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Squids in Space

January1 2011

BobtailSquid_smWhen you walk into the Pritzker Science Center these days, the first lab on your right features a large, seemingly empty, water tank. But burrowed underneath the gravel are a dozen Hawaiian bobtail squid that come out at night to eat and mate. These squid are serving as important ground-based testing for an experiment that will send some of their fellow squid up into the cosmos on the space shuttle Endeavor sometime this spring. This space shuttle flight will be the final one before NASA closes the program.

A group of Milton students are working hard with science faculty member, Ned Bean, to maintain the exact living conditions these squid need to survive. The squid’s normal habitat is the shallow waters around the Hawaiian Islands. Every night, a student or faculty member feeds the two-inch long squid their diet of fresh common shore shrimp. The first big accomplishment occurred when the female squid laid eggs. These baby squid are now in a separate nursery tank. Ned and the students will conduct experiments on the next round of eggs.

This unique opportunity for Milton students to work on a space shuttle experiment came about because of Ned’s friendship with the CEO of a commercial space company that specializes in placing experiments in space. Along with Ned, Milton students have worked two prior times on a space shuttle experiment. The first effort was a successful crystal growth experiment. The second experiment involved e-coli bacteria, but the results where lost when the space shuttle Columbia exploded upon reentry in 2003. The squid experiment is the most interesting one, according to the students and Ned, but also the most difficult because of its complexity.

What makes this squid unique is its light organ, which glows at night and hides its shadow from prey lurking underneath. The light is powered by a particular bioluminescent bacteria (Vibrio fishceri) that the squid draws in from the surrounding water. Every day it expels the old bacteria and takes in a new batch. Newly born squid can’t produce the light, but within several hours they become bioluminescent as they take in the bacteria. This development gives scientists a close look at morphogenesis, which is the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape—one of the fundamentals of development biology.

The squid experiment came about when Ned learned about the work of Dr. Jamie S. Foster at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dr. Foster’s work is focused on what happens to this morphogenesis process under micro-gravity conditions. Her work could open up a new area of scientific discovery about how gravity affects animal and plant development. Over the March break, students will travel to Florida with Ned and visit Dr. Foster’s lab. The squid that will blast off into space will come from her lab, but the scientific work at Milton is important to the success of this mission.