(NaturalNews) An international team of scientists was recently surprised to discover that sea sponges -- one of the oldest multicellular life forms -- share nearly 70 percent of the same genes as human beings, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
The team worked for five years to sequence the genome of the 650-million year old group of organisms, which was one of the first to develop the specialized cell groups that characterize organs.
"The sponge represents a window on this ancient and momentous event," said University of California-Santa Barbara researcher Kenneth S. Kosik. "Curiously, the cells of a sponge bear little resemblance to cells found in the rest of the animal kingdom. For example, sponges lack neurons; however, the sponge genome reveals the presence of many genes found in neurons."
Significantly, many of the genes that sponges share with humans may play a role in the development of cancer.
"Once there is a transition from single cell to multicellular organisms, conflict is set up between the different cells of the multicellular organism," researcher Todd Oakley said.
"It is in an individual cell's best interest to keep replicating, and this actually is what cancer is -- the uncontrolled replication of cells in the body. So in the history of animals, we can see this link with cancer, because the genes that are involved in the transition to multiple cells during evolution are also known to be linked to cancer."
However promising, the recent findings are only the beginning in terms of uncovering new cancer therapies.
"How things interact is what's more important in biology than just the things that are there," writes Dawson Church in the book, The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New biology of Intention.
"The genome tells us very little, if anything at all, about how things interact. For biologists, understanding the mechanics of enormously complex self-organizing systems like the human body is a challenge of much greater magnitude than mapping the genome itself," Church writes.