Many visitors to Acadia National Park are familiar with the MDI Biological Laboratory, but few are aware that its origins go back to the creation of the park. George Dorr, one of the park’s founders, envisioned Mount Desert Island as a summer home for scientists to work “on a fresh field of life, bird or plant or animal.”
As a man of prodigious energies, he made good on his vision. In 1916, he was instrumental in the purchase of the Emery farmstead in Salisbury Cove for the site of a research laboratory. He later convinced the leadership of the South Harpswell Biological Laboratory to relocate to Mount Desert Island. As described by Dorr, the mission of the new laboratory, now called the MDI Biological Laboratory, was to advance science by studying the “earliest forms of life.”
As we celebrate Acadia’s centennial, it’s worth looking at where Dorr’s vision stands today. For many years, the MDI Biological Laboratory remained a summer facility. Despite its seasonal nature, however, much important research was done here. Scientists studied evolutionarily ancient animal models, such as sand dollars, skates, dogfish sharks and sea urchins, to gain insights into human physiology.
But by the turn of the 21st century, maintaining a seasonal research facility had become increasingly difficult. With the help of federal funding, state support and private donations, the laboratory was transformed into a year-round research institution for the study of aging and regenerative biology. Today, our scientists still are studying the diversity of life but in a much different way. Instead of focusing on marine animals, they use animal models such as freshwater zebrafish, salamanders, fruit flies and nematode worms that share many of their genes with humans. Because of their power as experimental models, these animals allow scientists to define the molecular mechanisms of aging and tissue regeneration more rapidly and at less cost than mammalian models such as mice.
Today, the MDI Biological Laboratory is one of only two research institutions in the world focused on studying regeneration and aging from a comparative and evolutionary perspective — an approach that can be traced back to Dorr. By studying the regenerative capabilities of diverse animals, we are making important discoveries about age-related diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — even the process of aging itself. Zebrafish regenerate new heart tissue after injury. Salamanders regenerate lost limbs. Sea urchins live to be 200 years old, with no signs of decline.
Human beings possess the same genes required for tissue regeneration and long life found in these animals. By studying them, we are beginning to gain insight into human disease — to understand why organs such as the heart cannot repair themselves or why, as we age, the incidence of debilitating diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s increases so rapidly, and we are developing new therapies that will enhance our abilities to regenerate damaged tissues and prolong healthy lifespan.
The close relationship between science and the national park movement is special to Acadia. Outside Maine, scientific endeavor in the late 19th century had little to do with national parks. But the connection between science and Acadia has endured. Earlier this summer, for instance, we hosted a course for early career scientists in which leading scientists in aging biology shared knowledge and taught techniques to study aging in diverse animal models. Participants heard lectures about the rougheye rockfish, which lives to be more than 200 years old; a freshwater polyp that lives for 1,400 years; and 400-year-old clams that have been living off the coast of Maine since the time of William Shakespeare.
Dorr’s vision also is expanding beyond Acadia. Through the National Institutes of Health-supported Maine INBRE program, which we lead, more than 2,100 Maine students have received scientific and technical training with the goal of creating a thriving biomedical research and development sector in Maine. That effort is being furthered by the construction of a new campus training facility, which is being funded through state bond funding.
Dorr had no idea the laboratory he envisioned would one day bring science to the brink of the conquest of aging-related diseases, lead to the development of drugs with the potential to repair damaged hearts or grow to become an international center for training in the biomedical sciences. But he would be enormously gratified by the fact that his vision of Acadia as a place for the study of “a fresh field of life” is as vital and robust as it was in 1916.
Kevin Strange is president of MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor.