Discovery Files

Genetics breakthrough in sea urchins aids biomedical research

Use of gene editing tool CRISPR allows development of genetically engineered marine animals

Marine biologists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have created a line of sea urchins whose genetic makeup is fully mapped and can be edited to study human disease genes. The creation of these new research model organisms will accelerate the pace of marine biomedical research.

Sea urchins, like fruit flies or lab rats, have been organisms used in research for more than a century. Sea urchins led to the discovery of a protein family known as the cyclins, which guides cell division. That knowledge went on to become the basis of current cancer treatments.

Now Scripps marine biologist Amro Hamdoun and colleagues have taken the research to a new level by developing lines of sea urchins that can be used as genetic models using the gene editing technology CRISPR. The modified sea urchins are derived from the fast-growing species Lytechinus pictus, also known as the painted sea urchin.

The U.S. National Science Foundation-funded team describes its results in the journal Development.

Hamdoun said the sea urchins could serve as new workhorse organisms in marine biomedical research, capable of being cultivated to adulthood in four to six months at room temperature.

Species of sea urchins are used around the world to study the developmental origins of diseases and the effects of pollutants on human and marine health. But few can be grown in the lab and genetically modified like other lab animals. Having this new "genetically enabled" urchin could dramatically enhance the efficiency, reproducibility and utility of those studies.

"Sea urchins have long been a model organism for marine biologists, but they have been bottlenecked by not having stable genetics," Hamdoun said. "This work breaks that final barrier."