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Animal with the most genes? A tiny crustacean

Complexity ever in the eye of its beholders, the animal with the most genes -- about 31,000 -- is the near-microscopic freshwater crustacean Daphnia pulex, or water flea. By comparison, humans have about 23,000 genes. Daphnia is the first crustacean to have its genome sequenced.

Daphnia pulex

Photo by Jan Michels, Christian-Albrechts-Universitaet zu Kiel

Daphnia pulex (water flea) has a number of eye spots near the front of its head.

Print-Quality Photo

The findings are part of a comprehensive report in the Feb. 4 issue of Science by members of the Daphnia Genomics Consortium, an international network of scientists led by the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics (CGB) at Indiana University Bloomington and the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute.

"Daphnia's high gene number is largely because its genes are multiplying, by creating copies at a higher rate than other species," said project leader and CGB genomics director John Colbourne. "We estimate a rate that is three times greater than those of other invertebrates and 30 percent greater than that of humans."

Daphnia Genomics Consortium projects can be found at, as well as a link to the nearly 40 companion papers based on the data reported in the Science paper.

Scientists have studied Daphnia for centuries because of its importance in aquatic food webs and for its transformational responses to environmental stress. Predators signal some of the animals to produce exaggerated spines, neck-teeth or helmets in self-defense. And like the virgin nymph of Greek mythology that shares its name, Daphnia thrives in the absence of males -- by clonal reproduction, until harsh environmental conditions favor the benefits of sex.

Daphnia's genome is no ordinary genome.

"More than one-third of Daphnia's genes are undocumented in any other organism -- in other words, they are completely new to science," says Don Gilbert, coauthor and Department of Biology scientist at IU Bloomington.

Sequenced genomes often contain some fraction of genes with unknown functions, even among the most well-studied genetic model species for biomedical research, such as the fruit fly Drosophila. By using microarrays (containing millions of DNA strands affixed to microscope slides) that are made to measure the conditions under which these new genes are transcribed into precursors for proteins, experiments that subjected Daphnia to environmental stressors point to these unknown genes having ecologically significant functions.

"If such large fractions of genomes evolved to cope with environmental challenges, information from traditional model species used only in laboratory studies may be insufficient to discover the roles for a considerable number of animal genes," Colbourne said.

Daphnia is emerging as a model organism for a new field of science -- Environmental Genomics -- that aims to better understand how the environment and genes interact. This includes a practical need to apply scientific developments from this field toward managing our water resources and protecting human health from chemical pollutants in the environment.

Daphnia pulex

Photo by Paul D.N. Hebert, University of Guelph

Daphnia pulex (water flea) with a clonal brood of offspring.

Print-Quality Photo

James E. Klaunig, professor and chair of the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation's Department of Environmental Health at IU Bloomington, predicts the present work will yield a more realistic and scientifically-based risk evaluation.

"Genome research on the responses of animals to stress has important implications for assessing environmental risks to humans," Klaunig said. "The Daphnia system is an exquisite aquatic sensor, a potential high-tech and modern version of the mineshaft canary. With knowledge of its genome, and using both field sampling and laboratory studies, the possible effects of environmental agents on cellular and molecular processes can be resolved and linked to similar processes in humans."

The scientists learned that of all sequenced invertebrate genomes so far, Daphnia shares the most genes with humans.

The idea behind environmental genomics for risk assessment is fairly simple. Daphnia's gene expression patterns change depending on its environment, and the patterns indicate what state its cells are in. A water flea bobbing in water containing a chemical pollutant will express by tuning-up or tuning-down a suite of genes differently than its clonal sisters accustomed to water without the pollutant. Importantly, the health effects of most industrially produced compounds at relevant concentrations and mixtures in the environment are unknown, because current testing procedures are too slow, too costly, and unable to indicate the causes for their effects on animals, including human. The new findings suggest that Daphnia's research tools (like microarrays) and genome information can provide a higher-throughput and information-rich method of measuring the condition of our water supply.

"Until now, Daphnia has primarily been used as sentinel species for monitoring the integrity of aquatic ecosystems," said Joseph Shaw, coauthor and IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs biologist. "But with many shared genes between Daphnia and humans, we will now also apply Daphnia as a surrogate model to address issues directly related to human health. This puts us in a position to begin integrating studies of environmental quality with research of human diseases."

This article was originally published on Feb. 3, 2011.