about the work of Dr. Jamie S. Foster at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dr. Foster’s work is focused on what happens to this morphogenesis process under micro-gravity conditions.

A-ha! So the real question is morphogenesis under micro-gravity, or, what is the effect of gravity on how an organism makes its shape? And the squid/bacteria symbiosis happens to be a good model system to answer this question.

If you're having a hard time making that connection, it's because a critical piece of information was omitted from the otherwise excellent summary above. That is, when a newly born squid takes in the bacteria that it needs to produce light, those bacteria induce an serious physical restructuring of the squid's body so that it can host them appropriately. The baby squid actually changes shape as a result of taking in bacteria.

Which is a pretty wild thing to study all by itself, on Earth, but when you decide to study it in space . . . whoa.

via Squids In Space--Seriously.

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