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Sea Urchins Show The Inner Workings of Development

nsf, national science foundation, research in action, ria, embryonic development, computer model, genetics, Caltech
This image of a sea-urchin embryo shows where two regulatory genes are being expressed (labeled in fluorescent green and red). (Image credit: Caltech/Isabelle Peter)

This article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

As an animal develops from an embryo, its cells take diverse paths, eventually forming different body parts — muscles, bones, heart. The cells are following a genetic blueprint, which consists of complex webs of interacting genes called gene regulatory networks.

Biologists at the California Institute of Technology have for the first time built a computational model of one of these networks. Their work is based on roughly a decade of research into how gene networks control development in sea-urchin embryos.

The scientists say the model is remarkably good at calculating what sea-urchin gene regulatory networks do to control the fates of different cells in the early stages of development. The model confirms that the interactions among a few dozen genes suffice to tell an embryo how to start developing different body parts in the right places. The model provides a powerful new way to look at gene regulatory networks, allowing scientists to better study the genetic bases of both development and evolution.

Editor's Note: Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Research in Action archive.