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Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Simon Coppard recently received a grant from The Linnean Society of London and The Systematics Association for his research using transcriptomics to reveal the evolution of venom in sea urchins.

Coppard and his venom research group – rising seniors Abby Uehling, Courtney Brown, Lilly Pieper and Rylie Mainville – have been sequencing and analyzing the transcriptomes (all the thousands of genes expressed) from all major sea urchin lineages to trace the evolution of venom and its many components through time.

Coppard believes that sea urchins evolved venom in the early Mesozoic due to increased threats from predators and parasites at that time and they have continued to improve their defensive capability by evolving a more effective venom that contains potent neurotoxins.

Observation of envenomations have revealed that such toxins have paralyzing effects on shrimps, crabs, octopus and fish, while the venom from one sea urchin species has been reported to cause fatalities in humans.

The research provides a foundation for a proteomic and functional study to determine the potency of the different sea urchin venoms in specific sea urchin lineages that are exposed to different levels of predation pressure. For example, researchers could compare species that live on the surface of the sea floor, exposed to vertebrate predators such as fish, with species that live buried in the sand and silt, hidden from larger predators but vulnerable to large numbers of parasites such as nematodes.

Coppard said the study would ultimately explore how such venoms function and reveal their potential use as clinical reagents.

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