“Sea cucumbers are animals that belong to the phylum Echinodermata (which includes starfish, brittle stars, and sea urchins), and are some of the most important invertebrates for filtering sediments and recycling nutrients in marine environments,” states Tayzia Santiago ’19, who spent time this summer working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Simon Coppard.
The focus of Santiago’s study was to look at how sea cucumbers cope with increasing temperatures in oceans. She looked at the expression of heat shock protein gene regulation at different temperatures with the hope that the results would assist in understanding when sea cucumbers go into a state of aestivation, a form of hibernation that results in many of their biological processes shutting down.
Santiago sampled tube feet and skin tissue samples from sea cucumbers at increasing temperatures over a three-week period, then looked at the expression of heat shock protein genes using relative quantitative real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction). This was used to measure the expression of target genes relative to endogenous control genes, in both the temperature modified group and in a control group kept at a constant temperature reflecting temperatures in the wild.
Heat shock proteins protect other proteins from damage. A better understanding of how they function and are regulated in sea cucumbers will allow us to predict how these creatures will cope with rising sea temperatures.
During the fall semester, Santiago is continuing her study as an independent research project in Coppard’s lab.
“The importance of sea cucumbers to the health of coral reefs can’t be overstated, as even their poop has even been shown to buffer against ocean acidification and their feeding activity has been shown to help reverse eutrophication,” said Coppard.