BAR HARBOR — The study of sea urchins could provide scientists with a better understanding of the effects of aging, according to research from MDI Biological Laboratory’s James Coffman.
Coffman last year was involved with a study of several different species of wild sea urchin led by Andrea Bodnar of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, who has been a visiting scientist at the MDI Bio Lab in Bar Harbor.
Coffman and Bodnar studied three species of sea urchins and how their bodies regenerate.
“The reason why it is interesting is that there are different species of sea urchins that all have very different life spans,” Coffman said. On the West Coast, the giant red sea urchin can live to be up to 150 years old. “They can probably live a lot longer,” he said.
Purple sea urchins live for about 40-50 years, while East Coast variegated sea urchins, which appear in many different colors, live to be just 4 or 5 years old.
Scientists are able to determine the sea urchins’ age by their size. Sea urchins apparently continue to grow — albeit slowly — throughout their lives.
“We started with the question, ‘Why do these species have different life spans?’” Coffman said.
The researchers discovered that sea urchins do not undergo senescence, or the process of deterioration with age.
“The assumption we made was that the urchins with shorter life spans undergo senescence,” Coffman said. However, that was not the case. Even species with short life spans did not appear to show the effects of aging, meaning that they could be dying due to predation or disease.
“There was no difference in the ability to regenerate between young and old sea urchins,” said Coffman.
Red sea urchins were able to regenerate after experiencing trauma, such as the amputation of tube feet and spines.
Coffman said the research is important because it can be used as a model for biogerentologists (scientists who specialize in the study of aging) to research longevity in other species.
“We may be able to figure out the fountain of youth,” Coffman joked.
Other animals such as rockfish, which can live for 200 years, and the Galapagos turtle, which can live to 150 years, show negligible senescence, or minor signs of aging.
While Coffman said he has no future grants in place to continue the sea urchin study, his focus is now on an adjacent subject.
He currently is studying zebrafish and how their exposure to early trauma increases disease risk later in life.