award-winning photos complement her groundbreaking research
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
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.
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
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