Researchers probe a unique marine animal for insights into human vascular system

A light micrograph shows individuals of a Botryllus schlosseri colony which have arranged themselves into a star-shaped structure called a “system.” Credit: Delany Rodriguez

At first glance, Botryllus schlosseri is actually pretty nondescript.


The tiny, transparent marine organism, abundant along California’s coast, spends its life colonizing submerged surfaces—boats, docks as well as even various other animals. nevertheless the star ascidian or golden star tunicate, as B. schlosseri is actually commonly known, is actually more than just a humble hanger-on.

As an invertebrate closely related to humans, the item has characteristics which are about to make the item the focus of a multicampus research project aimed at placing the University of California (UC) at the forefront of vascular mechanics as well as—by extension—cardiovascular disease, which is actually responsible for one in four deaths from the state.

UC has awarded Megan Valentine, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, as well as partners at UCLA as well as UC Irvine with $300,000 for a pilot project which is actually part of the UC Multi-Campus Research Programs as well as Initiatives (MRPI). The awards provide two years of seed funding for collaborations which show promise in terms of launching pioneering cross-disciplinary research which strengthens UC’s position as a leading public research university, supports innovative graduate student research, informs public policy as well as benefits California residents.

“This kind of is actually a actually strong area for UC as well as something we have a lot of pride of ownership in, nevertheless the campuses could be better linked,” Valentine said. “These interdisciplinary initiatives coming from the UC Office of the President play an important role in cultivating relationships within as well as across campuses. We’re very grateful due to This kind of opportunity to leverage system-wide resources as well as expertise.”

Valentine, her key UCSB collaborator, Anthony De Tomaso, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, as well as Developmental Biology, as well as colleagues at the two various other UC campuses will focus their research on the star ascidia’s vascular mechanics as well as mechanobiology. The latter is actually an emerging field of science focused on how physical forces as well as improvements from the mechanical properties of cells as well as tissues contribute to development, cell differentiation, physiology as well as disease.

The project focuses specifically on vascular mechanics, which—despite the invertebrate’s close evolutionary relationship to humans—has not been studied previously in This kind of context. “A lot of the discoveries we’ve made in terms of what proteins are important for vasculature in humans appear also to be relevant in This kind of style,” Valentine said. “the item has completely untapped potential for discovery.”

“The biology of Botryllus is actually fascinating as well as allows novel approaches in numerous fields, coming from immunology to stem cell biology as well as regeneration,” said De Tomasco, whose lab has studied the animal for HOW LONG. “However, This kind of fresh project on vascular biology is actually potentially groundbreaking, as the item joins the unique anatomy as well as accessibility of the blood vessels to powerful visualization techniques. which allows us to directly manipulate as well as characterize global responses at a resolution not available in various other style organisms.”

The star ascidian incorporates a simple nevertheless unique anatomy, with the vasculature located externally. When the item is actually treated having a drug which disrupts collagen crosslinking—another of its valuable characteristics is actually which the item responds to drugs which humans also respond to—the item retracts the vascular structure in a process clearly visible through an optical microscope as well as even to the naked eye.

“So we get This kind of immediate visual readout coming from a live organism,” Valentine explained. “We can go in as well as manipulate the vessels: stretch them or apply forces with the goal of understanding what’s happening mechanically. The drug does not affect the blood vessels directly; the item affects the matrix in which they sit, softening the item. as well as when the vasculature receives which softening signal, the item retracts. We want to dig into the details of how organisms sense force as well as how they receive as well as process mechanical signals as well as turn which information into various other cell functions—which’s not something which we understand. Then we need to connect which to the broader context of human vascular biology.”

The long-term goal is actually to use the project to establish an infrastructure as well as then to secure longer-term funding as well as form a consortium of biologists as well as engineers to investigate how blood vessels know when to grow as well as shrink as well as how to control those decisions to fight human diseases such as cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration as well as cancer.

The project also seeks to understanding of the role of phagocytes, cells which protect an organism by ingesting harmful foreign entities, cells as well as tissues which are no longer needed. “In This kind of case, as those vessels are retreating as well as you’re losing all the blood vessel volume, those cells have to go somewhere, as well as phagocytes play a role in destroying them,” Valentine explained. “There are a lot of open questions about exactly how which works. as well as because the vasculature is actually on the outside in This kind of system, we have a lot of opportunities for imaging as well as for various other analysis, so maybe we can get to the heart of which question.”

Student training is actually another key component of the MRPI Awards, as well as UCSB undergraduate as well as graduate students who are trained in engineering will hold the opportunity to work with colleagues at UCI as well as UCLA who have expertise in such areas as conventional animal style studies, as well as conducting human clinical trials.

Undergraduate students in a fresh class for summer 2017 will spend three weeks doing discovery-based research at UCSB as well as three weeks learning bioinformatics at UCLA. “The coolest thing about This kind of system is actually which the item is actually so accessible; you can touch the blood vessels with your fingers,” De Tomaso said. “Because the retraction of the vasculature also occurs quickly—taking only 16 hours—students can rapidly learn many experimental processes. There is actually so much low-hanging fruit experimentally which they will actually be able to do brand-fresh science.”

MRPI projects build connections among UC campuses while taking advantage of specific characteristics unique to each one. “In Santa Barbara, because of our location, we understand ocean resources as well as what we can learn coming from studying ocean organisms,” Valentine said. “the item will be powerful if we can share our ocean experience with the various other campuses which don’t have those resources. In a 10 campus system, you don’t need every campus to have expertise in every area. We should be specialized, nevertheless then we should also recognize which as part of the UC system, we can leverage all of the various other campuses in actually unique ways.”


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Researchers probe a unique marine animal for insights into human vascular system

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