Science, I can’t leave home without it

by Janice Nigro

We travel to escape. To escape our work, to escape our lives, and maybe to escape who we are. I would be the first to admit to trying things on holidays that I would never attempt back home. There is ample opportunity; real gelato can only be eaten in Italy. But also no one is there to judge you. Any mistakes you make, barring some kind of felony operation, are gone the instant you leave for home.

But you cannot necessarily escape you. I am a scientist. What do I do for escape? I travel to another virtual laboratory-underwater.

I love scuba diving. I can escape a lot of my own reality when I am scuba diving, but I cannot escape being a scientist. If anything, being underwater stimulates more questions about where we all came from and how life works, than being on land in a lab reading articles from the Internet.

You observe volcanic gas bubbles percolating from the bottom of the sea. You can see the yellow particles of sulfur precipitating out of the gases and dusting the warm black sand below. You feel like a delicate experiment is still in progress.

Technical training and real science are involved. You learn about gases and pressure, and when too much oxygen can actually be toxic.

I take along a sort of lab notebook (my dive log) and write down the technical aspects of a dive. More important though is what might happen on a dive, what I might find, and where. All such facts are considered to deserve a sentence or phrase in my dive log. Critters are just one aspect. But something like a strong current or a prank by a dive guide are also worthy notations.

I even take a sort of data recorder with me, my camera. I back up the data, several times. I have posted some of my data (the photographs) on Instagram that were immediately picked up by research groups studying the habits of particular forms of sea life. Like sea horses. You can contribute images to a research project showing data of where these animals exist around the world. Or projects to monitor manta rays. Their spots are as unique as our fingerprints so that investigating groups can identify individual rays as they move about or perhaps disappear.

All divers have potential as “i” Marine Biologists if we take photographs.

For me, being underwater goes deeper. To my soul perhaps. I still want to know why life is as it is, but at the molecular level. It’s not my field of study (not yet), but there are scientists who question the molecular basis of marine life and take action. Some of their questions about marine life have won them the Nobel Prize.

Even in low visibility animals might shine back at us, literally. Scientists looked into this property in marine life and discovered green fluorescent protein. Now we use actual genes from bioluminescent animals in our experiments. Every day. The original protein was cloned from jelly fish, but we have cloned more fluorescent proteins encoded in the genomes of other marine animals.

Cephalopods, at least the more modern versions, were recently found to all use a form of non-permanent genome modification, RNA editing. They effectively modify their genes “on the go,” meaning their genes are altered most likely in response to subtle changes in their environments. This ability probably enables them not only to survive but perhaps to mobilize into a broader spectrum of environments. This finding might not directly tell us much about ourselves per se, but no doubt it impresses upon you that evolution is like the Wild West. Nature has surely used a giant toolbox of tricks to develop intelligent forms of life.

The symbiotic relationship between squid and a resident bioluminescent bacteria (Vibrio fisheri) has been the basis for a whole new area of research in humans. Squid use these bacteria in a tactic called counterillumination. It’s a type of camouflage where the bacteria light up a squid mimicking the moonlight so that a predator can’t distinguish the animal from the light. The relationship is established through a sophisticated molecular interaction ensuring that only a single type of bacteria sets up residence in the squid. The luminescence subsequently emitted by the bacteria is strictly associated with the daily patterns of shifting environmental light.

Like some kind of Rube-Goldberg apparatus, squid respond to the bioluminescence produced by the bacteria. This series of events potentially contributes to the establishment of a cycle of activity within its host appropriate for night and day.

This interaction between squid and V. fisheri blew the door open in studies investigating the basis of our own daily oscillations in physiology. Resident bacteria may synchronize some of our physiological activities with the time of the day, especially those pertaining to the gut. A disruption in our normal daily cycle, like travel, can upset the natural balance in our system. We can perhaps shift the blame to our resident bacteria for problems associated with jet lag (and maybe not the gelato), including weight gain among other uncomfortable issues.

So just asking a question about why squid luminesce at night led us to an understanding about our own problems with travel.

Diving is just another version of science for me…


What do your travel destinations reveal about you?

©Janice Marie Nigro/


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