For three-and-a-half days this summer, School of Medicine Greenville biomedical sciences professor William Roudebush and medical students Sarah Feingold, Sanjana Mandilwar and Nicole Russell spent their time in a seaside classroom surrounded by microscopes, laptops and sea urchin embryos.
The team traveled south to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Florida in July to study aspects of human egg fertilization and preimplantation embryonic development using short-spined sea urchin (Lytechinus variegatus) specimens for their research.
“We collected samples and did lab work, starting very early in the morning, this way the students could also have some free time in the afternoon after their research,” says Roudebush.
Sea urchins have been used worldwide as a research specimen for decades to provide answers to the fundamental developments that occur in the womb and provide key information regarding many aspects of human developmental biology and genetics.
Typically, Dr. Roudebush conducts research each year using sea urchin specimens at his lab at the School of Medicine campus. Roudebush and medical students look into questions such as: What is a viable human embryo? And what factors and mechanisms impact successful embryo development? They learn how to grow embryos from sea urchin eggs and sperm.
Yet it turns out that shipping live sea urchin specimens can be costly and difficult, especially in the summer months when the specimens are vulnerable to perishing in the heat. Thus, from June 27 to July 1, Roudebush, Feingold, Mandilwar and Russell traveled to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Florida.
Second-year medical student Russell describes the experience as insightful and investigational. “The best part was having practically an unlimited supply of sea urchins and being able to run as many experiments as we wanted throughout our time there,” says Russell. “Mess up? No problem, just walk over to the aquarium and grab some more urchins.”
During the trip to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, the group used a classroom in a building damaged in a previous hurricane and recently renovated with grant funding. “They had a nice laboratory space and could bring sea urchin specimens and seawater over from our main facility,” says Jack Rudloe, president and founder of the marine laboratory that has evolved from a shack with a wood stove in the 1960s into a growing marine education and research campus.
The seaside classroom was an excellent setting for the group to conduct their research.
“We ran experiments for three-and-a-half days, conducting nearly six weeks' worth of research and data collection,” says Roudebush.
“We enjoyed their visit, and appreciate all the work Dr. Roudebush is doing,” says Rudloe. “They had some very good results and were able to get to see cell division (under the microscope).”
The trip to Panacea was such a success that Roudebush plans to return, turning what the group dubbed “The Panacea Expedition” into an annual academic endeavor—with the School of Medicine Greenville continuing to partner closely with the marine laboratory.
Roudebush also hopes to seek funding opportunities in the future to assist with the costs of the trip and research setup. He envisions a small group of medical students who are interested in this field of research taking part in the southern research venture in late May or early June.
Research using sea urchins can glean insights into several different aspects of embryonic development, and even answer key questions. “We are looking at proteins and molecular growth; we are looking at gene expressions,” says Roudebush.
If conducted properly, research with sea urchins does not generally harm the specimens, adds Rudloe, who has written seven books on Florida natural history and marine life.
The group from SOMG was also analyzing the role of platelet-activating factor (PAF) in embryos. PAF is a potent signaling phospholipid produced by early embryos, which is required for development and implantation. The mechanism or the extent by which PAF improves development during this phase has not been fully elucidated. Roudebush’s lab’s work with sea urchin embryos and PAF has led to the discovery of specific apoptotic gene expressions that can be further investigated in human embryos.
On July 22, 2022, the rising second-year medical students presented on their research with sea urchin specimens at the 4th Annual School of Medicine Greenville Student Research Symposium.
In October, Russell will also be submitting her data for presentation during the Aquatic Models of Human Disease Conference at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This conference will bring together scientists, postdocs and graduate students from the U.S. and around the world to explore the recent developments in technology, study design and data analysis and the latest applications of aquatic animals in the study of human diseases.