Having the sea urchin genome enhances this effort. Ettensohn and others are "knocking out" biomineralization genes to prevent them from making the proteins that comprise the skeleton. Because the embryonic phase of development takes place in only two days, and because the embryo is beautifully clear, researchers can actually watch this amazing embryonic skeleton form. Specifically, they can look at the embryonic skeleton to see how it has been perturbed by certain genetic knockouts. Ultimately, this work could enable researchers to piece together the intricate process by which the sea urchin skeleton is formed.
According to the report in Science, researchers also found that the sea urchin has genes similar to vertebrate genes associated with vision, hearing, balance and other sensory tasks, and yet these primitive animals do not have organized sensory structures that look like ears or eyes. Further investigation of these characteristics may uncover new concepts of perception, Ettensohn said.
The sea urchin genome also includes genes associated with a diverse and sophisticated immune system. Studying the molecular mechanisms by which sea urchins protect themselves against bacteria and viruses may unlock new methods for preventing disease in humans, the authors report.