With implications reaching beyond the sea and into the human womb, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in La Jolla claim to have achieved a breakthrough in genetic research on sea urchins.
The study, published June 6 in the journal Developmentdetails the scientists’ success in creating a line of sea urchins whose genetic makeup is fully mapped and can be modified to study human disease genes.
Amro Hamdoun, marine biologist at Scripps Oceanography and lead author of the study, said his lab was “interested in the different ways in which cells protect themselves against different kinds of stress in the environment” – their “immunity system chemical”.
Hamdoun, who has a background in cell and developmental biology, said sea urchins are useful for this type of research because they produce large numbers of embryos that can be easily manipulated in the lab. This is beneficial for the study of processes that occur in the early stages of life.
Moreover, sea urchins and humans share 70% of their genes.
Sea urchins have been used for 150 years as a model organism “to understand very basic things about how cells divide or how egg and sperm interact,” Hamdoun said.
Previously, sea urchins led to the discovery of a family of proteins called cyclin that guides cell division. This discovery became the basis of current cancer treatments and won the discoverers of cyclin a Nobel Prize.
Hamdoun’s lab uses sea urchins to learn how cells eliminate toxins in food or in the environment.
Until now, however, scientists “did not have a pathway to make stable genetic modifications” to sea urchins, he said. The previous gene edit only lasted a few hours.
“We’ve spent the last two years… figuring out how to solve this bottleneck to essentially create genetic lines of sea urchins where certain genes have been changed, manipulated, knocked out so that we can better study their function.”
The process to determine the genome edits involved using CRISPR gene-editing technology and determining how to grow, genotype and propagate sea urchins, a change from previous methods of collecting sea urchins. then throw them away when the search is complete.
The modified sea urchins are derived from the fast-growing species Lytechinus pictus, known as the painted sea urchin, common in Southern California.
Cultivating sea urchins in his lab means Hamdoun can follow them through their entire life cycle, he said.
Now Hamdoun’s lab is able to study how sea urchins “could regulate a pathological process or a cellular process that we are interested in for human health.”
“What we’re learning is that there are specific windows early in animal life where specific cells in the embryo are more or less sensitive to toxic substances,” he said.
This has “very broad implications for understanding how early human exposures might affect later health” and allows clinicians to predict a safe dose of a drug for a pregnant woman or identify a dangerous level of exposure. environmental chemical, he said.
The results also open the door to biotech applications, including how different types of contaminants in the ocean might affect human health.
“We can now consider making lines of genetically modified sea urchins that signal the presence of a toxicant when it is present in the water. … They can act as living biosensors of things in the environment,” Hamdoun said.
The study also means researchers across the country can use Hamdoun’s tools to study cell division, cancer pathways, reproduction and more.
Ecological implications include studying the ways sea urchins settle and overgraze kelp, Hamdoun said.
And for those interested in raising sea urchins for food, having a genetically activated sea urchin “allows you to study the pathways responsible for growth and understand how certain manipulations in aquaculture might improve the efficiency or rate of growth or flavor or other characteristics of the animal,” he says.
“This humble creature has really made a lot of contributions.”
Hamdoun said his lab is “beginning work on constructing additional genetic building blocks, [and] we are of course continuing our own work [on] how the early embryo and how these early stages of life protect themselves against the different kinds of stresses and challenges they face.
He said he hopes to reduce the damage caused by certain types of encounters “or maybe even intervene in a beneficial way.” ◆