by Piter Kehoma Boll
We finally have a rather complete sequencing of a planarian’s genome, more precisely, of the planarian Schmidtea mediterranea, which is an important model organism for the study of stem cells and regeneration.
In case you don’t know, planarians have a remarkable ability of regeneration, so that even tiny pieces are able to regenerate into a whole organism. They are like a real-life Wolverine, but somewhat cooler! This amazing ability is possible due to the presence of a group of stem cells called neoblasts that can differentiate into any cell type found in the planarian’s body. In fact, all differentiated cell types in planarians are unable to undergo mitosis, so that neoblasts are responsible for constantly replacing cells in every tissue. But we are not here to explain the details of planarian regeneration. We are here to talk about Schmidtea mediterranea‘s genome!
A rather complete genome of S. mediterranea has been recently published and its analysis reveal some astonishing features.
First of all, 61.7% of S. mediterranea‘s genome is formed by repeated elements. Repeated elements are basically DNA strands that occur in multiple copies throught the genome of an organism. They are thought to come from the DNA of virus that was incorporated to the host’s DNA. In humans, about 46% of the genome is formed by repeated elements. Most repeated elements of S. mediterranea belong to unidentified families of retroelements, thus suggesting that they are new undescribed families. Those repeats are very long, having more than 30 thousand base pairs, which are not known to exist in other animals. The only other group of repeated elements with a similar size is found in plants and known as OGRE (Origin G-Rich Repeated Elements). The long repeat found in Schmidtea was therefore called Burro (Big, unknown repeat rivaling Ogre).
But certainly the most surprising thing about S. mediterranea‘s genome is the lack of many highly conserved genes that are found in most eukaryotes and that were thought to be essential for cells to function properly.
Schmidtea mediterranea lacks genes responsible for repairing double-stranded breaks (DSBs) in DNA, which would make them very likely to suffer a lot of mutations and sensitive to anything that induces DSBs. However, planarians are known to have an extraordinary resistance to gamma radiation that induces DSBs. Do they have other repairing mechanisms or is our current understanding about this process flawed?
Another important gene that was not found in S. mediterranea is the Fatty Acid Synthase (FASN) gene, which is essential for an organism to synthesize new fatty acids. Planarians therefore would have to rely on the lipids acquired from the diet. This gene is also absent in parasitic flatworms and was at first thought to be an adaptation to parasitism but since it is absent in free-living species as well, it does not seem to be the case. Could it be a synapomorphy of flatworms, i.e., a character that identifies this clade of animals?
That is not enough for little Schmidtea, though. More than that, this lovely planarian seems to lack the MAD1 and MAD2 genes, which are found in virtually all eukaryotes. Those genes are responsible for the Spindle Assembly Checkpoint (SAC), an important step during cell division that prevents the two copies of a chromosome to separate from each other before they are all connected to the spindle apparatus. This assures that the chromosomes will be evenly distributed in both daughter cells. Errors in this process lead to aneuploidy (the wrong number of chromosomes in each daughter cell), which is the cause of some genetic disorders such as the Down syndrome in humans. Planarians do not have any trouble in distributing their chromosomes properly, so what is going on? Have they developed a new way to prevent cellular chaos or, again, is our current understanding about this process flawed?
Let’s wait for the next chapters.
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Grohme, M. A.; Schloissnig, S.; Rozanski, A.; Pippel, M.; Young, G. R.; Winkler, S.; Brandl, H.; Henry, I.; Dahl, A.; Powell, S.; Hiller, M.; Myers, E.; Rink, J. C. (2018). “The genome of Schmidtea mediterranea and the evolution of core cellular mechanisms”. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature25473
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