Go to the About Us section
Go to the Courses section
Go to the Research section
Go to the Specialist Services & Consultancy section
Go to the Outreach section
Go to the New Students section
You can find details about all the staff in the department below.
return to full list
Department of Biological and Medical Sciences
Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
Male genital structures are among the most rapidly evolving morphological traits and are often the only features that can distinguish closely related species. This process is thought to be driven by sexual selection and may reinforce species separation. However, while the genetic bases of many phenotypic differences have been identified, we still lack knowledge about the genes underlying evolutionary differences in male genital organs and organ size more generally. The claspers (surstyli) are periphallic structures that play an important role in copulation in insects. Here, we show that divergence in clasper size and bristle number between Drosophila mauritiana and Drosophila simulans is caused by evolutionary changes in tartan (trn), which encodes a transmembrane leucine-rich repeat domain protein that mediates cell–cell interactions and affinity. There are no fixed amino acid differences in trn between D. mauritiana and D. simulans, but differences in the expression of this gene in developing genitalia suggest that cis-regulatory changes in trn underlie the evolution of clasper morphology in these species. Finally, analyses of reciprocal hemizygotes that are genetically identical, except for the species from which the functional allele of trn originates, determined that the trn allele of D. mauritiana specifies larger claspers with more bristles than the allele of D. simulans. Therefore, we have identified a gene underlying evolutionary change in the size of a male genital organ, which will help to better understand not only the rapid diversification of these structures, but also the regulation and evolution of organ size more broadly.
Animal terminalia represent some of the most diverse and rapidly evolving structures in the animal kingdom, and for this reason have been a mainstay in the taxonomic description of species. The terminalia of Drosophila melanogaster, with its wide range of experimental tools, have recently become the focus of increased interest in the fields of development, evolution, and behavior. However, studies from different disciplines have often used discrepant terminologies for the same anatomical structures. Consequently, the terminology of genital parts has become a barrier to integrating results from different fields, rendering it difficult to determine what parts are being referenced. We formed a consortium of researchers studying the genitalia of D. melanogaster to help establish a set of naming conventions. Here, we present a detailed visual anatomy of male genital parts, including a list of synonymous terms, and suggest practices to avoid confusion when referring to anatomical parts in future studies. The goal of this effort is to facilitate interdisciplinary communication and help newcomers orient themselves within the exciting field of Drosophila genitalia.
Sox genes encode a set of highly conserved transcription factors that regulate many developmental processes. In insects, the SoxB gene Dichaete is the only Sox gene known to be involved in segmentation. To determine if similar mechanisms are used in other arthropods, we investigated the role of Sox genes during segmentation in the spider Parasteatoda tepidariorum. While Dichaete does not appear to be involved in spider segmentation, we found that the closely related Sox21b-1 gene acts as a gap gene during formation of anterior segments and is also part of the segmentation clock for development of the segment addition zone and sequential addition of opisthosomal segments. Thus, we have found that two different mechanisms of segmentation in a non-mandibulate arthropod are regulated by a SoxB gene. Our work provides new insights into the function of an important and conserved gene family, and the evolution of the regulation of segmentation in arthropods.
Wnt signaling regulates many important processes during metazoan development. It has been shown that Wnt ligands represent an ancient and diverse family of proteins that likely function in complex signaling landscapes to induce target cells via receptors including those of the Frizzled (Fz) family. The four subfamilies of Fz receptors also evolved early in metazoan evolution. To date, Fz receptors have been characterised mainly in mammals, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and insects such as Drosophila melanogaster. To compare these findings with other metazoans, we explored the repertoire of fz genes in three panarthropod species: Parasteatoda tepidariorum, Glomeris marginata and Euperipatoides kanangrensis, representing the Chelicerata, Myriapoda and Onychophora respectively. We found that these three diverse panarthropods each have four fz genes, with representatives of all four metazoan fz subfamilies found in Glomeris and Euperipatoides, while Parasteatoda does not have a fz3 gene, but has two fz4 paralogues. Furthermore we characterized the expression patterns of all the fz genes among these animals. Our results exemplify the evolutionary diversity of Fz receptors and reveals conserved and divergent aspects of their protein sequences and expression patterns among panarthropods; thus providing new insights into the evolution of Wnt signaling more generally.
