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Open Access Research

A global view of gene expression in lithium and zinc treated sea urchin embryos: new components of gene regulatory networks

Albert J Poustka1*, Alexander Kühn1, Detlef Groth1, Vesna Weise1, Shunsuke Yaguchi23, Robert D Burke2, Ralf Herwig1, Hans Lehrach1 and Georgia Panopoulou1

Author Affiliations

1 Max-Planck Institut für Molekulare Genetik, Evolution and Development Group, Ihnestrasse 73, 14195 Berlin, Germany

2 University of Victoria, Departments of Biology and Biochemistry/Microbiology, 3800 Finnerty Road, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8P 5C5

3 US National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 30 Convent Drive, MSC 4326, Bethesda. Maryland 20815, USA

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Genome Biology 2007, 8:R85  doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-5-r85

Published: 16 May 2007



The genome of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus has recently been sequenced because it is a major model system for the study of gene regulatory networks. Embryonic expression patterns for most genes are unknown, however.


Using large-scale screens on arrays carrying 50% to 70% of all genes, we identified novel territory-specific markers. Our strategy was based on computational selection of genes that are differentially expressed in lithium-treated embryos, which form excess endomesoderm, and in zinc-treated embryos, in which endomesoderm specification is blocked. Whole-mount in situ hybridization (WISH) analysis of 700 genes indicates that the apical organ region is eliminated in lithium-treated embryos. Conversely, apical and specifically neural markers are expressed more broadly in zinc-treated embryos, whereas endomesoderm signaling is severely reduced. Strikingly, the number of serotonergic neurons is amplified by at least tenfold in zinc-treated embryos. WISH analysis further indicates that there is crosstalk between the Wnt (wingless int), Notch, and fibroblast growth factor signaling pathways in secondary mesoderm cell specification and differentiation, similar to signaling cascades that function during development of presomitic mesoderm in mouse embryogenesis. We provide differential expression data for more than 4,000 genes and WISH patterns of more than 250 genes, and more than 2,400 annotated WISH images.


Our work provides tissue-specific expression patterns for a large fraction of the sea urchin genes that have not yet been included in existing regulatory networks and await functional integration. Furthermore, we noted neuron-inducing activity of zinc on embryonic development; this is the first observation of such activity in any organism.