The use of animals as experimental models for human diseases is imperative for understanding the causes, biology, and prevention of diseases.
To date, little is known about the functions of cancer-related genes in invertebrates, especially in non-bilaterian Metazoa. In the last few years, the interest in genes associated with cancer from an evolutionary perspective is increasing, since it has been shown that many of them were already present in simple non-bilaterian animals. The majority of these genes appeared in two major evolutionary transitions - the emergence of eukaryotes and the transition to multicellularity in the animal lineage.
Therefore, studying cancer-related genes in organisms at the base of Metazoa, such as sponges, can help to unravel the original function as well as the evolution of those genes. Sponges are morphologically simple animals, with no tissues and organs, which have changed little during evolution. Despite that, sponges possess complex genomes with many genes highly similar to their vertebrate homologs. Therefore, they provide an invaluable insight into the metazoan last common ancestors’ genome and proteome features.
The aim of the proposed project is to identify and characterize sponge homologs of human cancer-related genes and thus gain a clearer picture of the evolution of cancer. Such innovative approach using a simple model system will provide insights into the original ancestral physiological functions of cancer-related genes before their diversification and specialization in "higher" animals.
Our understanding of the basic physiological properties of cancer-related genes in simple animals will aid in unravelling complex interactions of their human homologs and thus elucidate possible causes of their oncogenic potential. Due to the "basal" phylogenetic position of sponges within animals, new insights in the properties of their cancer-related homologs will substantially improve our understanding of this disease.