Squids In Space--Seriously
    By Danna Staaf | April 27th 2011 08:47 PM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Danna

    Cephalopods have been rocking my world since I was in grade school. I pursued them through a BA in marine biology at the University of California...

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    The last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour will be both manned and squidded.

    The most famous science experiment on board, of course, will be the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will set up shop at the ISS to measure cosmic rays, dusting for the fingerprints of dark matter and antimatter. So that's cool. But is it as cool as baby squid in space?
    “The Squids in Space project is a cohesive effort in which the full range of NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium supported categories work together on an experiment destined to fly on what will be the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour,” said Florida Space Grant Consortium Director Jaydeep Mukherjee. “This team, which is composed of Florida colleges and high school students and led by University of Florida PhD research scientist Jamie Foster, will connect the three tiers of education in an experiment studying the effects of microgravity on squid embryos.”
    Let me just read that phrase again. "Studying the effects of microgravity on squid embryos." Yeah, that's got to be the coolest thing NASA has ever done.

    To be perfectly accurate, though, the project is merely being facilitated by NASA. It's one of several student projects--some from high school and middle school kids!--that have found their home on this mission. (It's especially appropriate, I think, that the Endeavour, the only space shuttle to be named by K-12 schools, is now giving its precious shipboard space to student research projects.)

    So, okay, the obvious question: why exactly would you want to put squids in space? I mean, besides the cool factor, what is there to be gained? I did a little more poking around, and, bless the internet, there's a webpage on the project. It turns out that the particular species of squid to be shipped off-planet is our old friend the bobtail squid.
    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 [faculty sponsor] 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.
    A-ha! So the real question is morphogenesis under micro-gravity, or, what is the effect of gravity on how an organism makes its shape? And the squid/bacteria symbiosis happens to be a good model system to answer this question.

    If you're having a hard time making that connection, it's because a critical piece of information was omitted from the otherwise excellent summary above. That is, when a newly born squid takes in the bacteria that it needs to produce light, those bacteria induce an serious physical restructuring of the squid's body so that it can host them appropriately. The baby squid actually changes shape as a result of taking in bacteria.

    Which is a pretty wild thing to study all by itself, on Earth, but when you decide to study it in space . . . whoa.

    Jamie Foster, apparently the inspiration behind the Squids in Space project, has an extremely thorough science website. There I found this very clear, if rather bland, description of the project:
    In this research project we examine the effects of microgravity on the normal developmental interactions between an animal host and a bacterial symbiont. To examine the effects of the space environment on animal-microbe symbioses we use the model system between the squid Euprymna scolopes and the luminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri. . . . a small pilot experiment will be flown on the STS-134 shuttle mission to examine the symbiosis under natural microgravity conditions. Our objectives for this project are as follows: to monitor the normal developmental timeline of symbiosis and examine the host immune response under microgravity conditions.
    Hey, hey! Wake up! Did you catch that?



    ZOMG!!!! :)

    I can't say for sure but this may be the first instance of a feature article on Science 2.0 having ZOMG in the text.    Old media is totally pwned now!
    Danna Staaf
    What an honor!
    They aren't "sending squid into space". Squid were busy for 10 million years breeding and educating rocketmakers to get into space (interestingly, the rocketmakers can be reused as can-openers for cats, and are even aware of that and write papers wherein the call themselves "spandrels").
    The squid, of course, will take over after launch and fly to Cruithne.

    Danna Staaf
    You know, I started thinking at the end of the article, "Gee, maybe there's some ulterior motive here" but then my primitive monkey brain wouldn't let me get any further with that thought. You're right, you are so right!

    In fact, I think it would be fair to go back several hundred million years and identify the early shelled cephalopods as the true originators of this plan, which their squishy descendants have finally seen come to fruition.
    Fer cephalopods (if not exactly squids) in space, here are two clips from Galaxy Quest:

    This one, from 8.00 minutes;

    And this one, the Love Scene, from 6.06 minutes exactly.  Hank has kindly shown me how to embed YouTubes under the new system, so you’ll find it just under this comment.

    These are .wmv, and don’t seem to come with an embed code, unlike most YouTubes.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    You have to click Share at YouTube and then Embed, it isn't on the main toolbar like it used to be.

    Danna Staaf
    GalaxyQuest is basically awesome.
    Was wondering abou squid brain size in relation to body size, octopussies too. Is a larger brain size supposed to be sign of greater intelligence? Can they give the squids an i.q. test in space?

    Danna Staaf
    Hmm, a curious query! Many people do think that larger brain size is "supposed" to be a sign of greater intelligence, but science says the connection is fuzzy. A big part of the problem is that there isn't really a consistent definition for "intelligence"--everyone thinks they know what it is and no one really does. And then there's the problem of what exactly is a "brain," which you'd think would be easier, but isn't really. Squid and octopuses do have a central nervous system, but it isn't one big lump like ours is, it's several lumps.

    Plus they have an excellent peripheral nervous system in the mantle and arms that does an incredible about of information gathering and processing on its own. Is that part of the creature's intelligence?

    So, we have a long way to go in regular gravity, I think, before we start worrying about whether microgravity will make squids smarter . . .
    Yeah, you had me at squid in space

    that there is some science merit is a nice bonus.

    Danna Staaf
    Hehe, yep. Although, in all fairness, it's worth pointing at PZ Myers' take on the whole thing. As usual, it's rather curmudgeonly, but perhaps rightly so.
    Maybe PZ knows the stars aren't right yet for the tentacular overlords. The squids seem to have noticed that too, therefore the broken fuel heater on friday and blown fuses yesterday.

    I don't know why all the fuss about squid in the Shuttle, this is obviously the sequel to "Snakes on a Plane"!

    Danna Staaf
    OH MAN. Who do I talk to in order to write the script for that?
    Ask somebody who is nice, I want a Happy End this time. I didn't watch "Snakes on a plane" because the evil mammals have won. With the movie industry as we know it, we'll get that again since "squids and octopi are just blobs of jello attached to eight snakes" (J. Coyne,

    so, do snakes have tails or are snakes just tails with heads attached?

    aha, thank you - so basically, the part after the end of the digestive system is where the tail starts.

    it's tricky when the whole animal just looks like a belt.

    Looking at HOX, snakes are thoraxes (

    Hi Danna,

    The name of the space shuttle is Endeavour, with an '-our' -- named after the British research vessel HMS Endeavour.

    Danna Staaf
    HAH! Thank you! I am A) embarrassed that I managed to read an entire piece on the naming of the shuttle and still let my mental spell-checker go on American autopilot, and B) astonished that it took weeks for someone to correct me.
    Happens to us all! Editing is a big part of my job, but sometimes things like this sneak through.

    Nice articles, by the way.