Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ostra-blog 6 - Ostracodology and the Nobel Prize

Dagummit! I've been scooped again by the guys at the other 95% by this post: The Other 95%: The Nobel Jelly - Aequorea victoria . They point out that one of the winners of this year's Nobel Prize for chemistry is marine biologist, chemist, and one time ostracodologist, Osamu Shimomura. [By the way, I didn't invent the word ostracodologist - we actually use that to describe ourselves].

Early in his career, Shimomura studied bioluminescence in Vargula hilgendorfii (he called it Cypridina hilgendorfii, which is a synonym for Vargula hilgendorfii. Vargula is usually used today, the taxonomy is a bit complicated, and I won't go into it here). After that, Shimomura went to work on the jellyfish Aequorea and its bioluminescence. It turns out that Aequorea produces light with a protein called aequorin, which sends light to another protein (Green Flourescent Protein=GFP) that emits green fluorescence. GFP is today used in all sorts of applications, as Eric at TO95% nicely explained.

There also is one more connection between GFP and ostracodology. An ostracodologist actually named GFP (Morin and Hastings, 1971)! Jim Morin is a prominent ostracodologist, who, with Anne Cohen has described, in often exquisite detail, the biology of bioluminescent ostracods from the Caribbean. In my talks on ostracods, I often use a slide based on their work:

Fig 1. Small blue circles represent discrete flashes of light produced by male bioluminescent cypridinid ostracods. Patterns of different species are illustrated, with white arrows showing the direction of swimming of an individual animal producing the pattern over time. Each pattern is characteristic of a different species and are performed above different microhabitats. Original figure in black and white line drawing by Jim Morin and Anne Cohen. Color and photos added by T. Oakley.

Male ostracods of this family signal to females using flashes of light in rather complex species-specific patterns, often over sterotyped microhabitats. These Caribbean species are related to Vargula hilgendorfii (ostrablog 5), which does not signal. In the Caribbean species, there are even "sneaker males", males that follow a signalling male, without using the energy to signal themselves, in an attempt to mate with females attracted to those signals. I guess in bars, humans call this something like a "wing man".

I think this is a great example of how solid basic research will often lead to great advances. Shimomura was interested in bioluminescence because of pure scientific curiosity. I doubt he was aiming for a Nobel. The general public often does not understand this. In the 1970's, I'm sure some people wondered why anyone would want to spend enormous time and energy studying a glowing protein of a jellyfish. But that scientific curiosity has now paid big dividends!


Kevin Zelnio said...

HA! You gotta be quick to pull one over on us! ;)

But I'm not sure a sneaker male quite corresponds to a wing man. The wing man is there to make the other guy look good, not take his reproductive opportunities. I think the proper analogy for a sneaker male might be Douchebag, but I may be wrong there as well.

Eric Heupel said...

Cool, I was hoping you had more info on Shimomura's ostracod days and would be able expand on the Ostracod connection.

That is cool that they have specific patterns for specific micro-habitats. Man so many questions pop into my head...You wouldn't happen to have some paper titles...I want to read more..

Has anyone done ...paternity tests to see what kind of success rates the sneaker males have? (Similar to the tests that have been done with Cuttlefish in Australia, where sneaker males were actually preferred sperm donors)

Basic research Rocks...

Todd Oakley said...

Eric- Sorry, no I didn't know about Shimomura until the prize. In fact, I had incorrectly thought that Jim Morin discovered GFP even though he "only" named GFP. I'm interested now, so maybe I do a little research, if I get a chance.

Regarding sneaker males - no one has done that. It would be a really nice PhD project for you, if you can SCUBA dive. (And if you don't mind diving in beautiful tropical Caribbean locales).

Todd Oakley said...

Eric - Here are some references:

Morin, JG. "Firefleas" of the sea: Luminescent signaling in marine ostracode crustaceans.
Florida Entomologist. Vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 105-121. 1985.

Morin, J., and A. C. Cohen. 1991. Bioluminescent displays, courtship, and reproduction in ostracods. Pp. 1-16 in T. Bauer, and J. Martin, eds. Crustacean Sexual Biology. Columbia University Press, New York.

Cohen, A. C., and J. G. Morin. 1990. Morphological relationships of bioluminescent Caribbean species of Vargula. Pp. 381-400 in R. Whatley, and C. Maybury, eds. Ostracoda and Global Events. Chapman Hall, New York.

Cohen, A., and J. G. Morin. 2003. Sexual morphology, reproduction and the evolution of bioluminescence in Ostracoda. Paleontological Society Papers 9:37-69.

Morin, J. G., and A. C. Cohen. 1988. 2 New Luminescent Ostracodes of the Genus Vargula (Myodocopida, Cypridinidae) From the San Blas Region of Panama. Journal of Crustacean Biology 8:620-638.

Cohen, A. C., and J. G. Morin. 1993. The Cypridinid Copulatory Limb and a New Genus Kornickeria (Ostracoda, Myodocopida) With 4 New Species of Bioluminescent Ostracods From the Caribbean.
Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 108:23-84.

Eric Heupel said...

Diving in beautiful caribbean waters?
No, no, I hate 50-100'+ vis. I mean what's the point of it all if you can see your hand in front of your mask?

I wish! I did my first 100 dives in Roatan, then British Virgin Islands, now it's Long Island Sound where 15' vis is called "crystal clear water".

Thanks for the reading list !!