The genes of Amphimedon queenslandica, a marine sponge native to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, have been fully sequenced, allowing the researchers to monitor gene expression for signs of neural development.
of California, Santa
Barbara (UCSB) scientists turned to the simple sponge to find clues about the
evolution of the complex nervous system and found that, but for a mechanism
that coordinates the expression of genes that lead to the formation of neural synapses,
sponges and the rest of the animal world may not be so distant after all. Their
findings, titled “Functionalization of a protosynaptic gene expression
network,” are published in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences.
“If you’re interested in finding the truly ancient
origins of the nervous system itself, we know where to look,” said Kenneth
Kosik, Harriman professor of neuroscience research in the Department of
Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, and co-director of UCSB’s Neuroscience
That place, said Kosik, is the evolutionary period of time
when virtually the rest of the animal kingdom branched off from a common
ancestor it shared with sponges, the oldest known animal group with living
representatives. Something must have happened to spur the evolution of the
nervous system, a characteristic shared by creatures as simple as jellyfish and
hydra to complex humans, according to Kosik.
A previous sequencing of the genome of the Amphimedon queenslandica––a sponge that
lives in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef––showed that it contained the same
genes that lead to the formation of synapses, the highly specialized
characteristic component of the nervous system that sends chemical and
electrical signals between cells. Synapses are like microprocessors, said Kosik
explaining that they carry out many sophisticated functions: They send and
receive signals, and they also change behaviors with interaction––a property
“Specifically, we were hoping to understand why the
marine sponge, despite having almost all the genes necessary to build a
neuronal synapse, does not have any neurons at all,” said the paper’s
first author, UCSB postdoctoral researcher Cecilia Conaco, from the UCSB
Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and
Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI). “In the bigger scheme of things, we
were hoping to gain an understanding of the various factors that contribute to
the evolution of these complex cellular machines.”
This time the scientists, including Danielle Bassett, from
the Department of Physics and the Sage
Center for the Study of
the Mind, and Hongjun Zhou and Mary Luz Arcila, from NRI and MCDB, examined the
sponge’s RNA (ribonucleic acid), a macromolecule that controls gene expression.
They followed the activity of the genes that encode for the proteins in a
synapse throughout the different stages of the sponge’s development.
“We found a lot of them turning on and off, as if they
were doing something,” said Kosik. However, compared to the same genes in
other animals, which are expressed in unison, suggesting a coordinated effort
to make a synapse, the ones in sponges were not coordinated.
“It was as if the synapse gene network was not wired
together yet,” said Kosik. The critical step in the evolution of the
nervous system as we know it, he said, was not the invention of a gene that
created the synapse, but the regulation of preexisting genes that were somehow
coordinated to express simultaneously, a mechanism that took hold in the rest
of the animal kingdom.
The work isn’t over, said Kosik. Plans for future research
include a deeper look at some of the steps that lead to the formation of the
synapse; and a study of the changes in nervous systems after they began to
“Is the human brain just a lot more of the same stuff,
or has it changed in a qualitative way?” he asked.