In animals, Hox transcription factors define regional identity in distinct anatomical domains. How Hox genes encode this specificity is a paradox, because different Hox proteins bind with high affinity in vitro to similar DNA sequences. Here, we demonstrate that the Hox protein Ultrabithorax (Ubx) in complex with its cofactor Extradenticle (Exd) bound specifically to clusters of very low affinity sites in enhancers of the shavenbaby gene of Drosophila. These low affinity sites conferred specificity for Ubx binding in vivo, but multiple clustered sites were required for robust expression when embryos developed in variable environments. Although most individual Ubx binding sites are not evolutionarily conserved, the overall enhancer architecture-clusters of low affinity binding sites-is maintained and required for enhancer function. Natural selection therefore works at the level of the enhancer, requiring a particular density of low affinity Ubx sites to confer both specific and robust expression.
Microtrichia or trichomes are non-sensory actin protrusions produced by the epidermal cells of many insects. Studies of trichome formation in Drosophila have over the last 30 years provided key insights towards our understanding of gene regulation, gene regulatory networks (GRNs), development, the genotype to phenotype map, and the evolution of these processes. Here we review classic studies that have used trichome formation as a model to shed light on Drosophila development as well as recent research on the architecture of the GRN underlying trichome formation. This includes the findings that both small peptides and microRNAs play important roles in the regulation and evolution of this network. In addition, we review research on the evolution of trichome patterns that has provided novel insights into the function and architecture of cis-regulatory modules, and into the genetic basis of morphological change. We conclude that further research on these apparently simple and often functionally enigmatic structures will continue to provide new and important knowledge about development and evolution.
Parasteatoda tepidariorum is an increasingly popular model for the study of spider development and the evolution of development more broadly. However, fully understanding the regulation and evolution of P. tepidariorum development in comparison to other animals requires a genomic perspective. Although research on P. tepidariorum has provided major new insights, gene analysis to date has been limited to candidate gene approaches. Furthermore, the few available EST collections are based on embryonic transcripts, which have not been systematically annotated and are unlikely to contain transcripts specific to post-embryonic stages of development. We therefore generated cDNA from pooled embryos representing all described embryonic stages, as well as post-embryonic stages including nymphs, larvae and adults, and using Illumina HiSeq technology obtained a total of 625,076,514 100-bp paired end reads. We combined these data with 24,360 ESTs available in GenBank, and 1,040,006 reads newly generated from 454 pyrosequencing of a mixed-stage embryo cDNA library. The combined sequence data were assembled using a custom de novo assembly strategy designed to optimize assembly product length, number of predicted transcripts, and proportion of raw reads incorporated into the assembly. The de novo assembly generated 446,427 contigs with an N50 of 1,875 bp. These sequences obtained 62,799 unique BLAST hits against the NCBI non-redundant protein data base, including putative orthologs to 8,917 Drosophila melanogaster genes based on best reciprocal BLAST hit identity compared with the D. melanogaster proteome. Finally, we explored the utility of the transcriptome for RNA-Seq studies, and showed that this resource can be used as a mapping scaffold to detect differential gene expression in different cDNA libraries. This resource will therefore provide a platform for future genomic, gene expression and functional approaches using P. tepidariorum.
Identifying the genetic mechanisms underlying phenotypic change is essential to understanding how gene regulatory networks and ultimately the genotype-to-phenotype map evolve. It is recognized that microRNAs (miRNAs) have the potential to facilitate evolutionary change [1, 2and3]; however, there are no known examples of natural morphological variation caused by evolutionary changes in miRNA expression. Therefore, the contribution of miRNAs to evolutionary change remains unknown [1and4]. Drosophila melanogaster subgroup species display a portion of trichome-free cuticle on the femur of the second leg called the "naked valley." It was previously shown that Ultrabithorax (Ubx) is involved in naked valley variation between D.melanogaster and D.simulans [ 5and6]. However, naked valley size also varies among populations of D.melanogaster, ranging from 1,000 up to 30,000μm2. We investigated the genetic basis of intraspecific differences in the naked valley in D.melanogaster and found that neither Ubx nor shavenbaby (svb) [ 7and8] contributes to this morphological difference. Instead, we show that changes in mir-92a expression underlie the evolution of naked valley size in D.melanogaster through repression of shavenoid (sha) . Therefore, our results reveala novel mechanism for morphological evolution and suggest that modulation of the expression of miRNAs potentially plays a prominent role in generating organismal diversity.
