Coral reefs around the world are in decline. The tiny creatures that form these great structures provide a critical maritime habitat. In addition to ecological harm, the loss of coral would also deprive researchers of valuable clues about the origins of the animal kingdom.

These ancient creatures provide insight into human origins in ways that other experimental genetic models like flies and worms cannot. Funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, San Diego State graduate student Steven Quistad has been analyzing the recently sequenced genome of Acropora digitifera, a coral that looks like a mound of miniature Christmas trees.

Quistad discovered the coral showed greater similarities to human genes that affect tumor suppression than the genes of fruit flies and worms. These findings refute the concept of coral's simple beginnings and increasing evolutionary complexity.

“This is part of a really cool shift that’s happening in evolutionary biology,” Quistad says. “We’ve learned a lot from flies and worms, but they have led us to these erroneous conclusions about the evolution of all animal life. If we saw something in flies and worms, it should be even simpler in a more ancient organism like a coral. But corals are actually more similar to humans in multiple ways. Corals have a lot more to teach us.”