February 2nd, 2015 – Peter Harrison, University of Leeds

Peter BharrisonI’m a PhD student obsessed with evolutionary developmental biology. Let’s call it evo-devo from now on. I’m interested in explaining mysteries that occurred several hundred million years ago during animal evolution. I do this by studying metazoan body plan evolution, gene co-option (and loss) in homologous gene regulatory networks, and issues of deep homology.

In St Andrews I worked with annelids (marine worms), investigating the co-option of developmental genes in the evolution of novel regenerating structures (Callan Memorial Scholarship). Or in plain English, I’m interested in how evolution can teach old genes new tricks. Genes don’t exist in isolation. When it comes to the development of an animal and its many tissues and organs, many genes and their products interact in complex gene regulatory networks. Some species might share the same network but the individual components may have changed. Networks can lose genes, gain entirely new ones, and ancient genes can find new roles.

I’m currently researching segmentation evo-devo in the red flour beetle and the potentially ancient origins of an arthropod segmentation clock. The evolution of segmentation can be quite contentious. We are internally segmented (think of your vertebrae), and so are many other animals such as earthworms and even fruit flies. But are we all segmented for the same reason? Was our last common ancestor segmented? Or has segmentation evolved multiple times independently? Perhaps more interestingly, has evolution used the same building blocks over and over to come up with segmentation? If so, it might be very difficult to tell what is convergent evolution and what isn’t. These problems fascinate me and I look forward to discussing them with the Biotweeps followers.

When I’m not playing with my cancer beetles (if you eat the flour they live in, you might get cancer), I’m communicating science through comedy, public-speaking, and occasional internet shenanigans. I have over 20 Twitter accounts. Please send help.

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