Fish you were here...

July 27, 2001

Where does a researcher go for summer? In the first of our series, Iain Young packs up his lab and heads for the Marine Biological Laboratory in Cape Cod.

It is a hot summer's day as we twist our way down Route 28 in a 2-ton rental truck laden with laboratory equipment. We are heading for the picturesque village of Woods Hole, perched on the southwest tip of Cape Cod in the United States.

I have been making this trip in the first week of June for the past three years, ever since I came from the UK to work as a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania. It might seem like madness to disassemble a laboratory, pack it into a truck, drive 400 miles, then unpack and reassemble it again, particularly with the prospect of being isolated in a small Cape Cod village - with no public transport after 7pm - for three months. But I am just one of many hundreds of researchers who carry out this annual ritual. So what is the curious attraction of Woods Hole?

It is home to three renowned research institutions - the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Woods Hole Research Center - as well as three government organisations - the US Geological Survey, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Coast Guard - and a collection of other private organisations. But Woods Hole, like many Cape Cod towns, began life as a fishing village. Later, whaling fleets were built and harboured here. Then followed a profitable, and undoubtedly aromatic, period as the home of a guano fertiliser plant.

But the atmosphere changed in the mid-1800s when amateur and professional naturalists began spending their summers in the Woods Hole area studying the abundant marine species in local waters. The association was formalised in 1888 when the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) was established with the goal of providing education and promoting basic biological research. And as some 39 Nobel prizewinners have passed through its doors, it seems to have fulfilled its aim.

On arrival, our first priority is to unpack and reassemble our lab. Summer researchers from dozens of home institutions are competing for space and filching a few extra feet in a corridor for a filing cabinet or incubator. Soon they will fill the four floors of the Whitman Building, one of four laboratory buildings at Woods Hole. In addition to almost 300 year-round staff, the MBL is the summer home and workplace to some 1,200 summer researchers, many of whom bring their families to live in the area and take advantage of Cape Cod at its summer best.

With this influx of researchers, the MBL provides a unique academic environment. Many of the competitive barriers between groups and different institutions are set aside as people share the same workspace and living quarters. For the summer they become neighbours, their children play together, they eat at the same tables and a group identity emerges. The centre also provides a focal point for groups of researchers working on the same model species. Scientists with diverse backgrounds - ecologists, physiologists, molecular biologists - share, often fervently, their different perspectives on scientific issues.

What is more, there are several marine species at the MBL that are difficult to obtain anywhere else. Much of the recent work our group has carried out has involved one such species, the oyster toadfish, Opsanus tau (see box overleaf). The male toadfish attracts females with a hooting call. He makes this sound by vibrating his swimbladder, which is used in most fish to adjust buoyancy so they can swim at different depths. The toadfish's swimbladder is surrounded by specialised muscle that contracts and relaxes at up to 200 times a second during calling, making it one of the fastest vertebrate muscles known. We work on this exceptional muscle for the same reasons that car manufacturers build Grand Prix cars. Advances in automotive engineering are made by developing specialised systems for a car that can excel under the extreme speeds and demands of a Grand Prix race. Similarly, super-fast muscle is highly specialised for operation at high frequencies, contracting and relaxing at very high speed. We can learn a great deal about how a muscle contracts and relaxes by looking at a muscle that carries out these processes particularly well.

As well as a variety of marine species, the MBL provides an excellent physical environment for research. It has a renowned library and outstanding aquarium and husbandry facilities. But more important than the facilities or even the assembled scientific expertise, is the academic atmosphere. Most researchers experience something of this when they meet at a conference. Multiply that tenfold and you approach the atmosphere here. Projects are planned over a beer and science thrives.

Its 39 Nobel laureates suggest there must be something about the MBL that helps foster successful research. I think the success has much to do with the surroundings, the climate and the beauty of Cape Cod, and the enthusiasm, optimism and wellbeing it engenders. Over coffee, ideas seed more ideas.

Iain Young is a research associate in Larry Rome's laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. He will take up the post of lecturer in the department of veterinary preclinical sciences at the University of Liverpool in February 2002.

The Marine Biological Laboratory

• What is it? It is the oldest private marine laboratory in the western hemisphere, set up more than 100 years ago, primarily as a summer lab where biologists could work together, teach and research. It is independent of any university and is supported by an endowment, private gifts and researchers' grants.

• Who's there? There is a core year-round staff of 5. Numbers swell to 1,200 over summer as researchers and students from 200 institutions worldwide descend. There is housing for 800 and the dining room feeds 400. Among those who have worked at the lab are James Watson, Nobel prize-winning co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. He wrote The Double Helix at the MBL.

• Other alumni? Some 39 Nobel laureates, from August Krogh, discoverer of capillary motor regulation (1920), to Eric Wieschaus, winner for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development (1995).

• What goes on?

Using marine organisms such as squid as models, MBL researchers are trying to understand fundamental life processes. Fields of study include biochemistry, biophysics, cell and developmental biology, ecology, genetics and physiology.

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