All I can say is “AAAAARGH”
A sea urchin genome has been sequenced and there are some really interesting findings that have been reported based on analysis of the genome. For example, there appears to have been a large expansion of genes involved in the innate immune system in the species sequenced, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus.
All the good science aside, what most struck me were some of the ridiculous quotes attributed to some of the researchers in this project in stories and press releases. For example, in an article on MSNBC, George Weinstock says
“The sea urchin is surprisingly similar to humans,”
“Sea urchins don’t look any more like humans than fruit flies, but about 70 percent of sea urchin genes have a human counterpart whereas only about 40 percent of fruit fly genes do.”
Apparently, George was glossing over the reason this organism was chosen for sequencing in the first place. If you go to the NHGRIs web site you can get the white paper written that led to the selection of this species for sequencing. Perhaps the most important reason is that evolutionarily the sea urchin is closer to humans than fruit flies are. Therefore, it should only be a surprise to someone who does not know the evolutionary position of this species.
Perhaps even more appalling is the discussion of the apparent large number of genes for light sensory systems in this species. Again, Weinstock is quoted:
“There is not a lot of light at the bottom of the ocean, so it is not clear what they might be ‘seeing,'” Weinstock said. “This is certainly an area that will be studied intensively as a result of the genome project.”
I can only view this as some sort of joke. First of all, blind cavefish still have the genes for light perception even though they do not see. This is because it takes time for such genes to disappear. Second, apparently George has never really thought about where this species of sea urchin is found. It is found in the intertidal zone — hardly the dark depths of the ocean. I could go on and on but I will just get more annoyed. In this case, Weinstock has proven that many Genome Scientists are almost completely clueless about the organisms they are working on. Which is a shame. Becuase sea urchins are fascinating creatures and the fact that they are more closely related to humans than are most other invertebrates is one of the main reasons they have been a focus on so much research up until now. Oh well …