The Echinodermata are an ancient phylum of benthic marine invertebrates with a dispersal-stage planktonic larva. These animals have innate immune systems characterized initially by clearance of foreign particles, including microbes, from the body cavity of both larvae and adults, and allograft tissue rejection in adults. Immune responsiveness is mediated by a variety of adult coelomocytes and larval mesenchyme cells. Echinoderm diseases from a range of pathogens can lead to mass die-offs and impact aquaculture, but some individuals can recover. Genome sequences of several echinoderms have identified genes with immune function, including expanded families of Toll-like receptors, NOD-like receptors, and scavenger receptors with cysteine-rich domains, plus signaling pathways and cytokines. The set of transcription factors that regulate proliferation and differentiation of the cellular immune system are conserved and indicate the ancestral origins of hematopoiesis. Both larval and adult echinoderms are in constant contact with potential pathogens in seawater, and they respond to infection by phagocytosis and encapsulation, and employ proteins that function in immune detection and response. Antipathogen responses include activation of the SpTransformer genes, a complement system, and the production of many types of antimicrobial peptides. Echinoderms have homologues of the recombinase activating genes plus all associated genes that function in vertebrates for immunoglobulin gene family rearrangement, although their gene targets are unknown. The echinoderm immune system has been characterized as unexpectedly complex, robust, and flexible. Many echinoderms have very long life-spans that correlate with an excellent capacity for cell damage repair. In many marine ecosystems, echinoderms are keystone predators and herbivores, and therefore are species that can serve as optimal sentinels of environmental health. Coelomocytes can be employed in sensor systems to test for the presence of marine pollutants. When Elie Metchnikoff inserted a rose prickle into a larval sea star and observed chemotaxis, phagocytosis, and encapsulation by the mesenchyme cells, he initiated not only the field of immunology but also that of comparative immunology, of which the echinoderms have been an important part.
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