Researcher biography

Evolutionary developmental biology of marine sponges

I am interested in studying invertebrate genomes and their development to gain insight into the origin and evolution of animals. One of the great questions in evolution is how complexity evolves. How does one go from single-cell organism to complex animal? Fossils tell us that most animal forms we know today arose in a relatively short window of time during the Cambrian explosion. But what happened before the Cambrian? Sparse fossils of sponges, cnidarians, and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna suggest animals were already experimenting with multicellular life during this period. Was there a gradual increase in complexity in the first animals? As the oldest animals on earth, sponges are a crucial group to study if one wants to understand how animals arose. To gain insight into these fundamental questions, my research aims to understand how genes have evolved and how they interact during embryonic development to give rise to animals as diverse as sponges and humans. I am currently developing the oviparous barrel sponge, Xestospongia bergquistia, which spawns gametes once a year, as a model to study the function of genes during sponge embryogenesis. I am focusing on the canonical Wnt pathway as it may have been the primary simple tool to pattern pre-Cambrian embryos along a primordial axis.