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First Day in the Life of Nine Amazing Creatures

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Credit: Tessa Montague, Harvard University, and Zuzka Vavrušová, University of California, San Francisco

Each summer for the last 125 years, students from around the country have traveled to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, MA, for an intensive course in embryology. While visiting this peaceful and scenic village on Cape Cod, they’re exposed to a dizzying array of organisms and state-of-the-art techniques to study their development.

This nine-screen composite video captures the first 24 hours of life for nine different animal species studied during the Woods Hole course. The species are (from left to right, starting at the top row):

  • Zebrafish (Danio rerio), a popular model organism for studying development
  • Sea urchin (Lytechinus variegatus), a spiky marine relative of the starfish
  • Black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans), I think it’s safe to say this one needs no explanation!
  • Tardigrade (Hypsibius dujardini), an eight-legged micro-animal that lives in water, mosses, and lichens
  • Sea squirt (Ciona intestinalis), an immobile, filter-feeding organism that lives on the ocean floor
  • Comb jelly (Ctenophore, Mnemiopsis leidyi), an ancient, water-dwelling invertebrate that looks like a tiny, transparent jellyfish
  • Parchment tube worm (Chaetopterus variopedatus), a spiny marine worm
  • Roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans), a soil-dwelling worm, the first multicellular organism to have its genome sequenced, and a popular model for studying development
  • Slipper snail (Crepidula fornicate), a medium-sized sea snail

This video—a winner in the 2017 FASEB Bioart competition—was shot and assembled by Tessa Montague, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, with the help of Zuzka Vavrušová, University of California, San Francisco, both students in last summer’s embryology course. They were struck by the developmental similarities and differences among the organisms, as well as just how tricky it can be to capture even the crudest time-lapse movie of a developing embryo. An embryo has to be handled in just the right way to make cell divisions visible and to ensure it remains healthy and growing.

During the MBL Embryology Course, Montague found the developmental idiosyncrasies among the organisms especially captivating. The zebrafish, which is transparent and relies on external fertilization, has formed most of its tissues and begins to take on its characteristic tadpole-like shape within 24 hours. The embryonic tardigrade uses its mother’s old cuticle for protection, while the comb jelly’s cell divisions appear almost as if an elastic band were splitting each cell in two.

Montague recently defended her doctoral dissertation and will be off this fall to Columbia University, New York, where she’ll continue her research as a postdoctoral student. Although it didn’t make the video, she’s looking forward to studying a remarkable creature she fell in love with during that MBL course, a cephalopod known as a cuttlefish. It’s a color-changing master of underwater disguise. Maybe one day Montague will return to Woods Hole to pass on to future developmental biologists some of the amazing things that she’ll learn about the cuttlefish, which has been used to study vision, the brain, and, of course, development.


Tessa Montague (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole, MA)

BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

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