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Sea urchins and humans share genes

November 16, 2006

Source: Simon Fraser University

Contact: Bruce Brandhorst (Port Moody), 604.291.5366, brandhor@sfu.caCarol Thorbes, PAMR, 604.291.3035,


November 16, 2006

Simon Fraser University molecular biologists have helped a worldwide team of scientists make a discovery that could advance doctorsí understanding of how genetic diseases occur and how to treat them.

Bruce Brandhorst, Jack Chen and Karl Bergeron are among 200 researchers who have learned that many of the gene families in the sea urchin, a simple spiny marine animal, are the same as those in the human and other complex vertebrates. The journal Science has published the researchersí findings in its November issue.

The sea urchin has many genes linked to human diseases such as Huntingtonís chorea, muscular dystrophy, Usher syndrome, neurological disorders and atherosclerosis.

This genetic similarity, combined with the transparency of the sea urchinís embryonic stage "will enable scientists to test hypotheses about the function of genes in human development," says Brandhorst. "The sea urchin will also 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 urchinís DNA genome.

Brandhorst, the chair of the molecular biology and biochemistry department at SFU, helped uncover genetic similarities between the sea urchinís and the human sensory nervous systems.

Sea urchins lack eyes, ears and noses. But these underwater hedgehog look-a-likes have many genes involved in vision, hearing and detection of chemicals, like their more highly evolved distant cousins, humans.

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



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