Investigating the Assembly of an Animal Body Plan: The Early Evolution of Echinoderms

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences

Abstract

The origin of animals was one of the most significant events in the evolutionary history of life, but the mechanism by which this occurred is unclear. Debate centres on whether this event was the result of numerous small evolutionary changes or relatively few large-scale ones. In theory we can study the fossilized remains of animals to discriminate between these possibilities, but unfortunately the early fossil records of most groups are apparently quite incomplete. The echinoderms (sea urchins, starfish and the like) are an exception to this because they possess a hard, mineralized skeleton and, hence, even their earliest representatives are preserved as fossils. However, to accurately interpret this rich record we also need to understand the anatomy, development and genetics of living animals. The principal aim of the proposed research is to reconstruct the origin and early evolution of echinoderms; this will provide important insights into the emergence of animals more generally. I will achieve this goal by: (1) reconstructing the early evolution of echinoderms and (2) testing the major existing theory for homologies (structures with a shared ancestry) in echinoderms. This research will involve a synthesis of palaeontological, developmental and molecular techniques, which is the most effective means of deciphering animal evolution. Selected fossil echinoderms will be studied using high-resolution micro-CT scanning and computer software to generate 3-D 'virtual fossils'. In combination with images obtained from scanning electron microscopy, this approach will allow previously hidden details of fossils to be studied and illustrated, providing new data on the relationships and mode of life of these extinct animals. The development of living echinoderms from embryo to adult will be studied using high-powered microscopes and a molecular technique for analyzing the expression patterns of genes. In this manner it will be established if the model for determining fundamental homologies in echinoderms is accurate. This project is important as it will help us uncover the morphology and relationships of extinct ancestral animals, and the novelties that arose during their evolution into modern forms. It may also help to infer the pattern and process of deep, fundamental events in animal evolutionary history. Ultimately, this research aims to demonstrate that only by integrating all relevant avenues of enquiry and lines of evidence can we achieve an optimal understanding of organismal evolution.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/H015817/1 05/01/2011 30/06/2012 £258,005
NE/H015817/2 Transfer NE/H015817/1 01/07/2012 31/03/2014 £139,914
 
Description My research has demonstrated that echinoderms can be used as a model system for understanding character evolution in animals more broadly. A particular highlight was the discovery of the first fossil echinoderms with a bilateral body plan, which provide a convincing root for the phylum and strongly support the hypothesis that deposit feeding was primitive for deuterostomes.
Exploitation Route Based on my research, echinoderms could be used as a model system for investigating evolutionary patterns and processes that affect animals in general.
Sectors Education,Other

 
Description My findings have resulted in a number of peer-reviewed publications, which have been widely read and cited by other scientists, thereby generating new knowledge.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Education,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description NERC Public Engagement with Research: Resource development funding scheme
Amount £1,500 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2012 
End 12/2012
 
Description Computer-aided visualization of fossil echinoderms 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Scientific talk at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA.

Gave a scientific talk on my research as part of the Soft Rock Brown Bag Lecture Series, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Form and function in Cambrian stem-group echinoderms 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Scientific talk at the Natural History Museum, London.

Gave a scientific talk on my research as part of the Palaeontology Seminar Series, Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum, London.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description If only there were still alive 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Contributed media to "If only there were still alive", a Herritage Lottery Fund event.

I produced a video of a computer reconstruction of a fossil ammonite, which was used in the Heritage Lottery Fund even "If only they were still alive".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Life (500 million years ago) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Podcast on palaeontology for the Birmingham Ideas Lab

Interviewed for a podcast on palaeontology by the Birmingham Ideas Lab.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Palaeontology [online] 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I am co-founder and commissioning editor of Palaeontology [online], an open-access science website.

I was part of a small team of young researchers who founded Palaeontology [online], a public engagement website covering all aspects of palaeontology. I now act as commissioning editor for the site.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014
 
Description The early evolution of echinoderms 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Scientific talk at the University of Birmingham

Gave a scientific talk on my research as part of the Geosystems Seminar Series, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description The origin of echinoderms - bringing fossils to life in 3D 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public talk for the Black Country Geological Society.

Gave a public talk on palaeontology for the Black Country Geological Society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Virtual palaeontology - Lapworth Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Engagement activity at the University of Birmingham Annual Community Day.

Exhibited a NERC-funded virtual palaeontology resource at an engagement event at the Lapworth Museum during the University of Birmingham Annual Community Day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Virtual palaeontology - bringing fossils to life in 3D 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public talk for the Dudley Rock and Fossil Festival.

Gave a public talk on palaeontology for the Dudley Rock and Fossil Festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011