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'Aliens of the Sea' May Provide Answers to Genetics and Spinal Cord Regeneration

Apr 28, 2014 02:22 PM EDT
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Researcher Leonid Moroz and fellow scientists are studying a fascinating translucent sea creature that has regenerating abilities on a floating laboratory off the Florida Keys in hopes of finding clues to genetics and spinal cord regeneration.

These shimmering comb jellies can regrow with amazing speed if they get chopped up - some even regenerating a rudimentary brain.

"Meet the aliens of the sea," the neurobiologist at the University of Florida said, according to The Associated Press.

Moroz named them aliens of the sea, but their official name, ctenophores, comes from the comb-like rows of hair they use to swim. They are about the size of a golf ball.

Through further research, Moroz intends to learn which genes switch on and off as the animals perform such tasks as regeneration, and gain insight into marine life's genetic blueprints.

"Life came from the oceans," Moroz noted.

The team conducts their research aboard a floating steel shipping container, able to be lifted by crane onto any ship. A sophisticated $50,000 genomic sequencing machine, with the help of satellite, transmits data to a supercomputer which then is sent back to the boat.

These gelatinous animals have neurons, or nerve cells, connected in circuitry that Moroz describes as an elementary brain. Some, but not all, of these comb jellies can regenerate them in three to five days.

"We need to learn how they do it," he added. "We cannot regenerate our brain, our spinal cord or efficiently heal wounds without scars," he said, according to the French Tribune.

In two trial-run sails off the coast of Florida, Moroz's team generated information about thousands of genes in 22 organisms. He intends to expand his research globally, conducting experiments in remote seas around the world.

If scientists uncover key molecules that control regrowth, it may answer whether people harbor anything similar that might point to pathways important in spinal cord or brain injuries.

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