BACKGROUND: Sea urchins might not seem to have much in common with human beings, since they are small and spiny, have no eyes, and eat only kelp and algae. But scientists with the Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, recently completed sequencing of the genome. They found that the sea urchin genome is very similar to that of humans, and may hold the key to preventing and curing several human diseases.
ABOUT SEA URCHINS: Sea urchins are echinoderms, marine animals that originated more than 540 million years ago. Sea urchin "roe" (actually the gonads that produce the creature's roe) are popular in Korean and Japanese cuisine, and is also a traditional food in Chile. Beyond their culinary attractions, sea urchins are known for strong immune systems and long life spans; some can live up to 100 years The project scientists are especially interested in how the sea urchin's immune system works. Humans are born with innate immunity and also acquire additional immunities over time, as the body produces antibodies in response to infections. Sea urchins only have innate immunity, with 10 to 20 times as many such genes than humans. The hope is that studying sea urchins will provide a new set of antibiotic and antiviral compounds to fight various infectious diseases.
WHAT IS A GENOME? A genome is all of the DNA found in an organism, including its genes and DNA that does not contribute to genes. Every animal and plant has its own unique genome. Genetic DNA carries information for making the proteins required to sustain a living organism. The genome of the purple sea urchin is comprised of 814 million "letters" that code for 23,300 genes. Of those, it has 7,000 genes in common with humans, including genes associated with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's diseases, as well as muscular dystrophy. Despite having no eyes, nose, or ears, the creature has genes involved in vision, hearing and smell in humans.