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Jointed bristles on a larval sandworm

Photo by Sara Lindsay

Artful Science
UMaine professor's award-winning photos complement her groundbreaking research

About the Photo: Jointed bristles on a larval sandworm (magnification 400x).

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It's not easy being a spionid. Drab, squishy bottom-feeders, they spend the majority of their lives sifting through the ooze of the ocean floor, piecing together whatever's left behind by more free-spirited animals that swim, glide and drift through the waters above. As if that weren't enough, spionids live under the near-constant threat of losing their heads literally to any hungry crab or foraging fish that comes along. Seldom recognized and rarely respected, members of the family Spionidae are the backwater cousins of the flashier polychaete worms, living out their humdrum lives in quiet anonymity.

Enter University of Maine researcher Sara Lindsay. For the better part of a decade, Lindsay has studied the surprisingly complex behaviors and physiology of the marine worms, probing past their rather unremarkable first impression to discover an animal that is remarkably resilient, ecologically significant and, surprisingly, beautiful.

Lindsay began her work with spionids while still a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, examining how the worms and other sediment dwellers respond to injury and determining the impact of injury on the population dynamics of the ocean floor. After joining the research faculty in UMaine's School of Marine Sciences in 1998, she decided to continue her research into the spionid clan. Her early research led to some exciting discoveries, not the least of which was the spionids' uncanny ability to regenerate their heads, with some species sprouting a new noggin in less that 10 days.

"Once I had the opportunity to do my own thing, I wanted to try to answer those questions that came up in grad school," says Lindsay, examining an electron micrograph of a spionid's head on her computer screen. "The feeding palps make these guys look like the horror movie version of Bugs Bunny, but the really interesting thing is their ability to regenerate their palps, and their heads, in a short period of time."

Working with a small group of graduate and undergraduate researchers, Lindsay set out to answer several critical questions about the spionid's unique techniques for dealing with decapitation, examining rates of regeneration, nervous system implications, molecular cues and the physiological costs associated with the regrowth of a new head. Her research led to several important insights into the physiology and behavior of several spionid species, increasing scientists' knowledge of this little-understood family of the so-called sandworms.

From former graduate student Tim Riordan's work identifying how the worms' sense of smell influences their feeding behavior, to graduate student Skip Forest's research establishing the pathways between the sensory organs and the brain, to current graduate student Marlene Tsie's ongoing research into the molecular basis of the worm's sensory signals, Lindsay's team has taken a comprehensive approach to studying the spionid, and it's paying off.

By building a comprehensive framework of knowledge regarding the spionids' sensory systems, Lindsay and her team are helping to determine how chemoreception sensory response to a chemical influences feeding rate and bottom disturbance, factors that are critical to the overall ecology of the ocean's sediments.

"No one else has done this in these worms. Describing the nervous system in this detail just hasn't been a priority, but it is providing important linkages in our understanding. We are building a nice, integrated story about chemoreception," Lindsay says.

Lindsay's study of the spionids' unique physiology also led to an unexpected discovery: polychaetes can be pretty.

"In general, my research focus is aimed at determining how marine invertebrates see, smell and perceive their environment. One of the first questions I had to answer about these worms was: what are their sensory structures and how do they work? That's what led me to microscopy," she says.

Using a scanning electron microscope, Lindsay examined localized patches of tiny hairs, or cilia, located on the worms' feeding palps. As the worm uses its feeding palps to feel its way around the murky bottom outside its tube-shaped home, the rhythmic beating of its cilia helps to guide tiny food particles back to its hungry mouth.

To establish the connection between the worm's feeding behavior and its little-understood nervous system, Lindsay and Riordan used antibodies to help identify what cells were activated by smells associated with food. Pursuing the sensory pathway even further, Forest applied another technique, laser scanning confocal microscopy, to highlight the pathways between the worm's sensory systems and its brain.

Between the two techniques, Lindsay built a collection of images that are scientifically meaningful and aesthetically striking.

"It was my father who first helped me to discover the artistic side of the work," says Lindsay. "Because he is a biologist as well, he knew where I was coming from in my research (and) he encouraged me to look at the images from the perspective of an artist and photographer."

What began with the tweaking of a few images soon became a rewarding hobby for Lindsay. Stepping outside the constraints of her research, she may spend hours at her home computer, digitally weaving together layered micrographs, and manipulating hue and contrast, to create images that can stand alone as works of art. From the subtle textures of a tiny worm's fringe of bristles to the explosive rainbow of fluorescence revealed by a three-dimensional study of its nervous system, the abstract beauty of each image often hides a scientific significance that makes the art all the more intriguing.

During annual visits to Maine by her father, David, Lindsay gets a fresh perspective on her work. This past June, the pair examined a new image highlighting the saber-like setae of yet another species of marine worm. Talk of hue and contrast intermingled with a passionate discussion of the animal's physiology, revealing the researchers' unique connection as family members and colleagues. Their scientific and artistic sensibilities complement one another, allowing Lindsay to draw out the full potential of each image.

"I think that there are always those germinal images, the ones that represent both a high point and a starting point for something more, but in order to discover them you need not just the images themselves, but also an eye and a mind willing to see them," says David Lindsay. "Sara is able to see those images and present them in a way that others can see and appreciate them as well, and appreciate the science behind them."

Lindsay's talent for discovering the beauty in her work earned her two awards: the 2006 Ralph and Mildred Buchsbaum Prize for Excellence in Photomicrography from the American Microscopical Society and honorable mention in the 2005 Olympus BioScapes International Digital Imaging Competition.

Taking award-winning photomicrographs is not a point-and-shoot endeavor. It requires a high level of skill with the microscope, an intimate understanding of lighting and staining techniques, extensive expertise in digital photo manipulation, and boatloads of patience.

"You just never know where you will find that next beautiful image," she says. "The thing that excites me most about all of this the research, the photos, everything is how interconnected everything is."

By David Munson
September-October, 2006

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