DNA mapping of lamprey could benefit humans

LANSING – Genetic mapping of sea lamprey may lead to ways to control the invader and improve human health, new research suggests.

A team of scientists has assembled the sea lamprey genome, providing insight into how to control the invasive species that has terrorized the Great Lakes basin since the early 1900s.

That same research could help cure a rare disease in human newborns and further the study of degenerative brain disease.

Researchers said that decoding the lamprey’s DNA has revealed genetic factors that enable it to survive and thrive in the Great Lakes.

In addition to the invasive species, two types of lamprey are native to the Great Lakes silver lamprey and American brook lamprey.

“The American brook isn’t harmful to fish, but the silver is parasitic,” said Marc Gaden, communications director of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor. “As far as we know, there’s no genetic difference one simply has the bloodsucking mouth and one doesn’t.

“But can you modify the genes so that the lamprey never transforms from non-lethal larvae?”

There’s no definitive answer, but 59 researchers, led by Michigan State University’s Weiming Li, may find out now that they’ve mapped the sea lamprey genome.

Research on the horizon may also include a cure for biliary atresia, a rare disease in which human newborns are born without a bile duct, which eventually causes liver failure.

“Sea lamprey that transform from larvae to parasites lose their gall bladder and bile ducts,” Chung-Davidson said. “They develop an alternative mechanism in which their intestine starts producing bile salts instead, making healthy digestion possible.

“It’s a long shot,” she acknowledged. “But our genetic understanding of this in the lamprey might help. Maybe we can help find a cure for the biliary atresia.”