A frog jumps into the animal model lineup

The cover of the 30 April 2010 issue of Science bears a photo of a tadpole of the western clawed frog Xenopus tropicalis. In that issue is a report on the draft sequence of the genome of this organism, and a short companion news feature. The report on the genome emphasizes X. tropicalis’ role as an emerging animal model in developmental and evolutionary biology and in comparative genomics.

X. tropicalis is also an emerging animal model in biomedical research, potentially including development of disease models for drug discovery. We emphasize that potential role in Chapter 5 (“Xenopus tropicalis: an emerging model system”) of our book-length report, Animal Models for Therapeutic Strategies, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute in March 2010.

The Nature news feature, authored by Elizabeth Pennisi, also cites the potential role of this frog in biomedical research. X. tropicalis has about 1700 genes that are related to human genes that have been linked to disease. Some of these diseases are type 2 diabetes, acute myeloid leukemia, congenital muscular dystrophy, alcoholism, and sudden infant death syndrome. In our book chapter, we discuss efforts to develop an X. tropicalis model of congenital spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). We also discuss studies aimed at using the frog as an animal model of human congenital heart disease, and for developing novel therapies for these conditions.

The related frog Xenopus laevis (known as the African clawed frog) is an old animal model that has long been used in developmental and cell biology research. However, X. laevis (pictured above) is genetically intractable, since its genome is allotetraploid, having been formed by fusion of diploid genomes from two different species. This makes genetic and genomic studies with this frog difficult. In contrast, X. tropicalis is diploid. X tropicalis also has a much shorter generation time than X. laevis, and is much smaller, thus requiring less space and making breeding and experimentation much more feasible than with X. laevis.

Some of the same researchers that have been participating in the X. tropicalis genome sequencing project have been developing genetic tools such as transgenics, genetic screening, and gene knockdown using antisense morpholinos. With the determination of the genome sequence, X. tropicalis may join the zebrafish as a lower vertebrate animal model in developing novel therapeutic strategies for human diseases.

Elsewhere on the animal model genome front, researchers recently published a draft sequence of the genome of Hydra magnipapillata. Hydra, a freshwater cnidarian or polyp, has long been a staple of high school and university biology lab courses, so is a favorite of many biologists. The University of California at Irvine, whose researchers participated in the Hydra genome project along with many others (e.g., leading genomics researcher J. Craig Venter), has long been a center of Hydra research, beginning in the late 1960s.

Hydra is used as an animal model in the study of regeneration, body patterning, and stem cell biology. The determination of the genome sequence of Hydra will facilitate these studies, as well as studies of comparative genomics and evolutionary biology.

Hydra may also be of interest for biomedical research. As discussed in the genome report, Hydra possesses four homologues of the Myc oncogene, which is involved in human cancers and also regulates pluripotency and self-renewal of mammalian stem cells. Myc is also central to the pluripotentency of Hydra stem cells. The researchers also found genes in the Hydra genome that are linked with Huntington’s disease and with the beta-amyloid pathway of Alzheimer’s disease.

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