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Biol Bull. 2008 Jun;214(3):233-54.

Genomic survey of candidate stress-response genes in the estuarine anemone Nematostella vectensis.

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Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA.


Salt marshes are challenging habitats due to natural variability in key environmental parameters including temperature, salinity, ultraviolet light, oxygen, sulfides, and reactive oxygen species. Compounding this natural variation, salt marshes are often heavily impacted by anthropogenic insults including eutrophication, toxic contamination, and coastal development that alter tidal and freshwater inputs. Commensurate with this environmental variability, estuarine animals generally exhibit broader physiological tolerances than freshwater, marine, or terrestrial species. One factor that determines an organism's physiological tolerance is its ability to upregulate "stress-response genes" in reaction to particular stressors. Comparative studies on diverse organisms have identified a number of evolutionarily conserved genes involved in responding to abiotic and biotic stressors. We used homology-based scans to survey the sequenced genome of Nematostella vectensis, the starlet sea anemone, an estuarine specialist, to identify genes involved in the response to three kinds of insult-physiochemical insults, pathogens, and injury. Many components of the stress-response networks identified in triploblastic animals have clear orthologs in the sea anemone, meaning that they must predate the cnidarian-triploblast split (e.g., xenobiotic receptors, biotransformative genes, ATP-dependent transporters, and genes involved in responding to reactive oxygen species, toxic metals, osmotic shock, thermal stress, pathogen exposure, and wounding). However, in some instances, stress-response genes known from triploblasts appear to be absent from the Nematostella genome (e.g., many metal-complexing genes). This is the first comprehensive examination of the genomic stress-response repertoire of an estuarine animal and a member of the phylum Cnidaria. The molecular markers of stress response identified in Nematostella may prove useful in monitoring estuary health and evaluating coastal conservation efforts. These data may also inform conservation efforts on other cnidarians, such as the reef-building corals.

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