Sea Squirts Shed Light on Human Transplant Rejection

Marine Animal Research at UCSB Aims to Solve Problem

Sea squirt <em>Botryllus schlosseri</em>

Research conducted on simple marine organisms at UCSB may help to curb rejection of organ and bone marrow transplants in humans, according to study results published on the Web site of scientific journal Immunity.

A UCSB research team, headed by assistant professor of biology, Anthony W. De Tomaso, aims to understand how to manipulate the body’s immune system into lowering its rejection rate of transplants by observing cellular immune responses in a type of sea squirt—a simple sea organism—called Botryllus schlosseri.

Tanya R. McKitrick (left) and Anthony W. De Tomaso

Modern descendents of our vertebrate ancestors, sea squirts begin life as tadpoles, then attach to intertidal surfaces in flower-like formations, with each sea squirt acting as a petal, to become stationary creatures. In the process of achieving this formation, cells along the edges of stationary and landing sea squirts react to each other, fusing together if related, rejecting each other otherwise.

De Tomaso and his fellow researchers look at this process on a cellular level, attempting to determine how signals from the surfaces of Botryllus schlosseri cells are translated inside the cells’ circuitry, where the ultimate decision about fusion or rejection occurs. The team’s results have determined this to be the same kind of integration that takes place in humans, but to a much simpler extent.

De Tomaso, who has studied this phenomenon of fusion and rejection prior to working at UCSB, helped determine the gene controlling the acceptance/rejection choice in sea squirts during his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.

In addition to solving transplant problems, the study of cellular responses in simple organisms may help with autoimmune diseases.


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