In an article for the December 13, 2002 issue of the journal Science, an international consortium of researchers reports on the draft sequencing, assembly, and analysis of the genome of C. intestinalis. The consortium is led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI); the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of California, Berkeley; the Department of Zoology at Kyoto University, Japan; and Japan's National Institute of Genetics in Mishima. It includes nearly two dozen other research institutions.
By comparing Ciona's genome with those of the human and other animals, the researchers were able to glean new insights into the evolutionary origins of the human brain, spine, heart, eye, thyroid gland, and nervous and immune systems, as well as a better understanding of chordate and vertebrate development in general.
"We have known for years that despite their humble appearance, sea squirts, or ascidians, have a number of physical characteristics that are similar to vertebrates," said JGI Director Eddy Rubin. "Through a comparison of their genomes, we can now understand how these relationships are reflected at the molecular level, and how these similar systems and gene sets evolved in different ways over 500 million years from a common ancestor."
The sea squirt is a urochordate, or "tunicate," found in shallow ocean waters around the world. The barrel-shaped adult squirt attaches to rocks, piers, boats and the sea bottom, and feeds by siphoning seawater through its body and using a basket-like internal filter to capture plankton and oxygen.