Generations Teaming with Life

Published: Sep 13, 2004

Among UT’s best-kept secrets is a former Tampa Bay Hotel wine storage room immediately behind the north end of the Plant Hall science wing. With its stout, round construction, the east side of the old red brick structure resembles a gun turret, only with the “guns” pointing inward. But these guns, in fact, are the remains of murky emerald wine bottles inserted as decorations along the top.

To the west side, the building’s wooden exterior, with its dingy, discolored windows and padlocked plywood doors, give it the appearance of a storage shed, which no doubt most students, faculty, staff and visitors assume it is. As if only to further cloak reality, a gray marble monument at the base of the sidewalk skirting the west side is dedicated to, of all things, the study of gravity.

But inside, the little building that looks from the outside as though its most animated occupant might be a lawn tractor is teeming with unexpected life. In fact, there may be more life within these aged walls than there is in any of the sleek, state-of-the-art rooms that exponentially dominate the University’s campus.

 

Unraveling a Mystery

Katie Rice and Josh Moore are parts of that life. They help Rice’s father, Dr. Stan Rice, collect and maintain populations of marine polydora. Because they work with living organisms that have to be fed and kept in a carefully regulated environment, attention to the biology professor’s lab is a matter of daily necessity. Contrary to most perceptions of what that means in terms of number, the reality is seven, rather than five.

The study has become part of the life work of Dr. Rice, who carries on, funded by various organizations, in what has grown to be a 31-year quest to unravel the genetic mystery of marine polychaetes, minute seagoing worms that by all appearances are a single species, but present enough regional genetic disparity to render them incompatible for reproduction between regions. They are the only creatures known to present this odd dichotomy. (See story, Fall 2003 Journal, page 50.)

In the lab, Rice is continuing to attempt to cross worms from local waters with worms from elsewhere that appear to be identical in every detail, even when studied at length through an electron micrograph.

“We can cross a worm from Tampa Bay with a worm that looks absolutely identical from Maine,” Dr. Rice says, “and they will not produce any fertile eggs, any viable larvae. They’re absolutely reproductively isolated, which in the biological definition of ‘species’ would suggest that they’re different species. But there’s no way to tell them apart—they’re absolutely identical.

“It would be like having a clone of you that was actually a different species. And no matter how deeply we looked at you and quantified the number of hairs on your chin and everything else, we wouldn’t be able to tell you from this clone that was a different species.

“The question is, how is it that these species have become so distinct and so different reproductively without changing their morphology? We normally think of morphology as being quite variable between species. For example, the domestic dog: If you look at a Chihuahua and a Great Dane, they look kind of different, but they’re really the same species, and they’re capable of interbreeding. And if you were to sequence their genes, you would find that there’s very little—maybe one percent—difference.”

Life Takes No Holidays

Katie Rice began helping in her father’s lab in the summer of 2003, when she first enrolled at the University. The sophomore is an art major who is minoring in biology.

“I’ve been around science and science-related things most of my life,” she says, “and it’s really fun—it really is. And it’s really nice to be able to come in before class or after class, and feed the worms. It’s a very low-stress job, and that’s really good, because college is a little bit stressful sometimes,” she says with a relaxing laugh.

She also appreciates the location, she says, as well as the casual attire. She doesn’t have to concern herself with changing clothes or fulfilling a regimented schedule, so even though she has to be in the lab almost every day at some point (occasional tradeoffs can be arranged for a free day here and there), it can be whenever she likes. It’s a short stroll to and from work, and whatever she’s wearing is fine.

So, she says, working in her dad’s lab has something of the feel of a hobby, only more serious, and she does get paid a modest income through Dr. Rice’s project grant money.

“It’s not the same kind of responsibility [as a more commonplace job], but it really is just as much [responsibility],” she says. “I mean, I don’t have to make sure that any customers are happy, but I have to make sure that these worms stay alive.”

That involves, among other things, maintaining healthy environments for the watery little critters.
“We have to keep the salinity at 25 parts per thousand,” is the example she offers. That responsibility applies to holidays as much as it does to weekends.

“I don’t get Martin Luther King Day off, because I still have to come in and make sure everybody’s OK, but that’s all right.”

“We go through tons of culture water,” the elder Rice says by way of mentioning the next generation’s duties. “We make our own food for these worms. We grow phytoplankton, which is essential for the larvae to survive. There are a lot of things to be done. There’s a lot of stuff to do every day.

“It’s really to the point that we need a third student to take care of some of these cultures.”

Rice and daughter give the thought instant credence with a brief segue into whether an acquaintance of hers should come in to talk with Dr. Rice about that third opening. The old wine room that became the little lab that could might soon be a bit more crowded. And after all, there might as well be another playmate for Dr. Rice’s lab pet, a brown widow spider named Beth, with whom Josh Moore and Katie Rice don’t seem inclined to play.

Painstaking Care

 


 

The work’s not hard,” Dr. Rice says, reasserting the topic. “It’s just tedious. And when you’re working with live animals, you can’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to do it today.’ If you don’t do your job, you get yelled at,” he adds with a lighthearted twinkle, eliciting laughter from his offspring.

