Michele “Nish” NishiguchiOccupation: Professor, New Mexico State University
Home base: Las Cruces, N.M.
AW: As a professor of biology, you travel all over the world collecting squid to study in your lab in Las Cruces, N.M. What is it about the squid that you’re studying?
Michele Nishiguchi: Bobtail or dumpling squids, as they are commonly known, make great models to study the interactions between beneficial bacteria and animal hosts. These squids harbor bioluminescent bacteria in particular organs in their body cavity. They are not born with these bacteria but obtain them from the surrounding environment. They use these bacteria in a behavior termed “counterillumination.” When squids come out at night to feed, the down-welling moonlight will cast a shadow beneath them so that predators or prey can see them. The squids use the light from the bacteria to match down-welling moonlight, literally disappearing and hiding their silhouette. It’s like the stealth squid device. I’m interested in why only certain bacteria colonize these squids and how the environment influences the evolution between the two different organisms.
Getting to Know NISHI never leave home without: MacBook Air laptop, Mizuno running shoes (just ran my first 50k) and my iPod
Check or carry on? Check. I hate carrying luggage.
Last thing I bought: Lululemon running shorts. They are the best.
Favorite hotel: Well, it’s now The Grand Del Mar — we were absolutely spoiled there.
Favorite pastime: Listening to old music from the ’70s and ’80s — it brings back a lot of memories.
Favorite candy (besides Jer’s Chocolates): Vosges bacon toffee
I just returned from: Big Bend, Texas — remote, but gorgeous
Beach or mountains? I’m a marine biologist — what do you think?
AW: Why is that so important?
MN: As humans, we have a lot of bacteria (more than 2,000 resident bacterial species) that are in micro niches all over our bodies. These bacteria benefit from living on/in us, while we benefit from their presence as well. For example, these good bacteria help prevent nonnative pathogenic bacteria from invading our systems. So, if we can better understand this type of mutual relationship in a simpler model system, such as the squid-luminescent bacteria symbiosis, we can look at the relationship from genes to ecology to determine how micro-organisms can be used to help us maintain a healthy micro biome.
AW: Wow. That’s amazing! How did you become so interested in this field?
MN: I’ve always been interested in associations and relationships between organisms (symbiosis, living together), and working with the baddest, coolest marine invertebrate (squid) makes it even more exciting. Besides, bacteria rule the Earth, and they are also the coolest organisms to work on. My other role model? Jacques Cousteau. How could you not love marine stuff when his show was on every Friday night?
AW: What sort of preparation do you have to take to fly with your squid?
MN: It’s kind of a long process. For example, if we are heading back from Sydney, there is all the front prep work (export permits, collection permits, quarantine permits, etc.). We go out and fish and keep them alive in marine tanks at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science until we are ready to ship. Then, I put them in plastic bags (just like the ones you get when you buy fish at the pet store). We usually put in one squid per bag — they are small, only about 4 to 6 centimeters in body size — and we place the bags in large shipping containers (ice chests, or as they say in Australia, eskis).
Typically, we ship about 30 to 60 at a time, depending on how often we go down to collect. That whole process starts at about 2:30 a.m., and by 6:30 a.m., we are finished and we drive them over to an air-cargo shipper. The squids go out on the first Qantas manifest to LAX, and then I go out on the second one. By the time they arrive and are moved from the airplane to the air-cargo office in L.A., I am coming off the second manifest and am able to zip over to the air-cargo office, meet with the U.S. Fish and [Wildlife] officer, clear customs, pick up the animals and then put them back on another flight with American Airlines Air Cargo from L.A. to El Paso, Texas. They arrive, and we have a one-hour drive from El Paso to Las Cruces. By the time I get back here, it’s been about 36 hours of travel door to door or, should I say, aquarium to aquarium.