Eye and head morphology vary considerably among insects and even between closely related species of Drosophila. Species of the D. melanogaster subgroup, and other Drosophila species, exhibit a negative correlation between eye size and face width (FW); for example, D. mauritiana generally has bigger eyes composed of larger ommatidia and conversely a narrower face than its sibling species. To better understand the evolution of eye and head morphology, we investigated the genetic and developmental basis of differences in eye size and FW between male D. mauritiana and D. simulans. QTL mapping of eye size and FW showed that the major loci responsible for the interspecific variation in these traits are localized to different genomic regions. Introgression of the largest effect QTL underlying the difference in eye size resulted in flies with larger eyes but no significant difference in FW. Moreover, introgression of a QTL region on the third chromosome that contributes to the FW difference between these species affected FW, but not eye size. We also observed that this difference in FW is detectable earlier in the development of the eye-antennal disc than the difference in the size of the retinal field. Our results suggest that different loci that act at different developmental stages underlie changes in eye size and FW. Therefore, while there is a negative correlation between these traits in Drosophila, we show genetically that they also have the potential to evolve independently and this may help to explain the evolution of these traits in other insects.
A striking diversity of compound eye size and shape has evolved among insects. The number of ommatidia and their size are major determinants of the visual sensitivity and acuity of the compound eye. Each ommatidium is composed of eight photoreceptor cells that facilitate the discrimination of different colours via the expression of various light sensitive Rhodopsin proteins. It follows that variation in eye size, shape, and opsin composition is likely to directly influence vision. We analyzed variation in these three traits in D. melanogaster, D. simulans and D. mauritiana. We show that D. mauritiana generally has larger eyes than its sibling species, which is due to a combination of larger ommatidia and more ommatidia. In addition, intra- and inter-specific differences in eye size among D. simulans and D. melanogaster strains are mainly caused by variation in ommatidia number. By applying a geometric morphometrics approach to assess whether the formation of larger eyes influences other parts of the head capsule, we found that an increase in eye size is associated with a reduction in the adjacent face cuticle. Our shape analysis also demonstrates that D. mauritiana eyes are specifically enlarged in the dorsal region. Intriguingly, this dorsal enlargement is associated with enhanced expression of rhodopsin 3 in D. mauritiana. In summary, our data suggests that the morphology and functional properties of the compound eyes vary considerably within and among these closely related Drosophila species and may be part of coordinated morphological changes affecting the head capsule.
Spiders belong to the chelicerates, which is an arthropod group that branches basally from myriapods, crustaceans and insects. Spiders are thus useful models with which to investigate whether aspects of development are ancestral or derived with respect to the arthropod common ancestor. Moreover, they serve as an important reference point for comparison with the development of other metazoans. Therefore, studies of spider development have made a major contribution to advancing our understanding of the evolution of development. Much of this knowledge has come from studies of the common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum. Here, we describe how the growing number of experimental tools and resources available to study Parasteatoda development have provided novel insights into the evolution of developmental regulation and have furthered our understanding of metazoan body plan evolution.
Morphology evolves often through changes in developmental genes, but the causal mutations, and their effects, remain largely unknown. The evolution of naked cuticle on larvae of Drosophila sechellia resulted from changes in five transcriptional enhancers of shavenbaby (svb), a transcript of the ovo locus that encodes a transcription factor that governs morphogenesis of microtrichiae, hereafter called 'trichomes'. Here we show that the function of one of these enhancers evolved through multiple single-nucleotide substitutions that altered both the timing and level of svb expression. The consequences of these nucleotide substitutions on larval morphology were quantified with a novel functional assay. We found that each substitution had a relatively small phenotypic effect, and that many nucleotide changes account for this large morphological difference. In addition, we observed that the substitutions had non-additive effects. These data provide unprecedented resolution of the phenotypic effects of substitutions and show how individual nucleotide changes in a transcriptional enhancer have caused morphological evolution.
