Sea urchins’ unique evolutionary position allows researchers to see what went on in evolution between the ancestors that gave rise to humans and insects.

A group of researchers have sequenced the male California purple sea urchin. Reporting in the November 10 issue of Science, the researchers say that this draft sequence covers more than 90% of the sea urchin genome. 

There has been great interest in the sea urchin as a target for genome sequencing because these animals share a common ancestor with humans. “This analysis shows that sea urchins share substantially more genes and biological pathways with humans than previously suspected,” says Francis S. Collins, director of the NHGRI. “Comparing the genome of the sea urchin with that of the human and other model organisms will provide scientists with novel insight into the structure and function of our own genome, deepening our understanding of the human body in health and disease.” 

According to the researchers, the sea urchin genome contains more than 814 million letters, spelling out 23,300 genes. To date, nearly 10,000 of the genes have been scrutinized by the international consortium. The team consisted of 240 researchers from more than 70 institutions. Most of the funding came from the NHGRI.

The sea urchin lies evolutionarily in a large niche between the chordate branch of the Deuterostomes and the non-Deuterostome superphyla. “The sea urchin fills a large evolutionary gap in sequenced genomes,” says Weinstock. “It allows us to see what went on in evolution between the ancestors that gave rise to humans and insects.”

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