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Study of planarians offers insight into germ cell development

The planarian is not as well known as other, more widely used subjects of scientific study model creatures such as the fruit fly, nematode or mouse. But University of Illinois cell and developmental biology professor Phillip Newmark thinks it should be. As it turns out, the tiny, seemingly cross-eyed flatworm is an ideal subject for the study of germ cells, precursors of eggs and sperm in all sexually reproducing species.

The planarian Newmark studies, Schmidtea mediterranea, is a tiny creature with a lot of interesting traits. Cut it in two (lengthwise or crosswise) and each piece will regenerate a new planarian, complete with brains, guts and in most cases gonads. Even when the planarians brain is severed from its body, it can regenerate all that is removed, including the reproductive organs.

In a new study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Newmark and his colleagues at the U. of I. report that planarians share some important characteristics with mammals that may help scientists tease out the mechanisms by which germ cells are formed and maintained. Newmarks team made a few discoveries related to a gene, called nanos, which was previously known to play a critical role in germ cell development in several other model organisms.

Unlike fruit flies and nematodes, which show signs of germ cell initiation in the earliest stages of their embryonic development, planarians do not generally express nanos or produce germ cells until several days after hatching. This delayed initiation of germ cell growth is called inductive specification, and is common to mammals and a number of other animals.

Graduate student Yuying Wang and the other team members were able to show that nanos is essential for inductive specification in planarians. Blocking nanos expression by means of RNA interference immediately after the planarians hatched prevented the emergence and development of germ cells. Blockin
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Contact: Diana Yates
diya@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
24-Apr-2007


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