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2009 Annual Science Report

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Evolution and Development of Sensory and Nervous Systems in the Basal Branches of the Animal Tree

Project Summary

Sensory and Nervous systems are intimately related to the complexity, motility and environmental responsiveness that characterize animal life. We examine the early evolution of animal sensory and nervous systems through investigation of neural markers, as well as developmental gene expression and function in basal branching animals, including jellyfish, polychaete worms, and sponges.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
5 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Recent work in the lab is directed toward understanding the role of neuropeptide and developmental gene markers in the sensory structures of the jellyfish Aurelia, and on appendage, sensory, and neural development of the polychaete annelid Neanthes. Studies of Aurelia are yielding greater understanding of the evolution of sensory and neural systems in the various life history stages of Cnidaria, the most basal branch of animals with well-established multimodal sensory systems and neural organization. Studies of Neanthes, an errant Polychaete, are yielding excellent insights into the basal evolution of sensory organization in the Bilateria. These observations are directed towards a better understanding of shared aspects of gene regulation of sensory organization in Cnidaria and Bilateria, and the discretely different modes of sensory of organization and neural complexity found in these two groups.

In the report period we have published 3 papers on Aurelia sensory organization, a historical treatment of homeotic evolution, and a commentary on recovery from mass extinction. A review chapter on sensory structures in basal metazoans has been accepted for publication. Additional papers on gene expression in Neanthes and Aurelia are in review. The lab has also published papers (with additional papers in press and in review) relating to speciation processes and their geologic, oceanographic, and climatic context.

Nagayasu Nakanishi, a graduate student on the Advent of Complex Life project, finished his PhD during this period. He has gone on to a prestigious Post-Doc at the Sars institute in Norway. Chris Winchell should complete his degree this year. Our technician David Yuan has gone on to graduate work at the University of Michigan and Jonathan Valencia, an underrepresented minority, has gone on to graduate work in developmental biology at Cal Tech. A new crop of undergraduates, working with graduate student David Gold, have taken their places.