Israeli Scientists Find Insight to Human Life at the Bottom of a Primordial Ocean

The reproductive habits of sea anemones 'may hold the key to human tissue regeneration.'

Israeli scientists are setting out to learn what the strange reproductive habits of a primordial, water-dwelling life form can teach us about the regeneration of human tissue.

"Sea anemones are the most primordial group of creatures found on our evolutionary tree, whose tissue and nascent structures are very similar to our own," says Dr. Tamar Lotan of Haifa University. "We can learn from them about numerous processes in mammals' bodies," she says.

Lotan is part of a new research center in which scientists from Bar-Ilan, Haifa and Hebrew universities will be studying the starlet sea anemone, also known as Nematostella vectensis. The center, financed by the Science and Technology Ministry, will be run by Dr. Oren Levy of Bar-Ilan University. Dr. Uri Gat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will also participate in the enterprise.

Gat says researchers will be looking at, among other things, the unusual reproduction methods of sea anemones, which are able to turn adult cells into stem cells.

"The sea anemone reproduces both sexually and asexually. It detaches a part of its body, which regenerates a new body. This is how they reproduce," explains Gat.

"It's actually a regression of the cells to an earlier stage," Gat says, adding, "We're trying to understand the molecular mechanism of this process. If we discover why these creatures are so reproductive, maybe we could use it to cure wounds."

In fact, scientists are hopeful that sea anemones might be able to provide insight into the method of regenerating human tissue.

"A few years ago the genome of Nematostella was sequenced and scientists found some of the genes involved in reproducing organs in this animal also appear in human beings," he says. "When we compare our genomes, the evolutionary distance is huge, but it's still smaller than the distance between sea anemones and insects," says Gat. "We have many genes in common, many more than we expected."

The scientists also intend to study the anemone's sting cells, similar to those of jelly fish and hydras, which serve as elaborate injection systems.

"Sea anemones operate a microscopic injector that can penetrates fish scales, crab shell or human skin," says Lotan. "We're dealing with a tiny protein organ that can endure [great] pressure."

Lotan, who previously set up a company to develop nano-syringes to deliver substances into the body, now plans to study how these tiny injectors were developed in anemones.

"Scientists realized that these organisms hold a great hope for our future for developing medicines and studying body systems," she says. "This is why we decided to join forces and open a center in which we can develop the Nematostella vectensis model and the extremely complex research systems this requires, as well as enable other scientists to work on the most basic issues," says Lotan.