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Ohio State To Lead In Detailing Sea Creatures' Branch Of The Tree Of Life


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Starfish, sea urchins and their kin are among the next groups of organisms to be documented in the National Science Foundation’s Assembling the Tree of Life project.

Ohio State University scientists will lead a 10-institution team in using genetic information from modern species as well as anatomical data from fossil specimens dating back more than 500 million years to figure out precisely where echinoderms fit into the history of all life.

The $3 million initiative begins in January 2011. Ohio State will provide both paleontological expertise as well as computational leadership in analyzing the data. Ohio State will receive $928,000 of the total grant amount.

Daniel Janies

Echinoderms are organized into what is known as a phylum in the hierarchy of biological classification. They include five living classes of animals whose common names are starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins, crinoids and sea cucumbers.

But those five living classes don’t tell the entire echinoderm story. Up to 16 extinct classes are known to have existed since at least the Cambrian Period, 540 million years ago. Fossil echinoderms are common throughout Earth history, but a comprehensive effort to reconstruct the phylum’s entire history has yet to be accomplished.

“Echinoderms share a common ancestor with backboned animals and thus provide a crucial link to understanding a huge portion of the entire tree of life as well as the history of our species,” said Daniel Janies, associate professor of biomedical informatics at Ohio State and principal investigator for the NSF grant.

Janies is a biologist who specializes in assembling supercomputers to analyze enormous amounts of data. Ohio State’s co-principal investigator on the grant is William Ausich, professor of earth sciences, who is an expert on crinoids, which are commonly referred to as sea lilies.

Crinoids and other echinoderms share characteristics that are of interest to materials scientists and biomedical engineers. The sea animals can regenerate missing limbs, and they can use neural signals to change the properties of their ligaments, made mostly of a special form of collagen, from being firm and stiff one minute to jelly-like and almost fluid the next.

“We all complement one another – the idea is to pool and digitize as much information as possible and come up with consensus agreement about how evolutionary history unfolded in echinoderms. The challenge is to connect partial sets of data with common threads."

The scientists are poised to learn even more about these creatures’ special features as they work to determine animals’ place in evolutionary history.

“There is an important overall distinction within the tree of life, and that is the distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates – organisms that have spinal columns, and those that don’t. Echinoderms are right in the middle,” Ausich said. “From the standpoint of understanding the origination of vertebrate organisms, where they transition from the more simple invertebrates, we need to understand echinoderms, which are near the base of the vertebrate tree.”

This project is rare within the NSF Tree of Life initiative for its strong representation of paleontologists, who study prehistoric life for which there is no genomic record. The team includes a number of biologists and paleontologists who specialize in morphology, the detailed description of organisms based on their specific internal and external structural features.

“We all complement one another – the idea is to pool and digitize as much information as possible and come up with consensus agreement about how evolutionary history unfolded in echinoderms,” Ausich said. “The challenge is to connect partial sets of data with common threads. The oldest echinoderms are approximately 540 million years old, but experts differ on the starting point and whether older echinoderms existed. However, where it starts from is key to understanding where it goes.”

Meanwhile, other scientists will be able to collect genetic data on living examples of echinoderms.

That combination of research techniques will pose an information technology challenge, Janies noted. Biomedical informatics researchers link computers together to analyze massive amounts of data. In this case, they will have to devise a system to capture both genetic and anatomical data and assess various hypotheses for the history of echinoderms and humans and their very deep common ancestor.

“We will be trying to find ways to connect genomic information to paleontological information, which is based on anatomy,” he said.

The computers will explore the similarities and differences between the modern samples containing both genetic and anatomical information, and fossil samples that contain only anatomical information, to construct what is called a phylogenetic tree for the entire echinoderm phylum. Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary relationships among various biological species believed to have a common ancestor. The Tree of Life is, in fact, one massive phylogenetic structure involving all organisms, from bacteria to fungi as well as plants and animals.

Collaborating institutions for this project are the universities of Michigan, Tennessee and Guam; Abilene Christian, Duke, West Virginia, Louisiana State and Nova Southeastern universities; and the University of California, San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


Contacts: Daniel Janies, (614) 292-1202; daniel.janies@osumc.edu and William Ausich, (614) 292-3353; ausich.1@osu.edu

Written by Emily Caldwell, (614) 292-8310; caldwell.151@osu.edu