Animal technicians Peter Kilian and Brittany Walsh of the Bellono Lab spent the early weeks of 2020 burning the midnight oil to finish a set of octopus behavior experiments. Even before the shutdown, many scientists anticipated disruption to lab schedules. And leaving aquatic animals in tanks full of stagnant water wasn’t an option.
“Unfortunately, it just didn’t make sense to keep all of [the lab organisms],” Walsh says, noting that getting rid of the animals was a sad occasion. “So we did a mad dash to make the best of every single one of them.”
Their efforts paid off with a paper on octopuses’ sense of “touch-taste,” artwork on the cover of Cell, and a co-authorship for Kilian, who collected and analyzed much of the study’s behavioral data. “The silver lining of the shutdown was that because I was at home, I had time to go over all this data,” Kilian says.
The study investigates how “chemotactile” receptors in octopuses’ suction cups influence the animals’ behavior. After identifying which chemicals these receptors respond to, the scientists added large agarose gels that were “flavored” with those chemicals on one side and recorded the octopuses’ responses. Postdoc and first author Lena van Giesen conducted many of the molecular experiments, Kilian and Walsh made the gels, and Kilian recorded the octopus activity, steps that were integral to the overall paper.
They found that the octopuses spent more time swimming near or touching gels with chemicals that tasted like their prey, supporting the idea that octopuses use their sense of “touch-taste” to hunt for food. Kilian says the pattern suggests that chemotactile receptors are important for finding food. “If the octopus weren’t using their receptors or it wasn’t a big part of their hunting, then they wouldn’t care either way,” he says.
Technicians, including animal technicians like Kilian and Walsh, are crucial for most labs but typically do not participate in the creative parts of the scientific process, such as study design and data analysis. But through collaboration and showing initiative, Kilian and Walsh have contributed much to their labs output.
“The goal in establishing our lab was to support researchers’ curiosity to comparatively explore interesting biology across life of all shapes and sizes. This has largely been made possible by having Brittany Walsh and Peter Kilian in the lab,” says MCB faculty Nick Bellono. “Brittany and Peter’s exceptional knowledgebase and creativity in finding, maintaining, and working with the unusual organisms we study has contributed to a dynamic facility which has already housed ~30 species. Their experience and expertise in observing the animals combined with cell biology experiments by students and fellows provides us with unique insight to make strong connections between molecular mechanisms and behavior. Thus, Brittany and Peter are absolutely critical to our work and we are so thankful to have them in the lab. They’re the best.”
Both Walsh and Kilian are longtime animal enthusiasts. Walsh grew up wanting to be a marine biologist, but adults told her there was no money in it. Nevertheless, she took a marine biology class as an undergraduate at Suffolk University and discovered there were career options in taking care of aquatic lab animals. After working a job cleaning private aquariums, she became a lab assistant in the Schier Lab and was recruited to the Bellono Lab in 2018.
Kilian has always been fascinated by animals but didn’t want to be pigeonholed into only working with one type. While studying at Northeastern University, he interned as a beekeeper and later worked with penguins at the New England Aquarium. After that, he took a job working with cephalopods at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, which is where he met Bellono.
The Bellono Lab’s research on unique sensory organs requires a custom-built system for housing dozens of different animals. Walsh and Kilian both consulted on the design for the unique system of aquarium tanks, filters, and pipes. “It’s not like a terrestrial system where you can just open a door and put in some rats,” Walsh says. “We have to cure the water; we have to establish a nitrogen cycle, and it can take months to do it right.”
Walsh and Kilian’s current duties include closely monitoring water chemistry in the tanks. “Animals sit in the system while the same water recycles over and over again, [and] levels of waste build up in the system,” Kilian explains. Even though beneficial bacteria help by turning ammonia from the animals’ waste into less harmful forms of nitrogen, the system still needs to be refreshed with new ocean water, which is trucked in to campus, every few weeks.
Many of the organisms the Bellono Lab studies are aquatic carnivores with unique dietary requirements. “We have mussels that we feed to the sea stars, shrimp that we feed to the squid, and crabs that we feed to the octopus,” Walsh says. “Those aren’t research animals, but they’re still animals that we have to care for.”
When Harvard’s labs closed in March, the Bellono Lab had to scale down everything and limit their organisms to low-maintenance species, such as the small invertebrates that feed the larger organisms and colonies of beneficial bacteria that keep the nutrient cycles in the tanks healthy.
Kilian was one of a few dozen MCB personnel who were permitted brief visits to the labs during the shutdown in order to feed the remaining animals once per week. “It was a little bit spooky being in the building, because the lights in the hallway were turned off to reduce the electricity budget and there was like no one else there,” he says. “[During the commute,] there was no one on the roads… [and] I had a QR code on my phone, in case I was stopped by police for being out past curfew. So it was like this weird, quasi-dystopian thing.” But he adds that caring for animals during emergencies was part of what he signed up for when he became an animal technician.Meanwhile, Walsh spent the shutdown writing protocols and instructions for Bellono students and postdocs, most of whom have little experience with aquatics prior to joining the lab. She describes the process as “coming up with everything that could possibly go wrong.”
Walsh was massively relieved when she was able to return to the lab, which reopened at 25% capacity in mid-May. For a while, her pandemic commute included a 4-mile walk from her husband’s workplace on BU’s Medical Campus to BioLabs, since Walsh didn’t feel comfortable taking the T and wanted the exercise . Back in the lab, Kilian and Walsh began “ramping up” the system so it could house new cephalopods and other oceanic oddities.
By July, they began adding new arrivals, and, today, the Bellono Lab is home to more animals than ever. The current line-up includes octopus, squid, cuttlefish, “solar-powered” slugs that steal chloroplasts from their food, sea robins (fish with leg-like appendages), stomach-extruding sea stars, jellyfish, anemones, and electrosensitive sharks and rays.
Kilian and Walsh are both passionate about their work and hopeful that their science will motivate more people to care about aquatic invertebrates. “My hope is that people can be inspired because they’re animals that have inherent value in being respected and being conserved,” Kilian says.
“They’re not these weird, mystifying aliens,” Walsh adds. “They’re weird, and they’re cool-absolutely! They’re just as weird and cool as every other animal, and that should also be valued.”