Humans linked to sea urchins

November 30, 2006, vol.37, no.7
By Carol Thorbes



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SFU molecular biologists are part of a worldwide team of scientists who recently discovered sea urchins share more than 7000 of the same genes as humans. The DNA make-up of the underwater hedgehog look-a-like could advance doctors' understanding of how human genetic diseases occur and how to treat them.

The DNA make up of an underwater hedgehog look-a-like could advance doctors' understanding of how human genetic diseases occur and how to treat them. SFU molecular biologists are part of a worldwide team of scientists that discovered sea urchins share more than 7000 of the same genes as humans.

The November 2006 issue of the journal Science published the findings, compiled by 200 researchers including SFU's Bruce Brandhorst, Jack Chen and Karl Bergeron.

The sea urchin has many genes linked to human diseases such as Huntington's chorea, muscular dystrophy, Usher syndrome, neurological disorders and atherosclerosis. This genetic similarity, combined with the transparency of the sea urchin's embryonic stage “will enable scientists to test hypotheses about the function of genes in human development,” says Brandhorst. “The sea urchin will be a valuable biomedical model for understanding the evolution of sensory organs and elaborate but distinctive immune systems in animals.”

Chen used his expertise in bioinformatics (computational mining of DNA data) to help scientists identify genes involved in detecting chemicals. Scientists at the Vancouver Genome Sciences centre at the British Columbia Cancer agency helped map the sea urchin's DNA genome. Brandhorst, chair of SFU's molecular biology and biochemistry department, helped uncover genetic similarities between sea urchin and human sensory nervous systems.

Sea urchins lack eyes, ears and noses. But they share with humans many of the genes involved in vision, hearing and the detection of chemicals.

Sea urchins use their tube feet, hose-like appendages with suction cups, for movement and to sense their environment.

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