Biologist Studies Sea Anemones’ Response to Changing Environment

A sea anemone, with its columnar, jelly-like body and bouquet of tentacles that protrude from its head like a Medusa curlicue mass, looks every bit a weird sea creature. For UNC Charlotte’s Adam Reitzel, this curiosity of a marine invertebrate also holds fascinating clues on how changes in the environment may influence molecular mechanisms such as circadian clocks.

The sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, is in the phylum Cnidaria (“nye-dare-e-uh”) and is found along the Eastern seaboard from Maine down to Jamaica and Puerto RicoFlorida. Many of the anemones in Reitzel’s biological sciences lab come from the North Carolina coast.

Considered a model organism – as the sequencing of its genome has provided a map to gene evolution – sea anemones offer an ideal biological system for use in a wide range of comparative studies, including Reitzel’s investigation into circadian clocks.

“The circadian clock is responsible for how we function,” Reitzel says. “Why do we wake up when we do? Why do we get hungry when we do, and why is this very predictable? The circadian clock is why we experience jet lag or tend not to be ourselves after we pull an all-nighter.”

Reitzel’s lab uses sea anemones to learn more about how organisms may entrain their clocks when faced with disruptions. More broadly, his research considers the evolution and mechanisms of stress response and the genetic variation and adaptation of coastal invertebrates, including the purpose of the circadian clock.

“We are asking two fundamental questions,” he says. “One is from an evolutionary perspective. How does a sea anemone, in this case, have a circadian clock and how similar is it to the human clock? And two, how does that clock work? If we interrupt a sea anemone’s circadian clock, what does that do to that anemone? What does it do to its physiology?”

A key question is determining whether a sea anemone takes in environmental cues such as changes in light and, as a result, entrains its circadian clock to anticipate and adapt to environmental changes.

Adam Reitzel“There’s plenty of literature to suggest disruptions in the circadian clock can result in increased susceptibility to diseases,” he says. “We want to know, and this relates back to the non-human model, if we interrupt a sea anemone’s circadian clock, what does that do to that anemone?”

In a locked room near Reitzel’s lab, a video recorder captures the movement of sea anemones in a dish as they are exposed to light. A computer remotely controls the intensity of the light and when it is turned off and on. They Whitney Leach, a graduate student in Reitzel’s lab, uses light because it is the most predictable environmental cue.

At the conclusion of the controlled manipulations of the environment, the lab team will study the tissue of the anenomes, specifically looking at the genes and proteins to assess what may have changed as a result of the environmental differences.

Reitzel’s most recent funding is the prestigious Young Investigators’ Grant from the Human Frontier Science Program, one of only seven awarded worldwide earlier this year. Reitzel and colleagues from Germany and Australia are looking at how bacteria and other microbes influence the biology of sea anemones, particularly in the context of climate change.

“We are looking at how organisms live naturally,” he says. “If they can respond and adapt by changing critical tagsgene expression or how they associate with particular types of bacteria or gene functions, it tells you how organisms are projected to survive in a changing environment.”

Reitzel also has two National Science Foundation grants for marine species adaptation research, a National Institutes of Health AREA grant for the circadian clock research and a Binational Science Foundation Young Investigator Grant that pairs him with a colleague in Israel. Also as part of his collaborative work, he is working with Mitchell Community College biology instructor Parks Collins in Statesville and hopes this work can provide a model for others.

Scientific exploration first came into focus for Reitzel when he spent a summer as an undergraduate researcher on the West Coast with Brian Bingham of Western Washington University, as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Coming from the cornfields of Illinois, Reitzel saw the ocean for the first time during that trip. He also learned a lesson about collaboration and hands-on research that continues to shape his approach.

“I remember those times others took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to conduct a research project, with mentoring, but allowing me to be very independent,” he says. “I got to come up with my own ideas and dedicate myself, and the work became mine as something I was really invested in. That had a huge impact on me to get into the field and to do this for a long time.”

Words: Leah Chester-Davis | Image of Reitzel and student Whitney Leach in the lab: Lynn Roberson | Image of Reitzel: Vanna Sombatsaphay, used with permission

 

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