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Genome of saltwater creature could aid understanding of gene grouping

HOUSTON (Aug. 20, 2008) The genetic code of a simple saltwater creature could help researchers learn more about how groups of genes function in humans and other species.

A study published this week in the journal Nature breaks down the genetic code of Trichoplax, a simple saltwater creature that one might find anywhere in the world, even in the common household aquarium.

"We're trying to identify, in the Trichoplax, genes that are also found in other animals - our genome and the fruit fly genome and so on," said study co-author Nicholas Putnam, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Rice University. Recognizing common genes among many species helps scientists figure out their lineage, as well as where they diverge.

What Putnam finds interesting about this saltwater creature is how common some elements of its genetic code are to other classes of life and how that kind of data might help scientists learn the ways groups of genes function.

Why Trichoplax? Sequencing a genome is "a big effort and a big investment, and so we have to choose carefully," Putnam said. "The motivation for choosing this animal was its phylogenetic position" its relatively low place in the evolutionary chain.

Trichoplax is "a tiny little pancake of cells you can barely see without a microscope," he said. "And they're extremely simple about as simple as you can be just a disc of cells that's two layers thick."

Still, humans share elements with the lowly beast that only become evident through charting its DNA. A gene index published as part of the Nature paper, titled "The Trichoplax Genome and the Nature of Placozoans," clearly shows many large collections of genes that group together on both the Trichoplax and human chromosomes.

The chart is very much a product of Putnam's work. Though his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley is in ph

Contact: Mike Williams
Rice University

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