BAR HARBOR, MAINE -- Nov. 9, 2006 Who would have guessed that the lowly sea urchin, that brain-less, limb-less porcupine of the sea, would be the star of a multi-million dollar, worldwide effort to map out every letter of its genetic code? Or that the information gathered in that effort may eventually lead to new treatments for cancer, infertility, blindness, and diseases like muscular dystrophy and Huntington's Disease?
James Coffman, Ph.D., of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor was one of the scientists who helped decode the 814 million pairs of nucleotide bases in the sea urchin's chromosomes. The Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas led the project and announced the completion of the three-year project today. Having the complete genome, Coffman says, "makes doing research on urchins so much easier."
Why would anyone want to do biomedical research on sea urchins? According to Coffman, sea urchins are remarkably similar to humans in many ways, sharing most of the same gene families, and yet differ in a few critical areas besides the obvious physical ones. For one thing, sea urchins have a "extraordinarily complex innate immune system" which is not based on antibodies, like that of jawed vertebrates, but is effective enough to give sea urchins a surprisingly long life span of up to a hundred years or more.
Innate immunity refers to a set of proteins that are "hard wired" to detect unique aspects of bacteria and signal to an organism's cells that there is an intruder. The rich repertoire of such proteins in sea urchins could end up providing new tools for use against infectious diseases.
Sea urchins are also extremely good at dealing with potential chemical threats in their environment through a "defensome" a group of genes which can sense and then transform and eliminate threats from potentially toxic chemicals. Without this sophisticate
Contact: Jerilyn Bowers
Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory