"The genome raises questions of what it means to be an animal," said first author Mansi Srivastava, a former UC Berkeley graduate student who now is a post-doctoral associate at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.
"Though we think of a sponge as a simple creature whose skeleton we take to the bathtub, it has a lot of the major biochemical and developmental pathways we associate with complex functions in humans and other more complex animals," she said. "But there are certain missing components. Future studies will reveal how sponges operate as bona fide animals without those components, and how the addition of those components led to the evolution of more complex animals."
Some of the missing components are involved in the cell cycle, the series of steps cells go through in order to divide. Among these is the enzyme family known as cyclin-dependent kinase 4/6 (CDK 4/6), which in mammals is crucial to transitioning between phases of the cell cycle. Though CDK4/6 was not found in the sponge genome, it is present in the sea anemone genome, raising the question of whether the appearance of CDK4/6 in the ancestor of "true" animals (eumetazoans) changed the animal cell cycle in a fundamental way. Inhibitors of CDK 4/6 halt the cell cycle and are used to treat breast cancer.
The authors also identified in the sponge many of the same genes that characterize all other animals: genes involved not only in cell division and growth, but also in programmed cell death; the adhesion of cells to other tissue and to one another, signaling pathways d
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University of California - Berkeley