Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sea Squirts: Invasive but important

By Evelyn Siler, Save The Bay intern

Of the thousands of marine animals in Narragansett Bay and nearby coastal waters, perhaps the most overlooked is the sea squirt. Sea squirts, or ascidians, are marine invertebrate filter feeders. They attach to rocks, marinas, and even other organisms during early development and remain there for the duration of their lives. They may even be under your local dock!

Many members of the ascidiacea commonly found in Narragansett Bay are actually invasive species and are not native to Rhode Island. They have similar feeding habits to local blue mussels and inhabit similar environments, which causes them to compete with the blue mussels for space and food sources. Sea squirts and mussels both use pumping mechanisms to take the algae out of the water, digest it, and squirt out waste.

Although many sea squirts are invasive, they are actually very useful to scientists across Rhode Island who collect them for genetics research, cell culture, and other experiments. In fact, on the evolutionary tree, the sea squirt diverged from vertebrates more recently than any other invertebrate! They are an excellent choice for biologists interested in the genomes of a variety of organisms due to the fact that sea squirts share many similar genes with vertebrates, including humans. Studying the genes of these model organisms can increase our understanding of various pathways and mechanisms as they apply to humans and eventually lead to advancements in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

So, even though the simple sea squirt may be invasive to Narragansett Bay, it serves a valuable purpose to scientists across Rhode Island and indirectly, to all who benefit from advances made as a result of sea squirt research!

Evelyn Siler is a Cell and Molecular Biology Major at the University of Rhode Island and interns with Save The Bay at the South Coast Center in Westerly.