I am a member of the ‘Evolutionary Biology’ research group. My main drive is to understand the relationship between evolution and development – how development itself evolves, and how developmental systems shape evolutionary trajectories. I mainly use Anolis lizard to frame my questions: with more than 400 species of endless forms most beautiful, they offer a rich playground for the curious biologist. With the goal of understanding how evolution produces diversity, I am studying different levels of biological organization – from organismal morphology to genomes. My three main projects are aimed at comparative embryology across the genus, developmental bias in Anolis morphospace, and the impact of transposable elements on evolution and development.
Since phenotypes arise in development, a focus on embryonic stages can present a window into deep time, and allows reconstruction of the developmental modifications underlying phenotypic evolution. Already as small hatchlings, Anolis lizards have many specialised characteristics of adults. Thus, early embryonic processes can give insights into the developmental origins of eco-morphological adaptations. My approach follows the footsteps of classical comparative embryology, albeit with a methodology that allows a 3D view of ontogeny. This opens up the possibility of quantifying differences in the developmental process (spatially as well as temporally) and follow those differences through to adult form.
Developmental bias in Anolis morphospace
It is increasingly recognised that the developmental system introduces certain biases on the phenotypic variation that is produced. I am exploring how developmental processes, including plasticity in response to different environments, has shaped the evolutionary diversification of the genus Anolis. The backbone of this comparison is a large dataset containing whole body CT-scans of Anolis species. With this resource, we can project the direction and strength of developmental bias to test if it has exercised a persistent effect on Anolis diversification.
Impact of transposable elements on evolution and development
The third project stems from my background in comparative genomics. I am intrigued by how genome evolution is paralleling, and at times possibly even driving, phenotypic evolution. In particular, transposable elements (TEs) may fuel evolution with genetic variation through reshuffling genomic architecture. My previous work has shown that the density of TEs in Anolis species is correlated with patterns of diversification, consistent with the proposal that TEs can be drivers of speciation. Since TEs have even invaded highly conserved developmental gene clusters in Anolis lizards, I am currently investigating if they have the potential to affect gene expression patterns, and ultimately phenotypic development.