Scientists Reveal the Secret of a Strange Animal’s Eternal Youth

Scientists Reveal the Secret of a Strange Animal’s Eternal Youth

Tentacle of a transgenic sea anemone

Cross-section through a tentacle of a transgenic sea anemone showing differentiation products of the SoxC cell population (magenta) and curlers (yellow). Credit: Andreas Denner

In sea anemones, highly conserved genes guarantee the lifelong differentiation of neurons and glandular cells.

Sea anemones are seemingly immortal animals. They seem immune to aging and the negative effects people experience over time. However, the exact reasons for their eternal youth are not fully understood.

The genetic fingerprint of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis reveals that members of this incredibly ancient animal strain use the same gene cascades for neural cell differentiation as more complex organisms. These genes are also responsible for keeping all cells in the organism in balance during the life of the anemone. These findings were recently published in the journal Mobile Reports by a group of developmental biologists led by Ulrich Technau of the University of Vienna.

Nearly all animal organisms are made up of millions, if not billions, of cells that come together in intricate ways to create specific tissues and organs, which are composed of a range of cell types, such as a variety of neurons and glandular cells. However, it is unclear how this critical balance of different cell types arises, how it is regulated and whether the different cell types of different animal organisms share a common origin.

Optical longitudinal section of a sea anemone

Optical longitudinal section of a sea anemone with nanos1 transgenic neuronal cells (red) in both cell layers. Muscles are colored green, cell nuclei are blue. Credit: Andreas Denner

Single-cell fingerprint leads to common ancestors

The research group, led by evolutionary developmental biologist Ulrich Technau, who is also head of the Single Cell Regulation of Stem Cells (SinCeReSt) research platform at the University of Vienna, has examined the diversity and evolution of all nerve and gland cell types and their developmental origins in the sea anemone. Nematostella vectensis.

To achieve this, they used single cell transcriptomics, a method that has revolutionized biomedicine and evolutionary biology over the past decade.

“It allows whole organisms to be split into individual cells – and the entirety of all currently expressed genes in each individual cell can be decoded. Different cell types differ fundamentally in the genes they express. Therefore, single cell transcriptomics can be used to determine the molecular fingerprint of each individual cell,” explains Julia Steger, the lead author of the current publication.

In the study, cells with an overlapping fingerprint were grouped together. This allowed the scientists to distinguish defined cell types or cells in transitional stages of development, each with unique expression combinations. It also enabled the researchers to identify the common precursor and stem cell populations of the different tissues.

To their surprise, they found that, contrary to previous assumptions, neurons, glandular cells and other sensory cells originate from one common population of precursors, which can be verified by genetic labeling in living animals. Since some glandular cells with neuronal functions are also known in vertebrates, this could indicate a very old evolutionary relationship between glandular cells and neurons.

Old genes in constant use

One gene plays a special role in the development of these common ancestor cells. SoxC is expressed in all neuron progenitor cells, glandular cells and cnidocytes and is essential for the formation of all these cell types, as the authors were further able to demonstrate in knockout experiments.

Interestingly, this gene is no stranger: it also plays an important role in the formation of the nervous system in humans and many other animals, which, along with other data, shows that these important regulatory mechanisms of nerve cell differentiation appear to be conserved through the animal kingdom,” says Technau.

By comparing different life stages, the authors also found that in sea anemones, the genetic processes of neuron development are maintained from the embryo to the adult organism, and therefore contribute to the balance of neurons throughout the life of the animal. Nematostella Vectensis.

This is remarkable because, unlike humans, sea anemones can replace missing or damaged neurons throughout their lives. For future research, this raises the question of how the sea anemone manages to maintain these mechanisms, which only occur in the embryonic stage in more complex organisms, in a controlled manner in the adult organism.

Reference: “Single-cell transcriptomics identifies conserved regulators of neuroglandular lineages” by Julia Steger, Alison G. Cole, Andreas Denner, Tatiana Lebedeva, Grigory Genikhovich, Alexander Ries, Robert Reischl, Elisabeth Taudes, Mark Lassnig, and Ulrich Technau, September 20, 2022 , Mobile Reports.
DOI: 10.116/j.celrep.2022.111370

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