07 November 2009

PhD in a Nutshell

It is raining again. Or should I say it is still raining? I doesn't really seem to stop. Even when the sky is bright and there a patches of blue, it is still raining. And you can look out the window, like right now, and not actually see any rain, but then you notice all the drops in the puddles and you realise that the rain is just hiding. And right now it is raining really hard. How is a person supposed to go out and do anything when it just won't stop raining?

Well anyway I thought it was high time for an explanation of what my PhD is all about.

First, the title (for now):
"Characterisation of bioadhesive cement in Lepas anatifera"

So Lepas is a pedunculate barnacle, which means it is a stalk barnacle or goose barnacle as they are sometimes called. They are far more interesting to look at than your average acorn barnacle, the type that stick on rocks at the beach. These ones can be found attached to boats, buoys, driftwood, basically anything floating in the water. The ones that I am keeping in the lab were found washed up on the beach, attached to a gin bottle. Also, in case you didn't know, barnacles are not actually some sort of shellfish, like a mussel or an oyster. They are crustaceans, more like lobsters and crabs.
You might ask why I am keeping barnacles in the lab? The first reason, and the first part of my thesis, is that nobody has really studied these animals before so side-projects (mostly done by the undergrads) can involve looking at their behaviour and figuring out the best way to culture them, meaning to keep them alive and if possible breeding in the lab.

And we want them to breed first of all so that we can characterise their lifecycle and compare it to that of other barnacles and crustaceans. And secondly we want the barnacle larvae (nauplii) to survive up to the last stage, the cyprid, where they begin to attache themselves to stuff, so that we can compare the larval cement to the adult cement.

So to keep the barnacles alive we have first to keep cultures of algae alive, which we keep in our lab. They add a bit of colour. Then we feed the algae to the artemia, which are sea-monkeys, or brine shrimp. We keep them downstairs, they don't look so pretty. And finally we feed the artemia to the barnacles. And we do this twice a day.

So to get on to the rest of my PhD project, which is looking at the cement. This in itself is split into two parts:

First we have to do histology and microscopy to find out where the cement glands actually are inside of the animal, and where the tubes are that take the cement to the base of the stalk. We need to know this first so that we have a better general understanding of the whole animal, and secondly so that we can try to get the cement out. You see, once it is secreted out it hardens and so far has proved impossible to dissolve. Which is why it is so interesting. So we would like to be able to get the cement out before it is even secreted and maybe that way we can keep it in liquid form (which we need to do so that we can analyse its proteins). And to do that we need to know where the cement glands are. And also to learn these histology and microscope techniques I get to go to Vienna, in Austria.

At the moment we are also experimenting with collecting the cement as it is secreted, and hoping that if we can do that and put it straight in the -80 freezer it will stay as it is long enough to send it to the protein people in Germany. So that is why we have barnacles suspended in the oh-so-scientific apparatus that you see here, involving a bucket, a ruler, and sponge. The sponge is padding so that the string doesn't cut into the barnacle's stalk. And so far it has not quite worked, but that is the task for this week.

So the second part of looking at the cement of the barnacle is actually looking at the cement, once we have finally managed to get some out of the barnacle. And this part of the project will involve going to Bremen in Germany to learn protein analysis. Once we have the cement we want to find out what it is made of, what different proteins are involved and how they are arranged together. You see the overall idea behind all this work is that if we can understand this adhesion mechanism we might be able to use it, to synthesise our own and use it as a surgical or dental adhesive.

And so you see despite working on tiny little barnacles this work has the potential to be very important, which is how my supervisor managed to get two very big, prestigous grants to work on it, which is how I managed to get this studentship. And it is brand new research too, there are some people in Japan looking at acorn barnacles but we are the only people looking at stalked barncales. So if it all works out, myself, my supervisor and the other PhDs working on this will be able to publish lots of big articles and be the experts in the field. And that is the essence of my PhD.

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