Amro Hamdoun. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Genetics Breakthrough in Sea Urchins to Aid in Biomedical Research

Use of gene editing tool CRISPR allows development of genetically engineered marine animals

Marine biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have created a line of sea urchins whose genetic makeup is fully mapped and can be edited to study human disease genes. The creation of these new research model organisms will accelerate the pace of marine biomedical research.

Sea urchins, like fruit flies or lab rats, have been an organism used in research for more than a century. Even before this breakthrough, sea urchins led to the discovery of a protein family known as cyclins that guides division of cells. That knowledge went on to become the basis of current cancer treatments and earned cyclin’s discoverers a Nobel Prize.

Now Scripps marine biologist Amro Hamdoun and colleagues have taken this research to a new level by developing lines of sea urchins that can be used as genetic models using the gene editing technology known as CRISPR. The modified sea urchins are derived from the fast-growing species, Lytechinus pictus, also known as the painted sea urchin.

The team describes its results June 6 in the journal Development.

Kasey Mitchell, staff technician in the Hamdoun lab, with sea urchins
Kasey Mitchell, staff technician in the Hamdoun lab, with sea urchins. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Hamdoun said the new sea urchins could serve as a new workhorse organism in marine biomedical research, capable of being cultivated to adulthood in four to six months at room temperature. Presently many species of sea urchins are used around the world to study the developmental origins of diseases, and the effects of pollutants on human and marine health. But few can be grown in the lab and genetically modified like other lab animals. Having this new “genetically enabled” urchin could dramatically enhance the efficiency, reproducibility, and utility of those studies.

“Sea urchins have long been a favorite model organism for marine biologists, but they have been bottlenecked by not having stable genetics,” Hamdoun said. “This work breaks that final barrier. This genetically enabled urchin will be an important resource for the large community of researchers who use urchins in their labs.”

The research was an unexpected silver lining from the COVID pandemic which impacted operations in research labs around the country for more than two years. In the case of Hamdoun’s lab, team members developed a sense of mission that motivated them to continue with the work.

“It gave us something positive to focus on,” Hamdoun said. “The team spent two years intently focused on solving the barriers to making a genetically enabled sea urchin. Once we figured out how to make the precise modifications we wanted, we next had to figure out how to efficiently culture the urchins and select the modified animals. It is a real testament to the group’s dedication that they accomplished this despite the adverse circumstances. I like to think that while many people were home growing cool things like houseplants or sourdough starters, we were also growing something interesting, but it was a biomedical research animal.”

Postdoctoral researcher Catherine Schrankel analyzes sea urchin tissue. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego
Scripps Oceanography postdoctoral researcher Catherine Schrankel processes sample under the microscope.
Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Besides Hamdoun, co-authors of the study included Himanshu Vyas, Jose Espinoza, Catherine Schrankel, Kasey Mitchell, Katherine Nesbit, Elliot Jackson, Nathan Chang, Yoon Lee, and Deirdre Lyons of Scripps Oceanography as well as researchers from University of North Carolina Charlotte and Wilmington campuses.

The National Institutes of Health Program on Oceans and Human Health and the National Science Foundation funded the research.                       



About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.