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NASA Funds Hawaiian Study of Cell Differentiation in Simple Marine Animals

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Scientists at The University of Hawaii at Mānoa have netted a $960,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to study the evolution of cell-type complexity in simple marine animals in order to better understand evolution and cell differentiation, UH-Mānoa said yesterday.

The project is funded through NASA's Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program, part of the agency's Astrobiology Program, which focuses on studies of the evolution of living organisms and how they develop in their environments, seeking knowledge that could help inform the search for life beyond Earth.

The investigators at UH-Mānoa's Kewalo Marine Laboratory of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center, Mark Martindale and Yale Passamaneck, will use the funds to study the genome of the sea anemone and other cnidarians, which have stinging cells and includes corals and jellyfish.

They aim to identify genes that are unique to sea anemones and to find out if those genes are involved in the formation of novel cell types, such as the process in embryos in which cells differentiate into specialized types that perform specific functions, such as nerve and muscle cells. These marine creatures are ideal for studies of cell differentiation because they have fewer cell types than humans, roughly 10 to 20 types compared to around 200.

Another part of the project will focus on molecules in the opsin family of proteins, which transduce light energy into chemical energy, and are located in the eye parts of most animals. They will examine marine animals called brachiopods, in which the opsin molecules are expressed in the early stages of embryo development, before any eyes or neural photoreceptors begin to form.