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A new obsession

This afternoon I met up with Joanna and Amy, who had come to the marine lab with some sand dollars (Dendraster excentricus) to try to spawn. Since sand dollars are in the same taxonomic group (the Echinoidea) as sea urchins, I'd try the same techniques on these animals I'd never spawned before. I did have to modify some things a bit, mostly to account for the difference in body shape between sand dollars and urchins. Urchins are globular, with quite a large internal body volume, while sand dollars are flat. There's much less space inside a sand dollar for gonads and guts.

Gravid echinoids such as urchins and sand dollars can be pretty easily induced to spawn by injecting their internal body cavity with a solution of KCl. We shot up all eight sand dollars and five of them spawned, two males and three females. One of the males didn't give enough sperm to be collected, so we didn't use his gametes. The other male, though, gave us lots of sperm. And they were good sperm, too.

Live sperm of the sand dollar Dendraster excentricus, 400X magnification. 23 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Live sperm of the sand dollar Dendraster excentricus, 400X magnification.
23 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If you've never had a chance to see swimming sperm under a microscope, today is your lucky day!

And the eggs. Wow, sand dollar eggs are freakin' cool! For one thing, they're big, ~130 µm in diameter, compared to the 80 µm eggs of the purple urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Plus, they have a really thick jelly coat that contains red pigment cells; urchin eggs don't have the pigment cells, either.

Eggs of the sand dollar Dendraster excentricus. 23 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Eggs of the sand dollar Dendraster excentricus
23 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The eggs themselves were a little lumpy, not as perfectly round as I'm used to seeing with the urchins, but they fertilized just fine. In all three of the crosses, the fertilization rate was 90-95%. Apparently the sperm have no problem digging through the jelly coat to get to the egg surface.

Zygote of D. excentricus. 23 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Zygote of Dendraster excentricus
23 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In this photo you can see the familiar fertilization envelope raised off the surface of the egg, as well as the red pigment cells in the jelly coat. This may very well be the most beautiful zygote I've ever seen. How many people can say things like that?

After an hour and 20 minutes sitting on my desk at room temperature the zygotes started to cleave:

2-cell embryos of Dendraster excentricus 23 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
2-cell embryos of Dendraster excentricus
23 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The blastomeres are still a little wrinkled and lumpy, but I think they'll be okay. I've poured them into 1000-mL beakers and they're sitting in one of my seawater tables. Tomorrow afternoon I hope to see them swimming up in the water column. Fingers crossed!

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