A pancreatic exocrine-like cell regulatory circuit operating in the upper stomach of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus larva

Margherita Perillo, Yue Julia Wang, Steven D. Leach, Maria Ina Arnone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Background: Digestive cells are present in all metazoans and provide the energy necessary for the whole organism. Pancreatic exocrine cells are a unique vertebrate cell type involved in extracellular digestion of a wide range of nutrients. Although the organization and regulation of this cell type is intensively studied in vertebrates, its evolutionary history is still unknown. In order to understand which are the elements that define the pancreatic exocrine phenotype, we have analyzed the expression of genes that contribute to specification and function of this cell-type in an early branching deuterostome, the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Results: We defined the spatial and temporal expression of sea urchin orthologs of pancreatic exocrine genes and described a unique population of cells clustered in the upper stomach of the sea urchin embryo where exocrine markers are co-expressed. We used a combination of perturbation analysis, drug and feeding experiments and found that in these cells of the sea urchin embryo gene expression and gene regulatory interactions resemble that of bona fide pancreatic exocrine cells. We show that the sea urchin Ptf1a, a key transcriptional activator of digestive enzymes in pancreatic exocrine cells, can substitute for its vertebrate ortholog in activating downstream genes. Conclusions: Collectively, our study is the first to show with molecular tools that defining features of a vertebrate cell-type, the pancreatic exocrine cell, are shared by a non-vertebrate deuterostome. Our results indicate that the functional cell-type unit of the vertebrate pancreas may evolutionarily predate the emergence of the pancreas as a discrete organ. From an evolutionary perspective, these results encourage to further explore the homologs of other vertebrate cell-types in traditional or newly emerging deuterostome systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117
JournalBMC Evolutionary Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 26 2016


  • Amylase
  • Carboxypeptidase
  • Pancreas
  • Pancreatic lipase
  • Ptf1a
  • Strogylocentrotus purpuratus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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