Stanford University

Echinoderms – natural experiments in body plans


Echinoderms are one of the most intriguing of the metazoan phyla. As deuterostomes, they are the sister group to hemichordates and closely related to chordates. The extant members are divided into 5 classes, the sea urchins (echinoids), sea stars (asteroids), brittle stars (ophiuroids), sea cucumbers (holothuroids), and sea lilies or feather stars (crinoids). The adult body plan of these animals is highly modified and derived in relation to the other deuterostome groups: the most striking element of their body plan is the five-fold radial symmetry (also referred to as pentaradial); most apparent in the asteroids and ophiuroids. The evolutionary relationship between the five-fold radial body plan of echinoderms and the ancestral bilateral body plan has puzzled zoologists for more than a century. In the lab, we are revisiting this question by investigating how the highly conserved gene regulatory networks that pattern the body of most bilarian animals are deployed in the derived pentaradial body plan of echinoderms, with the goal to understand which steps led to the unusual evolution of these animals. This project involves comparative molecular and computational approaches in several echinoderm species, in particular the sea star Patiria miniata and the sea cucumber Parastichopus parvimensis.


Relevant publications:

Lowe, C.J., Issel-tarver, L., Wray, G. A. (2002) Gene expression and larval evolution: changing roles of distal-less and orthodenticle in echinoderm larvae. Evolution and Development, 4(2), 111-123. DOI:10.1046/j.1525-142X.2002.01066.x

Wray, G.A. and Lowe, C.J. (2000) Developmental regulatory genes and echinoderm evolution. Systematic Biology, 49(1),  28-51. DOI:10.1080/10635150050207375

Lowe, C.J. and Wray, G.A. (1997) Radical alterations in the roles of homeobox genes during echinoderm evolution. Nature, 389, 718-721. DOI:10.1038/39580