Sea urchins are small and spiny, they have no eyes and they eat kelp and algae. Still, the sea creatures genome is remarkably similar to humans and may hold the key to preventing and curing several human diseases, according to a University of Central Florida researcher and several colleagues.
UCF Professor Cristina Calestani was part of the Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Group, which recently completed sequencing of the sea urchin genome and published its findings in the November issue of Science. The National Institutes of Health funded most of the nine-month project.
The genome of the purple sea urchin is composed by 814 "letters" coding for 23,300 genes.
Sea urchins are echinoderms, marine animals that originated more than 540 million years ago. The reason for the great interest in sequencing the sea urchin genome is because it shares a common ancestor with humans. Sea urchins are closer to human and vertebrates from an evolutionary perspective than other more widely studied animal models, such as fruit fly or worms. The purple sea urchin, in fact, has 7,000 genes in common with humans, including genes associated with Parkinsons, Alzheimers and Huntingtons diseases and muscular dystrophy.
"Another surprise is that this spiny creature with no eyes, nose or hears has genes involved in vision, hearing and smell in humans," Calestani said. "The comparison of human genes with their corresponding ancestral sea urchin genes may give important insight on their function in humans, in the same way the study of history helps understanding the reality of our modern world."
The genome sequencing project was led by Erica Sodergren and George Weinstock at the Baylor College of Medicine-Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston, along with Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the Baylor center, and Drs. Eric Davidson and Andrew Cameron at the California Institute of Technology.