Sea urchins are small and spiny, they have no eyes and they eat kelp and algae. Still, the sea creature’s genome is remarkably similar to humans’ and may hold the key to preventing and curing several human diseases.
Sea urchins are echinoderms, marine animals that originated more than 540 million years ago. The reason for the intense interest in sequencing the sea urchin genome is because it shares a common ancestor with humans. Sea urchins are closer to human and vertebrates from an evolutionary perspective than other more widely studied animal models, such as fruit fly or worms. The sea urchin, in fact, has 7,000 genes in common with humans, including genes associated with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases and muscular dystrophy.
"Another surprise is that this spiny creature with no eyes, nose or hears has genes involved in vision, hearing and smell in humans," said University of Central Florida professor, Cristina Calestani, a member of the Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Group. "The comparison of human genes with their corresponding ancestral sea urchin genes may give important insight on their function in humans."
"Considering that sea urchins have a long life span -- some can live up to 100 years -- their immune system must be powerful," Calestani said. "Sea urchins could very well provide a new set of antibiotic and antiviral compounds to fight various infectious diseases."