The Trojan Octopus
6 December 2019
Martyna Lukoseviciute, a PhD student in Tatjana Sauka-Spengler’s group, shares the story behind her winning image of an octopus embryo and the unexpected lessons she has learnt from it.
Today I would like to share the multi-layered story behind this beautiful image that I captured, on my birthday, at last summer’s wonderful Embryology Course in the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Massachusetts. This single image grew over the months following the Embryology course to become a symbol of many of my scientific beliefs, values and goals. Luckily, because it has received a lot of attention, I can sneakily use this octopus as a vehicle for three messages that are important to me and hopefully to others within and outside the scientific community: the octopus is my Trojan horse to deliver these thoughts.
But first let me describe what you actually see here. This is a fixed, unhatched Octopus bimaculoides embryo. I had to take the embryo out of its egg case and detach it from its yolk sac, which provides nutrients to a developing octopus until it hatches. At this stage, an embryo is already quite sizeable, hence it was somewhat of a bold decision to put it under a confocal microscope due to the lengthy time it would take to scan the whole area using such laser scanning microscopy. But hey, it was my birthday, so I decided to give it a go!
I performed immunohistochemistry using primary antibodies, followed by addition of secondary antibodies conjugated to fluorophores. When these fluorophores are excited with light of particular wavelengths, they emit light of a longer wavelength which can be detected by a microscope, resolving the position of the primary antibodies’ targets. To the naked eye, this sample appeared completely white, but under a microscope its anatomy comes alive. In the final image, the red is labelling the actin cytoskeleton (stained with phalloidin), important for various cellular processes; magenta– the extracellular matrix glycoprotein needed for cells to properly migrate and attach (fibronectin); green is labelling a protein, pax3, that is an important driver of nervous system development. I mounted this very photogenic 8-legged sample, showing off its tentacles in the most graceful way, and imaged it using a confocal Zeiss microscope (LSM710) equipped with a 5x objective. Since it was so huge, I needed to scan multiple tiles of multiple optical sections and then stitch them together to unravel the full beauty of this incredible organism. The scale bar on the bottom left corner corresponds to 0.5 mm.
As I mentioned, the final image of the octopus embryo has been awarded a number of prizes in multiple imaging contests: People Choice and Best Scientific Impact awards at the Oxford University Science Innovation Union ‘Art in Science’ Photography Competition, 1st place in the Royal Microscopical Society Scientific Imaging Light Microscopy Competition and 19th place in the Nikon Small World Microphotography Competition. It was also selected by the Nature’s photo team as one of November’s sharpest science shots (see the Disco Octopus and other selected images here).
It was wonderful that the image received such critical acclaim. However, more important to me was the attention it brought to this non-model organism. I am fascinated by octopuses, as they represent an invertebrate animal that has convergently evolved a complex nervous system, which is anatomically very different from that of vertebrates. However, like vertebrates, octopuses display a variety of functional characteristics, such as short and long term memory indicative of developed cognition. Therefore, comparing the development of the octopus and vertebrate animal nervous system has the potential to shed light on the basic principles of the emergence of a complex nervous system. -Time for the first message that accompanies this Trojan octopus!- In my opinion, science is shrinking down and is moving away from pure curiosity, hunger for knowledge and need to understand the world around us. For decades now, using a very limited number of in vitro and in vivo models, we have made arguably very little progress in cracking cancer, regenerative medicine, ageing and cardiovascular diseases. Paper after paper uses a subset of the same seven animals: fly, nematode, frog, chicken, zebrafish, mouse and human. What if we are too focused on deciphering these problems and stopped exploring? What if, by playing it safe, we may be completely missing the big picture or entirely novel examples of how life can be, adapt and endure? We keep finding new species every day, yet we continue studying only a tiny fraction of this enormous biodiversity.
Imagine your lab work without being able to visualise your protein of interest using green fluorescent protein (GFP) (coincidentally, isolated by Osamu Shimomura from the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria whilst working at MBL). Or consider PCR in the absence of thermostable DNA polymerases, such as Thermus aquaticus’ Taq, isolated from organisms which live on the edge of what life can endure. Curiosity mixed with creativity and knowledge can bring us very far, and still is. For example, the CRISPR system now revolutionising basic and translational biology was initially identified as part of bacterial immunity. Sometimes, it is not immediately obvious how little chance discoveries can lead to big breakthroughs and I think this is where the problem starts to creep upon us. One of my favourite scientists, Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, who studies regeneration principles in a planarian flatworm, has said: “Today, many of the biological sciences only see value in studying deeper what we already know, in mapping already discovered continents. But some of us are much more interested in the unknown. We want to discover completely new continents”. I am sure a lot of you out there feel the same way. Is the incremental advancement of knowledge surprising when we are made to focus only on the immediate applications of our findings and encouraged to dig deeper only into well-studied subjects? Maybe it is time to start thinking of how we can achieve more rapid progress and build new ships that will take us to such new continents.
The second important message the Trojan octopus is sending: never stop learning and training yourself. It is so easy to get comfortable with the range of skills you have, rather than exposing yourself to new experiences apparently irrelevant to your work. Even though it meant setting aside my DPhil project for two months to learn something not directly needed for my research, my supervisor Tatjana Sauka-Spengler and I decided in 2018 that I should go on the MBL Embryology course in Woods Hole. I cannot express enough what a great decision this was! I met superb people that I now call friends; learnt new embryo manipulation, perturbation and imaging skills; performed the most bonkers experiments; unleashed my curiosity and explored tens of different species. Perhaps most importantly, the course helped me lose any fear of experimental failure, which has empowered me to perform ambitious experiments back in the lab. I would encourage everyone, especially students, to seize every possible training opportunity, even if it is not entirely applicable to your research. You never know what you will learn, who you will meet and how it might reshape your world (and lab) for the better.
The final message of the Trojan octopus can be expressed in Mark Twain’s words: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life." This image of an octopus represents my interest in revealing the unseen beauty of life around us; a symbiotic love I have for both science and art. However, academic science can be a struggle and most of us are aware of the multiple flaws within the current system. A feeling that hard work is not acknowledged; unhealthy competition against peers; the need to re-direct our research interests in order to get funding and an overwhelming pressure to publish is driving more and more scientists to choose to leave academia. So far, I have been lucky with mentors and colleagues who have helped me see beyond these issues. Let’s remind ourselves why we decided to do science in the first place, catch another breath and give it a go one more time; academia does not need to remain a potentially toxic place. This octopus embryo serves as a reminder to me; taking me back to the MBL course where I took the picture, and where both teachers and students worked hand in hand, driven by their own interests and passion for science. I, maybe still naïve and very optimistic, encourage you to explore, follow your interest, distil what really matters to you and let your own curiosity and goals drive you through your research.
This blog post was written by Martyna Lukoseviciute (Sauka-Spengler group) and edited by Joe Frost (Drakesmith group).