I am broadly interested in the complex mechanisms of embryonic development and how they influence – and are influenced by – evolution. In previous work I made computational models of the mechanisms and evolution of animal body plan segmentation, and of developmental systems drift. In the Origins Center I will study the origin of embryonic development itself, at the evolutionary transition to multicellularity. How did this transition shape the embryonic development we still see today?
Embryonic development generates a complete multicellular organism from a single, fertilized egg cell; it’s a program which is (mostly) encoded in the genome, but then requires coordinated interactions between several different levels of organisation. Because of this complex mapping from genotype to phenotype, we need to understand how development works and how it evolves in order to understand the evolution of multicellular organisms. But how, and when, does multicellularity itself evolve?
Since multicellular life requires embryonic development, the evolutionary transition to multicellularity also gave rise to the first developmental programs. This project will approach the origin of multicellularity from two different sides: what evolutionary driving forces could cause a transition to multicellularity, and how do crucial developmental mechanisms evolve in these early multicellular organisms? For example, how does a simple, undifferentiated clump of cells become divided into different regions, also known as symmetry breaking?