Sea anemones - masters of producing new nerve cells

Researchers have revealed how a seemingly simple animal is able to produce nerve cells throughout its entire body.

By Andreas R. Graven

The sea anemone Nematostella vectensis was used in the researcher's experiments. (Photograph: Chiara Sinigaglia)

The stem cells that a sea anemone uses to generate its nervous system are more similar to those of humans than expected, a new study from the the Uni Research Sars Centre shows.

The study is published in the journal Development.

Nerve cells are everywhere in our bodies: in our skin, guts, brains. But these nerve cells were generated from  a small area of tissue when we were embryos. In this tissue, neural stem cells give rise to nerve cells through a complicated process of cell division and stepwise specialization.

Few of the stem cells that generate nerve cells when we are embryos are still alive once we are adults, and it is therefore difficult for us to replace damaged nerve cells, for instance after an injury or a stroke.

Among the champions at replacing nerve cells are sea anemones - animals that do not have a brain and only very distantly related to us.

The study by Gemma Richards and Fabian Rentzsch show that the species Nematostella vectensis, a starlet sea anemone, uses stem cells that is surprisingly similar to ours to generate their nerve cells.

Gemma Richards and Fabian Rentzsch.  (Photograph: Andreas R. Graven)

- Embryos of the sea anemone can generate nerve cells throughout their entire body and they can completely regenerate their nervous system as adults”, says postdoc Gemma Richards and the first author of the study.

The researchers have now been able to genetically label a specific group of cells in the sea anemone,

- With this technique we can see that they build their nervous system from stem cells that exclusively generate nerve cells, resembling the way humans do this.  

The gene that has been used to label these neural stem cells is important for nerve cell formation in humans as well.

The Rentzsch group has now started to compare this process in more detail between sea anemones and other animals.

- There is no straight connection to nervous system regeneration in humans, but the question as to why these animals can do it so much better than we can, is of course in the back of our heads, Rentzsch says.

Gemma Sian Richards and Fabian Rentzsch (2014) Transgenic analysis of a SoxB gene reveals neural progenitor cells in the cnidarian Nematostella vectensis. Development

Dec. 2, 2014, 11 a.m.