The hagfish and lamprey are two extant groups of jawless fish, the cyclostomes that are positioned at the base of the vertebrate evolutionary tree. There is debate over whether they are paraphyletic (sister clades) or monophyletic. Monophyly suggests the ancestral vertebrate resembled the hagfish and the lamprey have undergone astonishing convergent evolution to obtain many features of the jawed fish.
Alternatively, paraphyly suggests the ancestral vertebrate was more complex with the lamprey retaining a number of features that are present in fish, with hagfish undergoing a remarkable and unprecedented loss of vertebrate features. The endocrine system is a good example of a group of proteins that hagfish have retained that are also present in vertebrates.
The retention of this system in extant species suggests they play an extremely important physiological role. However, very little is known about the endocrine system in hagfish, especially the hormones and proteins controlling the stress response.
The project will focus on evolution of the stress response in vertebrates. But, also has wider implications, because, the endocrine system is affected by man-made chemicals (endocrine disruption). Hagfish reside in the sediment feeding off carcass falls and form part of a deep sea ecosystem essential for nutrient recycling. The study will assess potential vectors of pollutant s to the deep sea, which are currently poorly characterised, and assess the potential effect on biota.