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Julian Kimura: Evolutionary Paths of the Sea Urchin and the Sand Dollar

 Julian Kimura, center, with postdoctoral associate Deirdre Lyons and graduate student Megan Martik.
Julian Kimura, center, with postdoctoral associate Deirdre Lyons and graduate student Megan Martik.

Junior Julian Kimura came to Duke with an interest in developmental biology and he found a home on his first day at the university in the lab of biology professor David McClay 

Kimura is investigating the evolutionary relationship between sea urchins and sand dollars by studying how their embryos develop. He hopes to understand how the two organisms have changed or stayed similar over millions of years.

From Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Kimura said he has long been interested in the complexity of the processes involved in developmental biology.

“Everytthing starts off with a single cell and magically, through a series of complex processes, it gives birth to a much more complex being,” Kimura said. “Being able to decipher this whole logic puzzle really excites me. Whenever you figure out the function of a certain gene its like you figure out another piece of the whole puzzle. 

On their exterior, the sea urchin and the sand dollar look to be very different creatures, but they share a common ancestor. According to McClay, the way a sand dollar builds its skeleton is very similar to how the sea urchin creates it own structures. But there are important components of that patterning mechanism that are different—and this is a reflection of the approximately 100 million years of evolution.

The biology major and chemistry minor has worked with postdoctoral associate Deirdre Lyons for about a year, studying the development of sand dollars.

He will complete his project with Lyons this summer. In the fall, Kimura will begin another project that looks at how development is salvaged when pieces of sea urchin embryos are cut off.

“If you cut of the top half of the embryo, you expect the embryo to die,” Kimura said. “But if you cut them off at the right timing after fertilization, top half reprograms itself and creates a working embryo and a fully functional animal.”

Kimura noted that his cell and developmental biology course taught by McClay has enhanced his lab experience because of its direct relevance to his research projects. He was also able to learn lab techniques specific to his favorite field, something he said other biology courses he has taken have not offered.

“I focus on research because I'm set on going into graduate school and getting a PhD in developmental biology,” Kimura said.

Aside from research, Kimura is a member and chapter editor of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He said he also enjoys playing tennis and basketball with friends.