Slugs a home run with NIH

June 17, 2009

VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. -- The National Resource for Aplysia at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has had its resources grant with the National Institute for Health (NIH) extended for an additional five years. The National Resource for Aplysia is the only facility in the world that cultures and raises Aplysia californica, commonly known as sea hares or sea slugs. Over the course of the next five years, the facility will receive $2.7 million from the NIH to raise these animals, which are used to study the basic mechanisms of memory and learning while providing insight into diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Aplysia californica are annual animals, and due to varying climatic conditions in the wild, there are times during the year when Aplysia of known age or stage are not readily available. The NIH-funded National Resource for Aplysia dramatically increases the availability of these animals and provides scientists with animals of all sizes, and of similar genetic lines.

"The animals reared here at the University of Miami are native to the Pacific Ocean, and they are sent all over the world to scientists as far away as Israel, Japan and Sweden," said Dr. Michael Schmale, Marine Biology and Fisheries Professor and Principal Investigator on the awarded grant. "The relatively simple neurological system of Aplysia provides an optimum model in which research on genomics, human brain function, toxicology for developmental studies, substance addiction and nerve senescence and regeneration can be conducted."

One of the researchers benefiting from this state-of-the-art facility is Marine Biology and Fisheries Associate Professor and Co-Principal Investigator, Professor Lynne Fieber. She and her students are studying aging, and are interested in Alzheimer's disease and how the function of cells within the brain change when an animal ages.

Besides using the oversized Aplysia californica neuron as a model for the study of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, they are also used in studies of natural products, chemistry for isolation of novel anti-tumor and antibacterial compounds, and the study of digestive transport.

"At the National Resource for Aplysia we are concerned with animal husbandry, aquaculture and aging," said Tom Capo, Hatchery Manager, Co-Principal Investigator and founder of the Aplysia facility. "Since the facility was funded by the NIH in 1995, we have enhanced our techniques for rearing larvae and juveniles, but our work continues to evolve."

In addition to Aplysia, the staff at the facility also raises over 200 lbs. of seaweed per week to feed the animals. Aplysia eat approximately 20% of their body weight a day. Thus, it is necessary for the facility to grow in excess of 12 tons of algae a year to feed the sea slugs. In order to find ways to enhance mariculture, the researchers at the facility constantly test different species of algae and seaweed, which have occasionally left some of the sea hares a little "green around the gills".

"We are constantly trying to come up with new ways to nourish the Aplysia," said Capo. "A while back we even tried using romaine lettuce as a substitute for the red algae which is a regular part of their diet, and the slugs turned pale green, as opposed to the healthy purplish color they typically have."
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About the NIH

The NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency responsible for conducting and supporting medical research. The NIH's mission is to support science in the search and knowledge that helps us understand the nature and behavior of living systems.

About the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School

Founded in the 1940's, the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has grown into one of the world's premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. Offering dynamic interdisciplinary academics, the Rosenstiel School is dedicated to helping communities to better understand the planet, participating in the establishment of environmental policies, and aiding in the improvement of society and quality of life. For more information, please visit www.rsmas.miami.edu

University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

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