Background: The Wnt genes encode secreted glycoprotein ligands that regulate a wide range of developmental processes, including axis elongation and segmentation. There are thirteen subfamilies of Wnt genes in metazoans and this gene diversity appeared early in animal evolution. The loss of Wnt subfamilies appears to be common in insects, but little is known about the Wnt repertoire in other arthropods, and moreover the expression and function of these genes have only been investigated in a few protostomes outside the relatively Wnt-poor model species Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans. To investigate the evolution of this important gene family more broadly in protostomes, we surveyed the Wnt gene diversity in the crustacean Daphnia pulex, the chelicerates Ixodes scapularis and Achaearanea tepidariorum, the myriapod Glomeris marginata and the annelid Platynereis dumerilii. We also characterised Wnt gene expression in the latter three species, and further investigated expression of these genes in the beetle Tribolium castaneum. Results: We found that Daphnia and Platynereis both contain twelve Wnt subfamilies demonstrating that the common ancestors of arthropods, ecdysozoans and protostomes possessed all members of all Wnt subfamilies except Wnt3. Furthermore, although there is striking loss of Wnt genes in insects, other arthropods have maintained greater Wnt gene diversity. The expression of many Wnt genes overlap in segmentally reiterated patterns and in the segment addition zone, and while these patterns can be relatively conserved among arthropods and the annelid, there have also been changes in the expression of some Wnt genes in the course of protostome evolution. Nevertheless, our results strongly support the parasegment as the primary segmental unit in arthropods, and suggest further similarities between segmental and parasegmental regulation by Wnt genes in annelids and arthropods respectively. Conclusions: Despite frequent losses of Wnt gene subfamilies in lineages such as insects, nematodes and leeches, most protostomes have probably maintained much of their ancestral repertoire of twelve Wnt genes. The maintenance of a large set of these ligands could be in part due to their combinatorial activity in various tissues
Aphids exhibit unique attributes, such as polyphenisms and specialized cells to house endosymbionts, that make them an interesting system for studies at the interface of ecology, evolution and development. Here we present a comprehensive characterization of the developmental genes in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum, and compare our results to other sequenced insects. We investigated genes involved in fundamental developmental processes such as establishment of the body plan and organogenesis, focusing on transcription factors and components of signalling pathways. We found that most developmental genes were well conserved in the pea aphid, although many lineage-specific gene duplications and gene losses have occurred in several gene families. In particular, genetic components of transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) Wnt, JAK/STAT (Janus kinase/signal transducer and activator of transcription) and EGF (Epidermal Growth Factor) pathways appear to have been significantly modified in the pea aphid.
Interacting genetic elements need to co-evolve if their joint function is to be maintained; for example, the correct binding of transcriptional regulators to defined binding sites in gene promoters needs to be maintained during evolution to ensure proper function. As part of a wider investigation into the molecular coevolution of the Dipteran homeodomain-bearing regulator bicoid (bcd) and Bcd-dependent promoters, we present data on the functional, structural, and sequence differences between the promoters of the segmentation gene hunchback (hb), in several species of Cyclorrhaphan (higher) Diptera. The result of phenocopying hb mutations using RNA interference (RNAi) in Musca domestica shows broadly similar functions to the hb gene in Drosophila melanogaster. However, the Bcd-binding sites in the hb promoters of Drosophila, Musca, and the two blowfly species Lucilia sericata and Calliphora vicina differ in copy number, sequence, orientation, and spacing. Furthermore, all promoters are subject to rapid turnover by slippage-like processes leading to high densities of short repetitive motifs. A study of polymorphism among six strains of M. domestica reveals that turnover by slippage also occurs in the promoter, untranslated leader, and exonic coding sequences of hb, but to different extents. We discuss these results in terms of the known inter-specific differences in bcd and the potential coevolution of selected compensatory mutations in trans and cis in response to continuous promoter restructuring.