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Sea urchin genome suprisingly similar to man and may hold key to cures

he sea urchin’s immune system works. The human immune system has two components: innate immunity, with which we are born, and acquired immunity, which is the ability to produce antibodies in response to an infection. Sea urchins only have innate immunity, and it is greatly expanded with 10 to 20 times as many genes as in human.

"Considering that sea urchins have a long life span -- some can live up to 100 years -- their immune system must be powerful," Calestani said. "Sea urchins could very well provide a new set of antibiotic and antiviral compounds to fight various infectious diseases."

The sea urchin has been used for many years as a research model to study embryonic development.

Cell development is very complicated. In order to properly regulate just one gene expression of a single-cell layered gut of the sea urchin larva, at least 14 proteins binding the DNA at 50 sites are needed, Calestani said.

"Multiply that hundreds of times and you begin to understand the level of complexity involved in human development," she added.

Using a "simple" creature like the sea urchin embryo to uncover the molecular basis underlying development offers several experimental advantages compared to the use of mice. Raising sea urchin embryos is easy and inexpensive. One female can provide up to 20 millions eggs. The embryos develop in just three days and are transparent. Also, single cells can be easily observed live in the embryos.

"If we know how these biological processes work, then we can begin to figure out how to intercede to repair and to heal," Calestani said. "It holds a lot of promise."

Calestani is continuing her work with sea urchins at UCF in Orlando by examining the development of pigment cells found in the marine creatures. Those cells also might provide some insight into human immunity to diseases.

Calestani, who teaches genetics at UCF, worked with Davidson at Caltech before arriving
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Source:University of Central Florida


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