UChicago-MBL collaborations combine research strengths in new ways

The cunning camouflage tactics of the cuttlefish, a relative of the squid, are being decoded using cutting-edge machine learning techniques at the University of Chicago as part of the affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

One of the first results of the affiliation was a series of competitive grant programs designed to create new opportunities for innovative, interdisciplinary research and biological discovery.

One of these programs kicked off in the fall of 2014 with seed grants for five UChicago-led projects, including the cuttlefish research led by Stephanie E. Palmer, assistant professor of organismal biology and anatomy, and Roger T. Hanlon, a senior scientist at MBL. The projects pair UChicago expertise in cutting-edge computational tools and other advanced research techniques with MBL-affiliated scientists’ expertise in marine biology and their unique access to state-of-the-art imaging technology. The grant program is currently accepting a new round of joint exploratory research proposals due Feb. 20.

The grants are designed to provide rapid funding for early-stage collaborative projects between the two institutions. Many of the researcher collaborations were built off connections made during joint UChicago-MBL workshops. The University also is offering funding for faculty visits to MBL and graduate student training and research.

As part of the cuttlefish project, Palmer is using machine learning to quantify the camouflage patterns cuttlefish use to evade predators. Cuttlefish can change their color to match the uniform or mottled coloring of their environment, or they can display a disruptive pattern that confuses a predator. The Palmer lab will use the images and cuttlefish expertise of the Hanlon lab to quantify and identify pattern clusters. These data will be linked back to data on human observations to test current theories about cuttlefish camouflage.

“We feel that taking a quantitative approach to determining the scope of the body coloration repertoire in this species is essential for further understanding the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of animal camouflage,” the investigators said in their proposal.

The data collected through the collaboration may one day facilitate investigations of how the cuttlefish nervous system chooses and deploys a camouflage pattern and how specific patterns thwart the visual capacity of predators.

Other projects funded as part of this round of grants are likely to be the start of long-term collaborations, and will provide data and tools that will elevate the research community broadly. For example, one project is examining whether mammals possess the genes and molecular pathways that allow jellyfish to heal without scarring and to regenerate body parts. In the long term, this partnership may be able to tease out why mammals are unable to heal this way.

Another project funded through the partnership aims to improve the resolution of an innovative microscopy system at the MBL. The Dual Inverted Selective Plane Illumination Microscopy is a new generation of computational microscopy that collects multiple sets of data to create high spatial resolution images while preventing damage to the specimen. Patrick La Riviere, an associate professor of radiology at UChicago, will leverage the University’s Research Computing Center and work with MBL Whitman scientists Hari Shroff, investigator at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and Daniel Colón-Ramos, associate professor of cell biology at Yale School of Medicine, to optimize the algorithms used by this advanced microscopy tool in order to not only produce higher-quality images, but also to make microscopy technology better suited to answer fundamental questions about the development of life.

More information about MBL funding opportunities is available online at http://www.uchicago.edu/mbl/calls_for_proposals/