A Mystery Unscrambled

May 7, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

A Mystery Unscrambled

Small, spherical and covered with spines, sea urchins bear no resemblance to people. But the eggs they lay are comparable in size to human eggs, making them extremely useful in the study of how cells divide and reproduce. That similarity is at the heart of an ambitious research project by three BMCC students.

“It would be great to be able to keep a supply of sea urchin eggs on hand, but they’re extremely fragile,” explains science major Alejandro Gonzalez. “Under normal conditions, they disintegrate within 24-to-36 hours, and acquiring fresh eggs for experiments is costly and time-consuming.”

So Gonzalez and fellow science majors Yun Mariana and Anum Azhar looked into methods of keeping the sea urchin eggs alive beyond their usual lifespan. This spring they were invited to present their findings in a Minority Poster Session at the annual meeting of the American Society of Cell Biologists (ASCB). Student research teams from dozens of colleges, including many four-year institutions, took part in the event.

Want fries with that?
The reason sea urchin eggs die so quickly is that they are snack food for microorganisms known as marine protists. “We saw that as the number of protists increased, the number of intact eggs decreased,” says Gonzalez. “So we needed to find a way to control their behavior and prevent them from consuming the eggs.”

The solution lay in introducing the artificially-fabricated sacs known as liposomes into the eggs.  The liposomes seemed to kill off the protists, extending the lifespan of the eggs to as long as six days.

The students are working under the supervision of BMCC science professors Lalitha Jayant and Christine Priano. According to Jayant, “their work is funded in part by a grant from the ASCB, which is committed to engaging minorities in cell research.”

Gonzalez began his studies at BMCC a few years ago, left briefly, and subsequently returned. “I have always had more of a passion for science than for any other academic discipline,” he says. “I had taken Prof. Jayant’s Biology 1 and 2 courses when I first attended BMCC, and when I came back, I was excited to hear that she was doing a research project with sea urchins. I really wanted to get on board.”

Always on tap
For Yun Mariana, the project has been an invaluable experience as she prepares for a career in pharmacology. “It has always been my goal to help people some day by developing new medicines—and new cures—for disease,” she says.

But the project is paying tangible dividends right now. “When it comes time to do an experiment on cell division,” says Gonzalez, “we’ll have the sea urchin eggs right here—fresh from the fridge.”