NEI scientist emeritus Dr. Joram Piatigorsky remembers the moment he became captivated by jellyfish eyes. He was reading a book about invertebrate vision and there it was—an image of a very familiar-looking eye looking back at him from the most ancient multi-organ animal. The eyes of jellyfish became a focus of his more than four-decade long career at NIH.
Although he retired from NEI in 2009, he’s now published a book that may help inspire today’s young scientists. He describes it as a “somewhat autobiographical” novel. The main character, Ricardo Sztein, and Piatigorsky share a fascination with the Caribbean box jellyfish living amid the mangrove swamps in La Parguera, Puerto Rico.
On Earth for 600 million to 700 million years, jellyfish are some three times older than the earliest dinosaurs. And yet the eyes of certain species are complex. This means they can see shapes and colors and they include corneas, lenses for transmitting light, and retinas with photoreceptors cloaked under black pigment. Biologists noted the existence of jellyfish eyes in the mid-19th century. More than 100 years later, Piatigorsky found that much about them remained a mystery. He was hooked.
Many of Piatigorsky’s studies focused on crystallins, which are proteins that contribute to the transparent and refractive qualities of the eye’s lens. He compared crystallins in the eyes of invertebrates and vertebrates in terms of their genetic building blocks. Out of this work grew the concept of “gene sharing,” a term Piatigorsky coined referring to the fact that a single gene can produce a protein that serves unique functions in different tissues of the body. Crystallins, for example, are found in the eye’s structures, but also serve metabolic functions in the lens and other tissues.
For Piatigorsky’s protagonist Sztein, his adventures in jellyfish research are fraught with struggle. Set some 35 years into the future, Sztein uses NASA technology to record from their visual system and is able to see what jellyfish see. His remarkable finding: The jellyfish sense evolution. Sztein writes:
Dr. Joram Piatigorsky, circa 1985, searches for jellyfish in a mangrove swamp in La Parguera, Puerto Rico.
“Tonight with the help of advanced computer technology I entered the jellyfish mind, so to speak, and I discovered that jellyfish use their nerve ring to integrate electronic signals from their eyes to perceive the surroundings, suggesting that the nerve ring is a kind of brain. And, even more remarkable, this ‘brain’ seems to perceive images, albeit somewhat abstract, of species comprising the evolutionary history of any marine organism that the jellyfish eye sees, even a species that evolved after the jellyfish evolved. These images change from one to another in a way that is consistent with the evolutionary pathway of the species that the jellyfish is looking at, suggesting that jellyfish see videos of evolution! How those visual memories are recorded remains an unwritten chapter in this extraordinary story.”
But his research is cut short. Piatigorsky’s story shows how a tattered economy coupled with a new crop of deadly diseases can be the perfect storm that threatens to extinguish basic science altogether. The fact that Sztein’s basic research isn’t relevant to human disease runs afoul of society’s expectations.
“As a scientist, my research has never been directed to curing disease. Instead it has been directed by my interest to learn about the natural world,” said Piatigorsky. Yet over the course of his career, he has witnessed colleagues feel pressure to abandon basic science and pursue disease-oriented research. He considers his book a warning of what could happen if funding is limited to supporting medical research only. “Of course, there’s nothing wrong with working on disease-based research,” he said. “But it is limiting. Basic science is the best way to push beyond the science that we know today.”
Although he rallies behind basic science, Piatigorsky said that he strove to write a novel that steered clear of “good guy” versus “bad guy” dynamics. “There have been a lot of books written featuring the bad, suppressive government. What hadn’t been written before was a book about how a really good, well-intentioned government could turn out to be suppressive,” he said. “The government [in the novel] is one that simply wants taxpayer money to be spent to help people with medical problems while under unprecedented pressure to control expenditures.”
Although the novel is written from the point of view of the protagonist Sztein, Piatigorsky said he tried to present both sides of this hypothetical. “I believe that an author’s role is to expose problems rather than to preach their solution. I presume that some people who read my book will be for Sztein’s cause and others for the government. That’s why this issue is so complex and important.”