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Starfish Help Find Origins Of Brain Messenger Molecules Found In Humans

First Posted: Feb 10, 2016 11:18 AM EST

Scientists have discovered genes in starfish that produce neuropeptides, common chemicals found in the human brain. In this new study, researchers from Queen Mary University of London uncovered 40 new neuropeptide genes in a common European starfish species known as "Asterias rubens." Neuropeptides are tiny proteins that are released by nerve cells and act as signaling molecules that control or regulate the activities of other cells. One of the newly found neuropeptides is similar to kisspeptin, which is a chemical that initiates puberty in humans, according to the researchers.

"Our research not only provides us with fascinating insights into the evolutionary origins of brain chemicals that affect how we feel and behave," Maurice Elphick , lead author of the study, said in a news release. "Investigating neuropeptide evolution may also inform the development of novel drugs for therapeutic applications."

Starfish, along with other echinoderms like sea cucumbers and sea urchins, are more closely related to humans compared to other invertebrates and are ideal models to show how molecules evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

The researchers' next step is to determine the functions of the neuropeptides in starfish. They have collaborated with Korean scientists, where they discovered a starfish neuropeptide that functions as a muscle relaxant.

"We were able to determine the DNA sequences of thousands of genes that are expressed in the nervous system of the starfish," said Dr. Dean Semmens, coauthor of the study. "Amongst these we found 40 genes that encode neuropeptides - some of which are the first members of neuropeptide 'families' to be discovered in an invertebrate animal."

The new finding is shedding light on how neural function evolved in the animal kingdom.

The findings of this study were published in the journal Open Biology.

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