The humble coral may possess as many genes and possibly even more than humans do.
And remarkably, although it is very distant from humans in evolutionary terms, it has many of the immune system genes that protect people against disease. In fact, it is possible some of these were pioneered by corals.
Corals are among the simplest animals in the world yet they may possess a set of genes as large and complex as our own, says Professor David Miller of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies and the ARC Special Research Centre for the Molecular Genetics of Development.
"Four years ago researchers in this field were predicting that coral would be found to have about 10,000 genes but weve found almost that many already and clearly have a long way to go yet.
"Based on the rate of gene discovery, we estimate that corals have as many as 20 or 25,000 genes, compared with the human complement of 20-23,000."
Why a simple creature should have such a huge genetic repertoire is a mystery, but scientists are excited by it because corals are near the root of the family tree of all living animals and can throw new light on the origin of such complex features as the nervous and immune systems of vertebrates.
Around 10 or 12 per cent of the known coral genes are in fact shared uniquely with vertebrates these are genes that have been lost from all other animals so far examined. These include genes for the development of nerves, vision, DNA imprinting, stress responses and key immune system genes.
"We actually have quite a lot in common with corals, though it might not appear so," Professor Miller says. "For example, we have been amazed at how many of the genes involved in innate immunity in man are present in coral and just how similar they are."
The significance of this may lie in the fact that scientists now suspect coral is facing a number of pandemics: black band, white plague, white p
Contact: David Miller
ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies