Neuropeptides control and regulate physiological processes and behaviour in all animals. However, our knowledge of neuropeptide evolution has been impaired by the paucity of data from phyla that occupy key positions in animal phylogeny. The Elphick lab is providing the first comprehensive insights on neuropeptide systems in echinoderms, deuterostomian invertebrates that “bridge the gap” between vertebrates and model protostomian invertebrates such as Drosophila and C. elegans.
Thus far, we have focused our attention on one species from each of the five extant echinoderm classes. In the project proposed here the student will investigate for the first time the evolution of neuropeptide systems at a much higher level of taxonomic resolution – analysing transcriptome sequence data from at least 50 echinoderm species, with representation from all five extant classes. Findings from analysis of sequence data will then be integrated with knowledge of the biology of extant and extinct echinoderms, with training provided by Ewin.
Thus, changes in neuropeptide structure or indeed complete loss of neuropeptide systems will be linked with evolutionary changes in the biology and ecology of echinoderms. The project will be the first to investigate the evolution of neuropeptide systems in a phylum with a rich diversity of extant and fossil species and where molecular changes can be mapped onto a temporally well-calibrated phylogeny that extends over a period of ~550 million years.