'Living fossil' worm sheds light on cancer development

In collaboration with the Press Association

Studies involving a marine worm are providing insights into the evolution of cell division, details of which could help to shed light on cancer development.

Biologists at the University of Oregon have been studying the bristle worm Platynereis dumerilii, an ocean-dwelling worm which develops by a pattern of 'asymmetrical' cell division - where two different kinds of cells are created from the splitting in two of a single cell.

Publishing their findings in the journal Developmental Cell, the researchers revealed that the worm is a 'living fossil', as it appears to have retained many of the features of its ancestors.

Its simplicity also makes it an ideal model system for studying how cells work on a basic level.

The team studied a protein called beta-catenin, which is partly responsible for regulating cell division.

Lead author Stephan Schneider, a postdoctoral researcher at the university's Institute of Molecular Biology, commented that faults in this mechanism are "associated with some of the most common forms of cancer, including colon cancer and melanoma".

The beta-catenin protein is already the subject of research in mice, fruit flies and roundworms, but this is the first time it has been studied in bristle worms.

It is now believed to have played an important role in the earliest stages of the evolution of life.

Co-author Bruce Bowerman, a professor of molecular biology, said that it may be one of the earliest mechanisms involved in embryo growth to make cells adopt different roles.