In October 2018, a new Research Fellow Dr Vengamanaidu (Venky) Modepalli arrived at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) with a goal to understand the evolution of early life forms at the molecular and genomic level and its impact on current animal diversity. Over the past years, Venky’s research has been supported by the Anne Warner Research Fellowship, established following a substantial legacy being bequeathed to the MBA by eminent scientist Professor Anne Warner FRS in 2012. Following a recent memoir published by the Royal Society, we’re taking a look at Anne’s ongoing contributions to research at the MBA.

Anne in her laboratory in the early 1990s (left), and Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli (right).

Anne Warner was Professor of Anatomy and Embryology at University College London and a former Foulerton Professor of the Royal Society. She had a long and close association with the MBA laboratory in Plymouth, where she carried out research and established a series of internationally-renowned research workshops in cell biology, which continue to be held today. Anne was responsible for a number of key discoveries in embryology, and established a number of techniques which are still in use in the current day in many fields.

Friend and collaborator, Professor Colin Brownlee, said “Anne was a significant influence in the developing careers of many scientists, including my own.  Her regular visits to the MBA brought a mix of stimulating discussion, new ideas for experiments and an element of nervous anticipation.  Anne did not suffer fools but was equally supportive of what she termed “good science”.  Her strong influence, both as a visiting scientist and as a long-standing member of the Governing Council truly helped to shape the modern MBA”.

The staff and students of the Microelectrodes course at the MBA in its inaugural year in 1984. Anne Warner is pictured standing in the centre, and Colin Brownlee kneeling in the centre.

Anne recognised the importance of marine biological research broadly, and specifically work in cell and molecular biology – bringing a deeper understanding to fundamental evolutionary questions. The Anne Warner Fellowship brings in new researchers based on academic-merit, and is open to applicants from across the globe. Providing funding for 5 years, this Fellowship gives significant time for development, and has allowed Venky to establish the Modepalli lab at the MBA.

Dr Modepalli said, “I have always been fascinated to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the evolution of animals”. After finishing his PhD in Australia, he joined Dr Yehu Moran’s lab (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel) as a Postdoc to study the evolution of small RNA biogenesis in sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. The study has shed new light on the evolution of small RNA biogenesis in the animal kingdom. After joining the MBA, he continued pursuing his long-term scientific quest by carrying out small RNA research. 

Cnidarian model Nematostella vectensis, displaying adult polyp and its ciliated larva (©Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli)

Here, Venky’s research is focused on early branching metazoans – non-bilaterian animals (such as sponges, jellyfishes, and stony corals) which evolved before the bilaterian animals. These model organisms can be used to address some key questions into the origin and evolution of bilaterians,  which diverged more than 600 million years ago from the rest of the Metazoa (animals). Here at the MBA, Venky’s research group uses these model organisms to study things like the evolutionary origin of small RNAs and how the nervous system works in cnidarians (sea anemones, corals, hydroids and jellyfish), enabling us to understand how more complex evolution of nervous systems occurred in other animals.

To enable his work, Venky’s research group use the aquarium facilities here at the MBA. Funding from the Anne Warner Fellowship has allowed Venky to establish an aquarium set-up for culturing anemones, sponges and jellyfish for day-to-day research. The MBA provides state-of-the-art fully-equipped molecular biology instruments and a microscope suite, which are vital resources for his research. The MBA's excellent aquarium facility with a continuous supply of natural seawater helps cultivate a broad range of marine organisms in optimal conditions; this is highly vital to maintaining Venky's sponge cultures. Being at the MBA brings the unique privilege of carrying out fieldwork, enabling the collection of seasonal zooplankton from our doorstep, bringing them directly into the laboratory for experimentation.  

Venky’s student (Eleanor Gilbert) collecting jellyfishes at vicinity of Plymouth. Aquarium facility to support sea anemones (©Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli)

This fundamental research provides us with deeper insights into the origin and evolution of animals, utilising techniques first established by Anne Warner, and providing the foundations on which other scientists build, and on which many new technologies rely. Dr Modepalli, who has previously worked in world-class research laboratories in Australia and Israel, will soon be looking for further funding to continue his pioneering research programme here at the MBA.

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Mar 31, 2021 By loiflo