It’s 10 am on a Sunday morning and the Solstice sun is bearing down on Brown’s Biomed building with determined ferocity. Fortunately, the walls are thick and the windows small. The air-conditioning too is potent. Groaning, it spews out cold, clinical air which washes over the laboratory in waves, calming the frayed nerves of PCR machines and singing my eyelids back into communion.
I’ve been pipetting all morning. Short cuts are few in this business. 40 microcentrifuge tubes, five separate cocktails in each. You suck and eject, and suck and eject again. The motions must be slow. If you go too fast, all you suck up is air; the volumes of the liquids are so small – perhaps a hundredth of a teardrop – that you couldn’t tell liquid from gas. Try to rush through it, and your tubes will be denied of vital ingredients. Try to rush through it, and your attempt will be doomed from the start.
Air, after all, doesn’t amplify siphonophore DNA.
At such times, with the weight of many failed attempts bearing down on me (I’m a slow entrant to the pipetting world), I like to think of the big picture. Even grunt work is enjoyable if your office is atop the Eiffel Tower. I remind myself why I’m here, why I’m pipetting miniscule volumes of insignificant liquids over and over and over again. I derive no particular thrills from lab work, but my goals are lofty. After all, I’m studying siphonophores.
In my head, this is just another way of saying that I’m studying aliens.
Siphonophores are a group of colonial jellyfish. Their most famous member is the Portuguese Man of War – the purple floating warship that haunts beachgoers around the world – but the group exhibits considerable diversity. It includes organisms which are mere inches in size, as well as those which can grow to be tens of meters long. One, Praya sp., exceeds even the blue whale in length, making it the longest animal around.
One of the most unique attributes of siphonophores is that they’ve evolved not as individuals but as integrated colonies. Not only that, these creatures have developed a colony-level nervous system. Such networks are exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom, and the siphonophore’s is thought to be most advanced. Large parts of its body are connected by nerves, and studies suggest that the animal is able to respond to stimuli at multiple levels: feeding and locomotion are limited to individuals within the colony, while defensive responses are mediated by the colony as a whole.
Siphonophores are biological oddities – a sneak peek into a novel natural experiment. Over the course of the summer, I hope to shed more light on their intriguing biology, in particular, the development of their unique nervous systems. Unto this end, I will be spending many more weeks (and weekends) in the lab. When I’m not in lab, I can be found doodling under a tree, working toward my other big goal this summer – making animation videos to make siphonophore biology more accessible to audiences beyond academia. We call them Creaturecasts. Check out a sample video here.
A related point: earlier this year, I travelled to the south of France to experience being with siphonophores in their natural environment. The trip was only partially successful – one of my main goals was to attempt to culture them in a tank, but that was not to be. However, I came back with a greater appreciation for these curious creatures and an even greater urge to go back. What with a colony-level nervous system and a field site like Villefranche-sur-mer in which to investigate it, it’s hard to understand why we’re not all studying siphonophores.