Sea Urchin Body Plan Development and Evolution: An Integrative Transcriptomic Approach

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Israel, Jennifer Wygoda


Wray, Greg
McClay, David

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My dissertation work integrates comparative transcriptomics and functional analyses to investigate gene expression changes underlying two significant aspects of sea urchin evolution and development: the dramatic developmental changes associated with an ecologically significant shift in life history strategy and the development of the unusual radial body plan of adult sea urchins.

In Chapter 2, I investigate evolutionary changes in gene expression underlying the switch from feeding (planktotrophic) to nonfeeding (lecithotrophic) development in sea urchins. In order to identify these changes, I used Illumina RNA-seq to measure expression dynamics across 7 developmental stages in three sea urchin species: the lecithotroph Heliocidaris erythrogramma, the closely related planktotroph Heliocidaris tuberculata, and an outgroup planktotroph Lytechinus variegatus. My analyses draw on a well-characterized developmental gene regulatory network (GRN) in sea urchins to understand how the ancestral planktotrophic developmental program was altered during the evolution of lecithotrophic development. My results suggest that changes in gene expression profiles occurred more frequently across the transcriptome during the evolution of lecithotrophy than during the persistence of planktotrophy. These changes were even more pronounced within the GRN than across the transcriptome as a whole, and occurred in each network territory (skeletogenic, endomesoderm and ectoderm). I found evidence for both conservation and divergence of regulatory interactions in the network, as well as significant changes in the expression of genes with known roles in larval skeletogenesis, which is dramatically altered in lecithotrophs. I further explored network dynamics between species using coexpression analyses, which allowed me to identify novel players likely involved in sea urchin neurogenesis and endoderm patterning.

In Chapter 3, I investigate developmental changes in gene expression underlying radial body plan development and metamorphosis in H. erythrogramma. Using Illumina RNA-seq, I measured gene expression profiles across larval, metamorphic, and post-metamorphic life cycle phases. My results present a high-resolution view of gene expression dynamics during the complex transition from pre- to post-metamorphic development and suggest that distinct sets of regulatory and effector proteins are used during different life history phases.

Collectively, my investigations provide an important foundation for future, empirical studies to investigate the functional role of gene expression change in the evolution of developmental differences between species and also for the generation of the unusual radial body plan of sea urchins.






Israel, Jennifer Wygoda (2015). Sea Urchin Body Plan Development and Evolution: An Integrative Transcriptomic Approach. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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