Marine worm opens new window on early cell development

University of Oregon biologists studying a common ocean-dwelling worm have uncovered potentially fundamental insights into the evolutionary origin of genetic mechanisms, which when compromised in humans play a role in many forms of cancer.

Their research, appearing in the July issue of the journal Developmental Cell, also increases the visibility of a three-year effort at the UO to promote use of the bristle worm Platynereis dumerilii as a model organism for the study of evolutionary origins of cell types and animal forms.

The marine worm develops by a stereotypic pattern of asymmetric cell divisions generating differently sized embryonic cells. Platynereis dumerilii, the researchers wrote, appears to have retained ancestral morphological and genomic features, including a slowly evolving protein complement, and, therefore, can be considered a living fossil.

Our studies of this organism, called a polychaete annelid, a marine relative of earthworms, have provided potentially fundamental insights into the evolutionary origin of the genetic mechanisms that determine how different cell types are produced during animal embryogenesis, said lead author Stephan Q. Schneider, a postdoctoral researcher in the UO Institute of Molecular Biology.

The genetic mechanism, in this case, is the beta-catenin signaling pathway and its regulation after cell divisions. Beta-catenin is a cellular protein, which regulates cell proliferation and communication between cells.

This ancient mechanism remains a central feature of animal development in all animals today, and malfunction of this mechanism in humans is associated with some of the most common and deadly forms of cancer, including colon cancer and melanoma, Schneider said.

Schneider and co-author Bruce Bowerman, a professor of molecular biology, identified a highly conserved beta-catenin in this ancient worm and documented the proteins subcellular accumulation in 390 cel

Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Oregon

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