By Stephanie M. McPherson
Duygu Özpolat had a problem. She was 8 years old and sewing a dress for one of her dolls. She loved sewing—but she’d already decided to become a scientist. She turned to her mother for advice.
“I…asked her if I can be a tailor and a scientist at the same time when I grow up,” says Özpolat.
Now a Hibbitt Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Özpolat has stuck with science. She studies regeneration in invertebrates and how it could be applied to human wound and disease treatment.
“The segmented worms I study, if you cut them in small pieces they will make new animals—new individuals from all those pieces by making a new head and a new tail,” she says. “But clearly, as humans, we’re not really good at this. Even though we have some regenerative capacity, we’re not going to re-grow an arm.”
Özpolat, who began her Hibbitt Fellowship last July, focuses on why regeneration happens in some animals but not others. She follows the development of certain cells associated with regeneration to figure out the mechanisms involved in regrowth of body parts.
In a new publication of research she did prior to joining MBL, Özpolat traced the embryonic development of germline and mesodermal stem cells in a marine worm. She plans to create a series of experiments at MBL to further explore the relationship between these cells and how they contribute to regeneration. She believes her work will someday have medical applications, and she is also interested in better understanding the evolution of regenerative processes.
“In the field of regeneration, we pretty much agree that the ancestor of all animals could regenerate well,” she says. “It means that the ability was lost in some lineages of animals and retained in some others, or sometimes even maybe evolved independently.”
Özpolat grew up in Turkey, receiving her undergraduate degree from Middle East Technical University before traveling to the United States to get a Ph.D. from Tulane University. There, she studied how chicken embryos can regenerate their elbow joints. She did postdoctoral research at the University of Maryland, College Park and at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris. In 2013, she was a student in MBL’s Embryology course and loved it.
“During the course you get exposed to all these amazing, wonderful creatures and organ systems,” she says. “It’s just fascinating to see what you can find in a single drop of ocean.”
What she saw was too beautiful to keep to herself. Özpolat was inspired to turn the Petri dish world she saw under the microscope into ink drawings that incorporate artistic styles from her own and other cultures. The results are mesmerizing, Mandala-like symmetries that reveal the beauty of the micro on a macro scale. Her artwork has been featured in SciArt Magazine. She is also active on Twitter (@biyolokum), where she shares videos of her work.
“I feel like I’m travelling to these little worlds that other people don’t get to travel to and I like bringing it to other people to see, making it available for everyone to watch these animals develop or regenerate,” she says.
Exploring this microscopic world is still the most satisfying part of Özpolat’s career. “That just never gets old for me. I love watching these animals do their thing and just see it as it happens. Such joy.”
Özpolat hasn’t given up her other childhood ambition completely, though. “I recently had to do a little sewing project for my worm cultures at MBL. I needed curtains for the culture setup and I needed to put Velcro around the curtains to make sure there’s no light going into the system,” she said. “When I told my mom what happened she said, ‘Oh my God, dreams really do come true! You’re a tailor and a scientist now!”
Video caption: Platynereis dumerilii (or marine worm) embryo live-imaged every 12 minutes using confocal scanning microscopy. Like other trochophores, Platynereis develops into a swimming larva, which has been challenging to live-image. This is the first long-term live imaging of a Platynereis embryo (and an annelid trochophore in general) at single cell resolution that allowed Özpolat and team to determine precise cell lineages. The embryo was injected at 4-cell stage into the D quadrant with FUCCI (a live-cell cycle reporter) and membrane-localized GFP. Imaging starts at 8 hours post fertilization. This is the ventral view, posterior is up (but tilted left). The video covers roughly 1,5 days of development. Video from Özpolat, B Duygu, et al. “Cell Lineage and Cell Cycling Analyses of the 4d Micromere Using Live Imaging in the Marine Annelid Platynereis Dumerilii.” ELife, vol. 6, Dec. 2017, doi:10.7554/elife.30463.