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Professor Daniel Martinez Coauthors Paper in "Nature" on Sequencing of the Hydra Genome

Daniel Martinez, professor of biology at Pomona College, is one of the coauthors of a paper released online today in the journal Nature, describing the successful sequencing of the genome of the hydra, a tiny freshwater organism known for its remarkable regenerative properties. The paper, titled “The dynamic genome of Hydra,” is the product of a collaboration between 74 co-authors from around the world. It was published online on the journal’s Web site, www.nature.com, in advance of the release of the print journal.

The hydra was one of 18 organisms selected in 2004 by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) for a genome-sequencing project designed to shed light on the human genome by providing comparisons with the genomes of other organisms. Martinez said the hydra was chosen as one of the nine non-mammalian species in the project because it belongs to a group of animals, the Cnidaria, that diverged from other animals so early in evolutionary history.

“Given that hydra separated from the rest of the animals a long time ago, any process that is shared by say a human and a hydra is very likely to have evolved very early in animal evolution,” Martinez said. “Thus, the hydra genome will provide an invaluable point of comparison to characterize and understand more complex organisms, including us.”

He also noted that despite the fact that the hydra is a far simpler creature physiologically, humans and hydra have similar numbers of protein-coding genes, with about 25,000 for humans and about 20,000 for the hydra. “Understanding such a simple, yet complex creature, we get a much better understanding of why and how humans are complex,” he said. “I like to use the analogy of a Lexus and Model T. The Lexus is very complex. If you want to understand the basics of how a car works, you should look under the hood of a Model T. It’s the same with humans and the hydra.”

Launched in 2004, the project also included plans to sequence the genomes of nine mammals—the African savannah elephant, the European common shrew, the European hedgehog, the guinea pig, the lesser hedgehog tenrec, the nine-banded armadillo, the rabbit, the domestic cat and the orangutan. The other eight non-mammalian organisms include a slime mold, a ciliate, a choanoflagellate, a placozoan, a snail, two species of roundworms and the sea lamprey.

“With each new genome that we sequence, we move closer to the goal of finding all of the crucial elements of the human genome involved in development, health and disease," Mark S. Guyer, Ph.D., director of NHGRI's Division of Extramural Research said in press release announcing the launch of the project in 2004. "We hope to accelerate that process with our new sequencing strategy that identifies the organisms, or sets of organisms, with the greatest potential to fill gaps in our knowledge."

Martinez has been studying the hydra since graduate school and was the first hydra scholar to provide strong evidence that the hydra, unlike most organisms, seems never to age and could conceivably, under perfect circumstances, live forever. He joined the Pomona College faculty in 1997 and is currently chair of the Biology Department.

Pomona College is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.