She studies the comb jellies' rudimentary brains in much the same way.
"I work on these things that are kind of like jellyfish, but they're not jellyfish at all. And I take out their brain. And then it grows back. And then I try to figure out how it grows back," is Sanford's simplified explanation.
She's looking for master regulators, key molecules that control that regrowth. If she can find some, a logical next step would be to investigate whether people harbor anything similar that might point to pathways important in spinal cord or brain injuries.
A clue, Moroz says, probably will be found in the differences between comb jelly species. "Why does one regenerate, and another not? That is the million-dollar question."
Evolution shows "there is more than one design for how to make a cell, how to make a brain," he adds.
The floating lab was born of frustration, Kohn says as she keeps close watch on the sequencing.
While there's been an earlier attempt at less complex DNA fingerprinting at sea, traditionally marine scientists collect animals, freeze samples and ship them home for genetic research.
But often, Moroz had shipments lost in transit or held up at U.S. Customs, thawed and ruined. Plus, some creatures' genetic material begins breaking down almost immediately after they're caught.
"When I think of all the animals we've lost through years and years," Kohn says, shaking her head. To completely map the genome of a single comb jelly species, "it took us a year to get DNA that wasn't degraded."
Researchers usually collect extra animals as insurance. But the supercomputer's rapid feedback means with Moroz's new project, "there's a lot more preservation," says University of Washington biology professor Billie Swalla, who is watching it with interest. "If you have unused animals, you can return them."
The pieces for the floating lab fell into place last fall when Moroz met a University of Florida alumnus willing to lend his boat for the trial runs. Then, the Copasetic's captain noted that the main deck could fit a shipping container like freighters use to transport goods.
The nonprofit Florida Biodiversity Institute found one for sale, welded in windows and installed lab fixtures, and the team was off.
If oceanography and brains seem strange bedfellows, consider: Much of what scientists know about how human neurons and synapses, their connections, form memories came from years of studies using large sea slugs, called Aplysia, such as the one graduate student Emily Dabe gently cups in her hand.