Understanding the rules of life

Category: Standard Studentships

Analysing the role of signalling molecules in skeletal evolution and development

Project No. 2470


Primary Supervisor

Dr Jeffrey Thompson – University of Southampton


Dr Katherine Williams- University of Portsmouth

Dr Claire Clarkin – University of Southampton


Understanding the molecular, cellular, and morphogenetic mechanisms which underlie biomineralization, the process by which hard tissue like skeletons are built, is crucial for understanding how animals develop, grow and evolve.

Signalling pathways have an important role in shaping the morphology and development of biominerals across the animal kingdom. Echinoderms, the group of animals including sea urchins, starfish, and sea cucumbers, have a porous microsctuctural skeleton, which is analogous to the perforate microstructure of vertebrate bone. The role of signalling molecules in patterning the microstructure of this echinoderm skeleton is unknown, though our preliminary data indicates that differences in signalling pathways may underlie evolutionary differences across different species.

The aim of this project is to test the hypothesis that signalling molecules belonging to VegF, and BMP signalling pathways pattern the microstructure of the echinoderm skeleton, and are responsible for evolutionary differences seen across species. The student will combine cutting-edge assays of gene expression and protein localisation, with signalling pathway inhibition and micro-CT scanning and 3D data analysis to understand the molecular and morphogenetic mechanisms which underlie development of the echinoderm skeleton. They will have the opportunity to work with live animals at the Schools of Biological Sciences and Research Aquaria at the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences at the University of Southampton. The student will not only elucidate the biomineralization toolkit in these animals, but also carry out experiments using signalling molecule inhibitors to identify impact of signalling molecule inhibition on downstream gene expression, and skeletal morphology. This will involve quantification of skeletal microstructure volume and morphology under different experimental conditions.

This study will provide direct insight into the mechanisms underlying how animals build their skeleton, and the role of signalling molecules in regulating animal development and morphology.