Spring 2001, Volume 37, No. 2


Lives of a Saint

Altruism 101
Reach Out!
Venture Catalysts
Sagehens in Paradise

-Pomona Forum-
Altruism 101
-News Print-
Professor's Philosophy of Life Unshaken

-Pomona Today-
Professor of the Year
Inside the Power Crunch
Rite of Passage
Top Five
Frats with a Difference
Bridge Over the Pacific

-New Knowledge-
The Secrets of the Hydra

-Sports Report-
Dynamic Duos
Getting On
George Moore
-Campaign Update-
American Dreams

-Parlor Talk-
-Family Tree-
-Alumni Profile-
Casey Trupin '95
-Alumni Puzzler-
-Back Cover-
Pilgrims' Progress


Hercules struggled mightily to slay the nine-headed Hydra in the swamps of Lernea, contending with two new heads that sprouted whenever he dispatched one.
   What he didn't know was that he needed only to knock out a gene.
   Daniel Martinez, an assistant professor of biology at Pomona, has helped uncover a molecular switch that appears to have a role in the making of a head in the hydra, a tiny, tubular invertebrate with a mouth encircled by tentacles, giving it more than a passing resemblance to its mythical namesake. It's too late to be of use to Hercules, but the discovery of this gene operating in a primitive creature like the hydra is important in advancing our understanding of the history and diversity of life on Earth.
   The hydra familiar to biologists is in the phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish and corals. On the evolutionary tree, this phylum consists of the lowest forms of animals that exhibit a recognizable body plan. Under evolutionary theory, Cnidarians and all the animals higher on the tree, including humans, shared a common ancestor. Martinez is among scientists who are probing the biological mechanisms at work in some of nature's humblest animals to help shed light on the makeup of much more complex metazoans, such as people.
   In the hydra's simplicity lies its allure, says Martinez, whose office in Seaver South is adorned with colorful, artfully molded jellyfish floating on filaments from the ceiling.
   "Let's imagine that we want to study the basics of how cars function," he says. "Would you study a Model T or a Lexus? If you open a Lexus hood, there are computers, there are emissions controls, there are all kinds of things that are not essential for a car to function. So if you want to study the basics of the car, you go for a Model T. And if you want to study what makes an animal an animal, the basic genes that control development, you cannot study humans, because we are like a Lexus. We have all kinds of complications that are basic for us as a human, but are not basic for us as an animal. By studying a primitive creature, the hydra, we can look at the genes that regulate development—some of the same genes that are in you and me—and see what they were doing at the beginning."
   The life of a hydra, as for other metazoans, begins with a cell that starts to divide. One of the first steps is the formation of a sort of hollow ball, which then develops into a saclike structure with a mouth at one end and an anus at the other: a primitive gut. This early stage of embryonic development is called gastrulation, and scientists have found that a particular region of the embryo is essential in driving the process: If this region, called the organizer, is removed, gastrulation cannot occur. If it is removed from one embryo and transplanted into another, it creates a tandem pair of connected creatures, with two organizers driving gastrulation.
   Certain genes in the organizer region have been identified as having critical roles in the development of an animal. One such gene, found to operate in the organizers of frogs, is called pintallavis. Martinez and his research associates have found a homologous gene operating in the hydra. In the hydra, Martinez calls it budhead. How it works would have been of intense interest to Hercules.
   "If you take a piece from the head of one hydra and transplant it into the body column of another hydra, the transplanted tissue organizes the tissue around it to form a head, resulting in a two-headed hydra," says Martinez. "The gene that we found, that I called budhead, is expressed in a region that we can call the organizer of hydra. This is the same gene that is expressed in the organizer of frogs, and this gene also exists in humans. So humans and hydra seem to share a gene that has something to do with the organizer in embryos."
   Another gene also has been found to be associated with the organizer in both the frog and the more primitive hydra, and Martinez says he and other researchers are seeking to establish how these genes work together. "We know that if we knock out these genes, the organizer loses some of its properties in the frog, and we have found these same two genes together in hydra," he says. "We are starting to build a network of genes that we find are involved in the organizer of frogs that also seem to be involved in the organizer of hydra, and what this suggests is that these genes were really working together early on in animal evolution."
   The discovery of such homologous genes operating in very similar ways in diverse forms of life is just one of the remarkable developments in a new field known as the evolution of development, a fusion of two distinct subdisciplines of biology. For centuries, scientists studying development have focused on the ontogeny of a species; that is, on the process that transforms a single-celled zygote into a complete (albeit little) animal. Since Darwin, evolutionists have studied changes that occur in a plant or animal species through a historical line of descent, or phylogeny. The new approach combines elements of both, and is called evo-devo for short.
   "When we're talking about development, we're talking about how genes switch on and off in different cells to control the transformation of a fertilized egg into a complete organism," says Martinez. "Students of evo-devo want to determine how animal development has changed though evolutionary time to generate all the different kinds of animals that we see today. We want to understand how the molecular machinery has been built up to produce animals as complex as flies or humans."
   One of the nascent field's most astonishing findings has been that the same molecular machinery is used to make animals as seemingly incongruous as an elephant and a butterfly.
   "If you had asked an embryologist 20 years ago about whether the same genes were going to be involved in creating something so different as a grasshopper or a sea urchin or a human, they would have said no, no way. The embryos are too different," says Martinez. But it was found that both in humans and in Drosophila, the fruit fly, sets of molecular switches known as homeobox genes not only are homologous in structure, but are also very similar in function: In fruit flies and in people, and in other organisms as well, they help guide the development of embryos by specifying aspects of the body axis.
   "That discovery gave us the chance to start studying development from an evolutionary point of view," says Martinez, who is an evo-devo specialist. "Now we want to say: Okay, these animals are using the same genes, but they obviously are used in different ways, because you either get a fruit fly or a mouse or a human. So, what is the difference?"
   That is where Martinez's work with the hydra comes in. Because genes can acquire new functions through evolutionary time, a finding such as the one he and his associates made with the hydra is important in helping to pinpoint alterations, or the lack of them, in patterns of gene expression over the course of time. Martinez's findings suggest that the function of some genes associated with the organizer seems to have been maintained through many layers of phylogeny.
   "We have found that humans and fruit flies share genes that control development," Martinez says. "So we can go farther down the evolutionary tree and ask: Do hydras have the same genes that control development? And if so, how have they changed over time? By studying a simple creature, we have a better chance of understanding what makes an animal an animal, from a developmental point of view. Then, once we have that basic element determined, we can study evolution. We can say: How now, from this basic plan, can we make a human? What are the things we need to add to a Model T to make it a Lexus? And then we can see what is primitive, and what is derived. We can see what was there at the beginning, and we can see all of the complexities that have been added through time to make your body plan different from that of the simpler creatures."
   The complexities that account for nature's grandeur--so much of it still a mystery--helped draw Martinez to evo-devo studies. A graduate of Universidad Nacional del Sur in Argentina and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he expected to become an ecologist. "But when I learned more about evolution, I became fascinated by it," he says. "To look at the process of development from an evolutionary point of view is fascinating. Today we are tackling one of the most significant questions in biology: Why do animals look the way they do? What molecular processes make a snail different from a bird?
   "We are trying to elucidate the basic instructions to build a snail and a bird, and then compare those instructions to determine similarities and differences. The diversity of animals that we see today is created through development. But development, like all the other features of an organism, has evolved. Trying to figure out the changes required to make a Lexus out of a Model T is not only an incredibly enlightening exercise, but also a lot of fun." --Michael Balchunas