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November 20, 2006

Sea Urchin Genome Uncovers Remarkable Connection to Man

MBL Scientists, Faculty Help to Unravel DNA Code of Long-Studied Marine Model

Click on photo for high-resolution image
A close genetic cousin

Human beings and Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, the California purple urchin, share more than 7,000 genes – including genes associated with many human diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. Sea urchins are useful for the study of fertilization and early development in humans.

Photo credit: Charles Hollahan/Santa Barbara Marine Biologicals

Members of the Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Consortium with MBL ties include:

David R. Burgess
MBL Corporation Member; Chair, MBL Education Committee; Professor of Biology, Boston College

R. Andrew Cameron
MBL Corporation Member; Member, MBL Embryology Course Faculty, MBL Education Committee; and Associate Editor, The Biological Bulletin; Senior Research Associate, California Institute of Technology

Eric H. Davidson
MBL Corporation Member; MBL Embryology Course Faculty, Course Director, 1972, 1983, 1988-1996; Norman Chandler Professor of Cell Biology, California Institute of Technology

Charles A. Ettensohn
MBL Embryology Course Faculty Member; Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University

David R. McClay
MBL Embryology Course Faculty Member; Professor of Biology, Duke University

Robert L. Morris
2005 MBL Summer Research Fellow; Associate Professor of Biology, Wheaton College

Gary M. Wessel
MBL Senior Scientist (joint appointment with Brown University); MBL Embryology Course Faculty Member; Professor of Biology, Brown University


Science Magazine Resource Page
(Includes links to research articles, podcasts, an interactive poster, and more)

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—An international team of scientists recently announced the decoding and analysis of the sea urchin genome. Results from the sequencing project show that there is a remarkable genetic connection between the spiny creatures and humans. Scientists contend that the complete DNA map will shed new light on human developmental processes.

A number of MBL scientists and course faculty were part of the major genome sequencing effort, including two of the project’s lead researchers, Eric Davidson and Andrew Cameron of the California Institute of Technology who are both MBL Corporation members. In all, 240 scientists in 11 countries spent two years analyzing the genetic code of the marine species. The results were announced in the November 10 issue of the journal Science.

After identifying 23,300 genes made from 814 million letters of DNA code taken from Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, the California purple urchin, the researchers found that urchins surprisingly share 7,077 genes with humans, making them a closer genetic cousin to man than the more widely studied fruit fly or worm.

Other surprises from the project: Urchins have the most sophisticated innate immune system of any animal studied to date. They carry genes associated with many human diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. The urchin also has genes associated with taste and smell, hearing and balance.

And these eyeless animals can see—or at least sense light. How? Through their feet. Scientists found genes associated with vision, genes that are activated in the urchin’s tube feet, puny projections on the animal’s shells that help it move and feed.

“Nobody would’ve predicted that sea urchins have such a robust gene set for visual perception,” said sequencing team member Gary Wessel, a Brown University biology professor and MBL senior scientist. “I’ve been looking at these organisms for 31 years— and now I know they were looking back at me.” Wessel led the group of scientists who studied hundreds of thousands of letters of genetic code and identified the genes responsible for sea urchin reproduction.

As a joint faculty member of the MBL and Brown University, Wessel studies mechanisms of fertilization in the sea urchin. “The MBL has been at the forefront of molecular mechanisms of fertilization for over a century, with Frank Lillie and E.E. Just leading the charge of many,” said Wessel. “It is especially rewarding now to bring this genomic research into the rich classical history of both this organism, and this institution. It is fair to say that the sea urchin and the MBL will have a wonderful relationship for the next century of biomedical research.”

Boston College biology professor David Burgess, an MBL Corporation member and Chair of MBL Education Committee, was also part of the sequencing consortium. Burgess and his colleagues were involved in analyzing the sea urchin's cytoskeleton genome, which deals with mitosis, cell division, and cell movements in development.

"Because the cytoskeleton genome is so well known in mammals, including humans, and in lower invertebrates, including the fruit fly, having the genome of an organism that is evolutionarily close to the vertebrates allows for better understanding of the evolution of genes encoding functional domains in these key cytoskeletal proteins," said Burgess.

The sea urchin has been an important biomedical model at the MBL for many years, particularly in the study of developmental biology, and is an ideal organism for learning how pathways of genes and proteins regulate growth and development. Over the years, many of the scientists who travel to the laboratory to conduct research during the summer months study the biology of sea urchins. In fact, MBL Corporation member Tim Hunt used sea urchins as a biological model in some of the work that garnered him a Nobel Prize in 2001 for his discovery of cyclins, a group of proteins that regulate the cell division cycle.

Last September, many of the researchers involved in the genome project were among the more than 150 scientists from Europe, South America, and Asia who attended The Developmental Biology of the Sea Urchin meeting at the MBL.

“The genome sequence has changed our research lives and many surprises have come from this work,” said Wessel. “Not only is this animal a wonderful research specimen, but it is positioned in an important evolutionary position to understand how vertebrates in general develop.”

In addition to the primary results in published in Science, 41 companion manuscripts will appear in the December 1 issue of the journal Developmental Biology.


The MBL is a leading international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information, visit www.MBL.edu