Recent advances in both developmental genetics and complex systems theory are fundamentally changing how we think about the evolution of organisms.
These areas are the focus of the research in our lab are:
Evolution of gene regulation: it is the genetic basis for the evolution of development and complex traits in general. In particular we are interested in the role of transcription factor evolution (Hoxa11, CEBP-B), as well as the role of transposable elements in gene regulatory network evolution.
The origin of novel cell types: one of the dominant ways how organismal complexity is increasing in evolution is the origin of novel cell types. Trichoplax, a primitive multicellular animal, has about five cell types, while a human has 500 or more cell types. We study this process in the evolution of the female reproductive tract of mammals, where in the evolution of pregnancy a novel cell type arose, the decidual stromal cell. Our goal is to understand the changes to the gene regulatory networ
k of the endometrial fibroblast led to the origin of a distinct novel cell type.
The evolution of pregnancy: with our interest in the evolution of the decidual cell (see above) we also got interested in the broader organismal context of this process, the evolution of mammalian and reptilian pregnancy. What drives the evolution of cellular innovations necessary for the maintenance of pregnancy, how does parturition evolve etc.
The evolution of limbs: limb evolution is a long standing paradigm for developmental evolution and we use it to test ideas about the nature and origin of character identity (homology). Currently we have two projects active in this area; in one we study the re-evolution of digits and limbs in skinks, a NSF funded collaboration with Cameron Siler, University of Oklahoma, Duncan Irschick, University of MA, and Philip Bergman, Clark University. In addition we collaborate with Stuart Newman, New York Medical College, to elucidate the interplay between genetic and generic mechanisms determining digit identity in the chicken wing.