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How Many Genes Does It Take to Learn? Lessons from Sea Slugs

Scientists analyzing the genomics of a marine snail have gotten an unprecedented look at brain mechanisms, discovering that the neural processes in even a simple sea// creature are far from sluggish.

At any given time within just a single brain cell of sea slug known as Aplysia, more than 10,000 genes are active, according to scientists writing in Friday's (Dec. 29, 2006) edition of the journal Cell. The findings suggest that acts of learning or the progression of brain disorders do not take place in isolation - large clusters of genes within an untold amount of cells contribute to major neural events.

"For the first time we provide a genomic dissection of the memory-forming network," said Leonid Moroz, a professor of neuroscience and zoology at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience. "We took advantage of this powerful model of neurobiology and identified thousands of genes operating within a single neuron. Just during any simple event related to memory formation, we expect differences in gene expression for at least 200 to 400 genes."

Researchers studied gene expression in association with specific networks controlling feeding or defensive reflexes in the sea slug. To their surprise, they identified more than 100 genes similar to those associated with all major human neurological diseases and more than 600 genes controlling development, confirming that molecular and genomic events underlying key neuronal functions were developed in early animal ancestors and remained practically unchanged for more than 530 million years of independent evolution in the lineages leading to men or sea slugs.

Moroz and his collaborators uncovered new information that suggest that gene loss in the evolution of the nervous system is as important as gene gain in terms of adaptive strategies. They believe that a common ancestor of animals had a complex genome and different genes controlling brain or immune functio
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