Breakthrough research at UNH could give insight into genetic past

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February 25, 2013, 4:48 pm
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(NECN:  Lauren Collins, Durham, NH) - They're slimy, they're squiggly and they're one of the oldest vertebrates on the planet.

“They were here long before the dinosaurs,” says UNH biochemistry professor Dr. Stacia Sower. “They survived when over 95-percent of animals went extinct.”

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are on a team that's mapped the sea lamprey genome, the genetic blueprint for this jawless fish.  Dr. Sower and research associate Dr. Wayne Decatur have specifically looked at reproductive hormones.

“Really what you see is a similar pattern in the lamprey, in the chicken, in the human,” explains Dr. Decatur of his findings. “Things will be moved around here and there a little, but overall it's the same pattern.”

That indicates a common ancestor among us.

“I'm smiling because lampreys are the only species of vertebrates that are parasitic and perhaps humans have a little bit of parasitic nature in them,” says Dr. Sower.  

The adult lamprey feeds by attaching itself to a larger fish and sucking its blood.  And while that may sound like a couple of people you know, the connection between this prehistoric vertebrate and humans is a lot more complex.  All genes mutate over time, making us us and them them.

“We're definitely five million years removed,” says Dr. Decatur.  

But getting to the root of the lamprey's hormones is like finding the stem cell of the human version.  One hormone, in particular, holds promise for the biomedical field.  It's known as GnRH and both humans and lampreys have it.

Dr. Sower explains, GnRH can stimulate reproduction, can use it in anovulatory women and can be used for cancer purposes.  There's a wide range of applications.”

Kinda makes you think twice about the slippery little sucker.  

These breakthrough findings are published in the journal "Nature Genetics.

Tags: UNH, Lauren Collins, University of New Hampshire, fish, durham new hampshire, human genome, dr. stacia sower, dr. wayne decatur, sea lamprey, biochemistry
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