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Gene expression and sensory structures in sponges: Explorations of sensory-neural origins in a non-bilaterian context Open Access


Other title
gene expression
sensory structures
nervous system
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Mah, Jasmine L
Supervisor and department
Leys, Sally (Biological Sciences)
Examining committee member and department
Dacks, Joel (Cell Biology)
Gallin, Warren (Biological Sciences)
Stothard, Paul (Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science)
Department of Biological Sciences
Systematics and Evolution
Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-11:Fall 2017
Master of Science
Degree level
The nervous system is present in all but two animal phyla – one of them being Porifera, sponges. Sponges have no neurons and yet have organized behavior and finely tuned sensation. Furthermore, sponges have genes involved in the nervous system of other animals (informally called ‘neural’ genes). Do these genes impart a sensory capacity in sponges and does their presence suggest that the sponge sensory system is homologous to the nervous system? There are few manipulative genetic techniques for sponges; instead approaches include looking for the expression of ‘neural’ genes in sponge structures. I reviewed the literature of sponge gene expression studies and found little correlation between the expression of ‘neural’ genes and sponge sensory structures. Instead non-sensory cells in sponges expressed just as many, if not more, ‘neural’ genes. I carried out an RNA-seq study to determine whether candidate ‘neural’ genes might be differentially upregulated in the osculum, a demonstrated sensory structure that is the excurrent vent of the sponge filtration system. Four candidate ‘neural’ genes – mGluR, GABAR, Kir and Bsh – were significantly upregulated in sponges with oscula compared to those in which oscula were still developing or in sponge body tissues. While glutamate (L-Glu) and GABA have been shown to trigger and arrest (respectively) sponge contraction behavior, glutamate and GABA receptors themselves may have roles in normal metabolic processes and therefore their upregulation in tissues may reflect differential activity of other activities that occur in the osculum. Taken together, the data presented in this thesis suggest that genes involved in the nervous system of bilaterians are ineffective markers for sensory/coordinating systems in sponges. Instead, studying ‘neural’ genes without the assumption that they hold sensory or coordinating functions may provide a less biased way of investigating sensory-neural origins.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
Citation for previous publication
Mah, J. L., and S. P. Leys. 2017. Think like a sponge: The genetic signal of sensory cells in sponges. Developmental Biology.

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