Many people have heard of the Human Genome Project, the scientific project to map out the different parts of human DNA. What people may not be as familiar with is the Assembling the Tree of Life project.
It’s an attempt by the scientific community to fully map out the evolutionary timeline of all species on planet Earth. This timeline can reveal characteristics of living things, including the regenerative properties of long-extinct sea creatures. The cross-disciplinary approach needed to analyze one portion of the tree of life, echinoderms, requires experts within paleontology, genomics, informatics, developmental biology, anatomy and phylogenetics.
Thomas Kammer, paleontologist and Eberly College Centennial Professor of Geology at West Virginia University, will be part of a 13-member team of biologists and paleontologists funded by the National Science Foundation to research and map the Tree of Life for living and fossil echinoderms.
Echinoderms are exclusively marine invertebrate animals, meaning that they have no spinal column. They include five living classes: starfish, sea urchins, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, and crinoids, a class that includes feather stars and sea lilies. These echinoderms are the closest relatives to animals with spinal columns, also called vertebrates.
There are also 16 other echinoderm classes that are now extinct and known only from fossils. Kammer specializes in the fossil record of crinoids, which are the most abundant and widespread fossil echinoderms. Living crinoids called feather stars crawl around on coral reefs, where they hide from predators by day and feed on plankton at night. Other living crinoids called sea lilies are found in the dark depths of the deep sea where they attach to the seafloor with a stem so they are not swept away while feeding on plankton carried by ocean currents. Most fossil crinoids had a stem, but lived in shallow water before they took refuge from predators in the deep sea.
Kammer says that one possible benefit from this research would be an understanding of how all echinoderms developed their great powers of regeneration, with the ability to replace complete organ systems and body parts lost to predators. If the genetic basis of regeneration were better understood, it could have applications in medicine for regenerating damaged or lost tissues and organs in humans. Paleontologists are included in the project because crinoids are the bridge between all living echinoderms and their evolutionary origins over 500 million years ago. Echinoderms are unique among nearly all animals in having more diversity among fossils than in living animals.
“The overall project is important for understanding the evolutionary relationships between the living groups of echinoderms, whose genomes are just beginning to be analyzed by geneticists,” Kammer said.
Assembling the Tree of Life is an ongoing NSF program to map out the relationships (phylogenies) between all life forms on Earth, including living and fossil organisms. The five-year, $3-million project begins Jan. 1. Kammer’s portion of the project grant is $168,210.
The team includes scientists from Ohio State University, Duke University, Louisiana State University, Nova Southeastern University, Smithsonian Institution, University of California-San Diego, University of Michigan, University of Tennessee, University of Guam, and Abilene Christian University.
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