Prologue – Why is there a conference about sea urchins?
This year I went to my first multi-day conference as a graduate student, the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference at the Marine Biology Laboratory, located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was a little nervous, because I didn’t feel like I knew all that much about the field, and also because I had no idea how it was possible to spend four days talking about sea urchins. Then I realized that every researcher will have to attend their first conference at some point, so I decided to write about the experience for all of you who want to know what happens when you get 100 scientists together who all work on the same problems.
To start, there are a few things to know about the subject of the conference. The sea urchin is used as a “model organism” for early embryo development. By that I mean biologists study the way a sea urchin goes from a fertilized egg to a free-swimming, eating, living juvenile creature. Why should we care about the way this strange creature grows? It’s because they use many of the same genes that vertebrates (including humans) use for the same reasons during embryonic development. Genes with strange names (e.g. “Nodal” and “Lefty”) play important roles in making sure (for example) a sea urchin forms a mouth where it is supposed to be. These genes are used for similar reasons in frogs, where these same genes are used to determine which side of the developing embryo the face and underbelly will be. And then again, the mouse uses these genes for the same reason as the frog. This idea that similar genes are used for similar reasons from sea urchin to frog to mouse means that, if we figure out what the does in the urchin, we can make fairly good hypotheses about what those genes would do in frogs and mice. And then, by the same reasoning, we can start to figure out how they’re used in humans without getting into the problem of having to dissect people.
The sea urchin is used for these studies because it’s a lot easier, and faster, to study, especially compared to frogs and mice. You can observe hundreds of sea urchins grow & develop in just a week, while a mouse takes about 20 days to grow inside its mother. The fact that the sea urchin system develops many embryos quickly means that we can run more experiments more quickly, which saves us time and money. Also, because sea urchins have been studied for so long, a lot of the genes and interactions required for normal development have been extensively studied already, so there is a great foundation on which to build future studies. This model, called the Gene Regulatory Network (GRN) model, has proven to be a very powerful way to study development. So many researchers have wanted to do these studies that many labs around the world are funded solely to study sea urchin development and to figure out how this creature’s development relates to other organisms. Many of these scientists would be talking about their latest breakthroughs and papers at this meeting.
While at the meeting, I wrote thoughts that I had in a notebook, then compiled them into journal entries. Over the next few days, I will be posting my thoughts and musings about the conference so that you can get an insight into another aspect of the life of a scientist.