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Thompson Explores Squid Muscle Function with NSF Grant
Joe Thompson, assistant professor of biology
Even after working with squid for 16 years, Joe Thompson still gets a bit jumpy when he feels eight sucker-lined arms latch on to his hand. The assistant professor of biology at Franklin & Marshall College has a high tolerance for pain, but prying the soft-bodied sea creatures off his flesh is never a walk in the park.
Squid research also requires dodging other obstacles, including the occasional jet of salt water—or ink—to the face.
"One of the most challenging parts of our research is bringing expensive, sophisticated electronics within range of squid who are more than happy to spray salt water on your laptops," Thompson says.
Thompson and his team of students, known as "The Squid Squad," promise to have more adventures with the marine cephalopods courtesy of a $182,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The professor is collaborating with William Kier, professor of biology at the University of North Carolina, on a project exploring the non-uniform distribution of muscle-fiber strain in squid-mantle muscle.
The project originated several years ago, when Thompson developed a mathematical model to predict the function of squid muscles. The model predicts that muscles in hollow, cylindrical organs such as squid mantle contract at different rates, an idea that runs contrary to the way scientists understand how muscles work, Thompson says. Such non-uniformities pose serious problems for the muscles, connective tissues and neural-control systems in squid.
"Our model predicts that being cylindrical applies a cost to the squid," Thompson says. "That cost is lowered mechanical efficiency for movement and locomotion. We think the model is broadly applicable."
Thompson and his students conduct research at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, the marine laboratory of the University of Maine. They catch squid off the docks, using a multimillion candlepower spotlight to see below the surface of the water at night.
In the lab, Thompson and his students use ultrasonic transmitters to measure changes in length of the squid muscles. They suture the transmitters to different locations on the squid, gaining an instantaneous measure of the length of muscle cells, and data on how much and how quickly they shorten.
Thompson says the research provides opportunities for students to learn experimental techniques in kinematics, muscle physiology and microscopy while participating in the collaborative nature of science.
"I've been very fortunate with the students I've had working with me," he says. "While not all of them have their names on papers, all contributed key parts. These students are willing to come to Maine over the summer, willing to work at night, and do it all really well. We work hard to make sure it's a research environment with appropriate equipment, but the experiments don't get done without students who have work ethics that allow high-quality research."