Researchers probe a unique marine animal for insights into human vascular system

A light micrograph shows individuals of a Botryllus schlosseri colony that have arranged themselves into a star-shaped structure called a “system.” Credit: Delany Rodriguez

At first glance, Botryllus schlosseri is pretty nondescript.

The small, transparent marine organism, abundant along California’s coast, spends its life colonizing submerged surfaces—boats, docks and even other animals. But the star ascidian or golden star tunicate, as B. schlosseri is commonly known, is more than just a humble hanger-on.

As an invertebrate closely related to humans, it has characteristics that are about to make it the focus of a multicampus research project aimed at placing the University of California (UC) at the forefront of vascular mechanics and—by extension—cardiovascular disease, which is responsible for one in four deaths in the state.

UC has awarded Megan Valentine, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and partners at UCLA and UC Irvine with $300,000 for a pilot project that is part of the UC Multi-Campus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI). The awards provide two years of seed funding for collaborations that show promise in terms of launching pioneering cross-disciplinary research that strengthens UC’s position as a leading public research university, supports innovative graduate student research, informs public policy and benefits California residents.

“This is a really strong area for UC and something we have a lot of pride of ownership in, but the campuses could be better linked,” Valentine said. “These interdisciplinary initiatives from the UC Office of the President play an important role in cultivating relationships within and across campuses. We’re very grateful for this opportunity to leverage system-wide resources and expertise.”

Valentine, her key UCSB collaborator, Anthony De Tomaso, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and colleagues at the two other UC campuses will focus their research on the star ascidia’s vascular mechanics and mechanobiology. The latter is an emerging field of science focused on how physical forces and changes in the mechanical properties of cells and tissues contribute to development, cell differentiation, physiology and disease.

The project focuses specifically on vascular mechanics, which—despite the invertebrate’s close evolutionary relationship to humans—has not been studied previously in this context. “A lot of the discoveries we’ve made in terms of what proteins are important for in humans appear also to be relevant in this model,” Valentine said. “It has completely untapped potential for discovery.”

“The biology…

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