CHEYENNE -- University of Wyoming researchers are members of a team that has sequenced the entire genome of an organism that is seen as a model for understanding rapid evolution.

The organism studied is a tunicate found mainly on the ocean floor.

Commonly known as seat squirts and sea pork, tunicates apparently evolved in the early Cambrian period, beginning around 540 million years ago, according to a university media release.

The article, "Plasticity of animal genome architecture unmasked by rapid evolution of pelagic tunicate," was published last month in the journal Science Express.

The entire genome sequence of Oikopleura dioca, a tunicate, was determined. The genome sequencing project was an international collaborative effort involving research groups in Europe, Canada and Japan along with UW, the universities of Iowa and Oregon and the National Institutes of Health.

"The genome is extremely divergent from other multicellular animal genomes, showing hallmarks of rapid evolution," said David Liberles, associate professor in the UW Department of Molecular Biology.

The researchers at UW analyzed the evolutionary turnover of duplicate genes in this organism, which Liberles said is "among the contributing factors to the rapid divergence of the genome. It is seen as the main mechanism by which genes can change functions."

Snehalata Huzurbazar, associate professor in the Department of Statistics, added that the contribution of the UW researchers was also important because "statistical analysis of the duplicate gene data accounting for data-generating mechanisms is new in this research area. Statisticians are infrequently co-authors on articles in Science."

Other UW scientists contributing to the research were Ph.D. students Anke Konrad, molecular biology, and Sarabdeep Singh, statistics.

Although the UW scientists were not specifically studying cancer, the evolutionary change in the organism as the genome changes seems to be similar to the mechanism used by cancer cells as they adapt to life in a tumor, Liberles said.

"It is an important part of the process, in addition to other types of mutations that drive tumor formation," he said.

Liberles said computation models are increasingly being used to explain the mechanisms by which functions change as the gene sequences change.

Also increasingly, mathematical molecular biology is used to understand the underlying mechanisms of processes so scientists learn something about biological mechanisms as well.

"I think this will be important to medicine as well as to basic biology," he added.

The interdisciplinary approach that links mathematical modeling to biological mechanisms "can yield great advances not only in understanding basic biology but bio-medicine and numerous diseases, from cancer to infectious diseases, as well, Liberles said.

Contact capital bureau Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.