Of Science and Sea Urchins: Researchers Plumb Oceans for Biological Insights

Xconomy Boston — 

The ocean is home to more biodiversity than anywhere else on the planet—making it a largely untapped source of opportunity for researchers studying marine organisms as a source of novel drug leads.

“The unique adaptations of marine organisms have made them valuable models for biomedical research, enhancing our understanding of fundamental biological processes, such as nerve function, immune system function, and cell division,” Andrea Bodnar, science director at the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, tells Xconomy.

Dubbed the “mouse model of the sea,” the sea urchin is among the organisms providing researchers with new insights.

“[Sea urchins] facilitate lines of inquiry for questions that cannot be answered using traditional research models, such as questions relating to tissue regeneration and healthy longevity,” says Bodnar, whose main interest in the sea creature is as a model for better understanding aging and resistance to cancer.

Different sea urchin species have wide-ranging lifespans—from two years to more than 200, she explains. The animals also don’t show signs of physical decline or increased disease incidence as they age, which Bodnar says is referred to as “negligible aging.”

The director of science at GMGI, Bodnar is studying the sea urchin’s cellular and molecular pathways that enable it to maintain healthy tissues throughout its lifetime. The hope is that the research will unveil insights into new preventative or therapeutic strategies for degenerative diseases related to aging.

What makes the sea urchin valuable in research is its close genetic ties to humans. They are also abundant, easy to take care of in the lab, and “amenable to experimentation,” explains Bodnar.

Additionally, many tools have been developed to support study in the animals, which have been serving as research models for more than a century, she says, describing the sea urchin as “a classical model for developmental biology” from which “many seminal discoveries have come.”

Andrea Bodnar, science director at the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute.

To date, the FDA has approved nine marine-derived drugs in indications including cancer, pain, and infectious disease. As a result of studying this environment, Bodnar says several new compounds also are currently being developed.

“Genomic technologies provide a cost-effective and sustainable approach to accelerate the discovery of novel genes, pathways, and organisms that have important applications in biomedicine and biotechnology,” she adds, noting that it is becoming more common to use genomic technologies in an effort to answer scientific questions related to the marine environment.

“There is amazing biodiversity of microorganisms in the world’s oceans and we are only just beginning to understand the role of microorganisms in ecosystem function as well as their role in the health of aquatic organisms,” she says. “At the same time, microorganisms provide an opportunity to discover unique organisms or molecules with applications that could benefit humankind.”

Images by the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute