PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University has played a key role in an international, multi-institutional collaboration to sequence the sea urchin genome. Sea urchins, close relatives of vertebrates, have been studied extensively for more than 150 years as a model system of embryonic development. Now, a summary of the sea urchin genome, published Nov. 10 in the journal Science, should make these creatures even more useful for future research into various aspects of development, immunity, nerve cell communication and evolutionary relationships with humans and other vertebrates.
"Having the complete sequence of the sea urchin genome will make a powerful model system stronger still. Given the full catalogue of genes, methods for manipulating their expression and the many other experimental virtues of sea urchins, the possibilities are almost limitless now in terms of what we can do to study mechanisms of embryonic development using this system," said Charles Ettensohn, biological sciences professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the principal investigators who helped establish the project. He also led the team that cataloged the genes responsible for building the sea urchin's embryonic skeleton.
The Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Consortium sequenced and analyzed the genetic code of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, the California purple sea urchin, which is roughly one-fourth the size of the human genome. Because sea urchins are the closest known relatives of the chordates (the phylum that includes humans), analyzing the sea urchin genome is significant as scientists can now compare the genomes of organisms from divergent evolutionary branches of the tree of life. By comparing sea urchin genes to human genes, scientists can better understand -- at the level of the genetic sequence -- what makes humans (and other chordates) unique. According to Ettensohn, scientists can also determine how much of the human and sea urchin "genetic toolkit" was already presen
Contact: Lauren Ward
Carnegie Mellon University