Feeding the entire collection takes a minimum of four hours, he estimates, but with other concerns like checking females for eggs, feeding is rarely, if ever, a straight shot. Instead, the process is worked in in the midst of orchestrating other processes, and the end of one cycle generally positions itself against the beginning of another.

“It’s like mowing your lawn in the summertime,” Dr. Rice says. “As soon as you’ve finished, it’s time to start again.”
Painstaking care must be exercised to keep the various species separate.

“These worms are absolutely identical,” he reminds. “If you get them mixed up, you’re out of luck. Once they’re mixed, there’s no way you can tell who’s who. So, you can’t just go into auto mode when you’re working in here. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing. A lot of these populations came to us from places where it would be hard for us to re-establish them.”

The collection comes from waters as far off as New Zealand and Nova Scotia. With others, effort supplants distance as the primary concern. The specimens from the Florida panhandle, he says, were gathered through a worm and information trade with Florida State University.

“Every now and then,” Dr. Rice continues, “we have things pop up in the cultures, like rotifers that may eat all of our algae, and then the algae crashes, and we have to restart. There are ciliates and other contaminants that can get into the supply. Sometimes nematodes get into the food supply. So, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong if you’re not vigilant.”

He relates a lab horror story from years ago, when a student lab worker accidentally introduced brine shrimp into a population of polydora larvae.

“I kept asking him how the cultures were doing. He said, ‘They’re doing great. They’re really big, and they’ve got lots of legs.’

“The problem with working with undergraduates,” he concludes, “is that it takes a long time to train them so that they can anticipate and identify problems when they come up. Just about the time that they’re fully competent to work in the lab, they go and graduate. And then, you’ve got to start all over again.”

That Dr. Rice nevertheless values undergraduate lab help is evident in its longevity in his study.
“I’ve had undergraduates working in this lab since 1984. A lot of people have come through here on their way to bigger and better things.”

For Rice and associates, local trips into the field involve piling into a van and driving to Ft. Desoto Park at the southern tip of Pinellas County, and collecting vials of vile-smelling, nutrient-laden mud for growing the algae that becomes food for water-worm consumption. Such a trek also typically nets 100 gallons of seawater in 5-1/2-gallon drums.

With her career interests firmly rooted in art, Katie Rice also is aware of the realities of making a living, so the career angle is present in her approach to the laboratory work, even though it lacks the clear impetus it would receive as part of her major.

“I could see falling back onto something like this. Maybe not this exact project or this exact location, but I definitely could want to fall back on something like this. I wouldn’t want to be a telemarketer,” she says with a laugh.


Science in the Long Run
Josh Moore began assisting Dr. Rice in the laboratory at the end of the spring 2003 semester. The junior from the small town of South Peru, IL, majors in what he loves, and what he loves is marine biology. With his roots in the landlocked upper Midwest, in a town best identified by “interstate 80 runs right through it,” it took a natural inclination to spark a love for marine science. He didn’t get a chance to study much of his favorite subject in high school, either, but he could take plenty of science.

“I went to a really small high school,” he recalls, “about 400 kids, max. Our whole school had 61 in my graduating class. It was a private Catholic school, so we didn’t have any [advanced placement] courses or anything like that, but all the science I could take, I did. I had basically a full science schedule.”

How does a small-town Midwestern boy wind up at UT instead of Americana University? Well, for Josh Moore, two ways.
“The marine science program—I knew I really wanted to get into that, and it’s pretty reputable.”

The track and cross country teams didn’t hurt, either. Moore’s sport was running, and any place that offered him that and marine science in one package piqued his interest immediately. After a bit more investigation and meeting some of the principals involved, he was hooked on the place with the minarets.

“My coach, Jarrett Slaven—he really got me interested. He’s an amazing guy—I really love him as a coach. So, I think I just put two and two together, and kind of fell in love with it.”

“Josh is one of our best 1,500-meter runners,” Slaven said. “He’s got a lot of leg speed.”

Moore, in fact, held UT’s 1,500-meter school record until recently, Slaven said. Edged out by a few hundredths of a second, Moore’s chances of reclaiming the mark are solid. He wants to qualify for the NCAA finals, and he would not surprise anyone if he made it.

But in the long run, Moore is thinking science career. In particular, he expresses an interest in genetics, marine or otherwise, even though he swears to having loved marine science as a 3-year-old and ever since. But he also says he wants to work outside, so choices may be limited.

“I don’t know if I can be cooped up in a lab the rest of my life,” he says.

His next step is graduate school, he says, and he already has his sights set on Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He figures a few years in the lucrative pharmaceuticals industry would make sense after that, while he decides what to settle into long-range.

One thing he is certain of is that he has no future in arachnids. When he met Beth, he put some of that leg speed to practical use.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” he says, chuckling, palms waving outward in mock- defensive posture, “except for spiders. I hate spiders. I saw it [Beth], and I, ah, kind of ran away.”
….
“It gets complicated,” Dr. Rice says of his chores. “But with Katie and Josh helping out, we’ve gotten our momentum going, and kept it going this semester. A lot of times, we get it going over the summer, and everything is fine, but when classes start, everybody is too frazzled to spend time in the lab, and things fall apart. But we’ve kept our momentum going this year. They’re real reliable. It’s good to have them.”