UF neuroscientists, collaborators sequence American lobster genome

By Michelle Jaffee

Neuroscientists at the University of Florida and a team of international collaborators have produced the first full sequenced genome of the American lobster, a creature that’s estimated to have a natural lifespan of 50 or even 100 years and whose nervous system is a valuable model for human neural networks that control the sense of smell and rhythmic motor patterns such as breathing and locomotion.

The findings, published June 23 in the journal Science Advances, provide important insights into the biology of aging, immunity, and the sense of smell, said Leonid L. Moroz, Ph.D., a UF distinguished professor of neuroscience, genetics, biology and chemistry, who led the neuroscience arm of the project with his lab members Andrea Kohn, Ph.D., a research scientist, and bioinformatics engineer Peter L. Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Leonid L. Moroz

“These exciting findings reveal an unprecedented understanding into the lobster’s protective ability to detect not only distant food sources but possibly to smell pathogens or dangerous microorganisms that could hurt the animal by causing disease. This understanding opens the door to potentially design rapid sensors to detect viruses and bacteria,” said Moroz, whose lab is based at UF’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine.

“We’ve identified an actual mechanistic link between the nervous system and the immune system, and this could be invaluable given the ongoing pandemic and urgent need for timely detection of immune interactions in complex organisms,” he said.

The interdisciplinary project, led by researchers at the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute in Massachusetts with collaborators at UF, Johns Hopkins University, Dalhousie University, the University of Prince Edward Island, Tufts University and Harvard University, examined one of the largest marine invertebrates in its range, a predator that can reach more than 3 feet in length and weigh up to 44 pounds.

“This genome sequence will serve as a valuable resource for fisheries, ecology and biomedical research, especially in understanding complex traits including susceptibility to disease and ability to cope with environmental change,” said Andrea Bodnar, Ph.D., the Donald G. Comb Science Director at the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute. “This is especially important during a time of rapidly changing environmental conditions in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.”

Among the paper’s key findings:

  • The American lobster (Homarus americanus) has a robust immune system as well as cellular and even genomic defense mechanisms that the research team linked with its longevity and ecological success.
  • Cancer-like diseases have rarely been reported in the American lobster, indicating a high level of maintaining genome stability and cell survival.
  • The Moroz Lab discovered unique chimeric neuroimmune receptors, or receptors in the lobster’s olfactory organs, or smell machinery. This discovery suggests a mechanistic link between the nervous system and immune system within the same receptor protein for the first time, Moroz said.

“The lobster is a true gift of nature from the sea, opening unprecedented opportunities for synthetic biology of the future beyond the traditional concepts of neural and immune systems,” Moroz added.

Read the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute’s news release.