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Lost hormone found in starfish

Copyright: Ray Crundwell
News from: Queen Mary University of London

Biologists from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have discovered that the evolutionary history of a hormone responsible for sexual maturity in humans is written in the genes of the humble starfish.

The onset of puberty and sexual development in humans is triggered by the release of a brain hormone known as gonadotropin-releasing hormone or GnRH. Scientists at QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, working in collaboration with teams at The University of Warwick and KU Leuven in Belgium, have found that the history of this important sex hormone is a tale of loss.

It was already known that fruit flies (Drosophila) have two GnRH-like hormones – one that mobilises stored fats to power flight (adipokinetic hormone or AKH) and another that makes insect hearts beat faster (corazonin). What was missing was information from other invertebrate animals that are more closely related to humans than insects. Research on the starfish published today in the Nature journal Scientific Reports has provided the missing link.

The team have discovered that starfish have two GnRH-like hormones, just like in fruit flies. Professor Maurice Elphick, who led the research team, said: “About half a billion years ago there were animals swimming in the oceans that would have had just one gene that coded for a GnRH-type hormone.

“But then this gene duplicated and the two copies ultimately gave rise to the two GnRH-like hormones that we find in fruit flies and starfish. But somewhere along the evolutionary lineage that gave rise to humans, the corazonin-type hormone was lost.”

What is not clear yet is how it is that the ancestors of humans were able to get by with just one GnRH-type hormone. To address this question more research needs to be done to find out more about the roles of GnRH-like hormones in starfish and other invertebrates.

First author and PhD student Shi Tian, said: “We are investigating where the genes encoding the two GnRH-like hormones are expressed in the strange five-sided bodies of starfish. With this information it may then be possible to find out what these hormones do in starfish.”

The work was supported by the Chinese Scholarship Council and grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Leverhulme Trust.


Notes to editors

Reference: Urbilaterian origin of paralogous GnRH and corazonin neuropeptide signalling pathways’ By S. Tian, M. Zandawala, I. Beets, E. Baytemur, S. Slade, J. Scrivens, & M. Elphick will be published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

For further details, images or to arrange interviews with the researchers please contact the press office (see external contact below).

About QMUL

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is one of the UK’s leading universities, and one of the largest institutions in the University of London, with 20,260 students from more than 150 countries.

A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research – in the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK (REF 2014).

We also offer something no other university can: a stunning self-contained residential campus in London’s East End. As well as our home at Mile End, we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

We have a rich history in London with roots in Europe’s first public hospital, St Barts; England’s first medical school, The London; one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women, Westfield College; and the Victorian philanthropic project, the People’s Palace at Mile End.

Today, as well as retaining these close connections to our local community, we are known for our international activities, and have research and teaching partnerships with leading universities around the world. This includes two very successful and long-standing joint partnerships with the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and Nanchang University.

QMUL has an annual turnover of £350M, a research income worth £100M, and generates employment and output worth £700M to the UK economy each year.

External contact

Neha Okhandiar, Press Office, Queen Mary University of London

+44 7834 039266

Tags: fundamental bioscience press release