Early Branching Metazoans
Currently, our perception of animals is highly biased to bilaterians (all bilaterally symmetrical animals including eg insects and vertebrates). To gain a broader perspective on the evolution of animals, we must look into a more comprehensive range of extant species, such as non-bilaterian animals. Non-bilaterian animals, including sponges, comb jellies, placozoans and cnidarians (corals, sea anemones and jellyfish), represent early evolutionary forms of animal life that diverged more than 600 million years ago from other animal groups.
Comparative studies with these animals provide insights into the early evolution of gene regulation mechanisms necessary for developing complex multicellular animals. At the MBA, we culture a range of non-bilaterian animals to investigate some of the fundamental evolution topics in animals, including the origin of neurons, larval sensory system and small RNA biogenesis in non-bilaterian animals
Our Research Impacts
Molecular and cellular architecture of the larval sensory organ
The apical organ is a neurosensory structure engaged in sensing environmental cues to modulate swimming behaviour and metamorphosis of ciliated planktonic larvae of marine invertebrates. The evolutionary success of the planktonic larvae can be attributed to the apical sensory organ featured with neurons, which allows integrating multiple sensory inputs to produce global responses. Our study revealed molecular and cellular complexity of the sensory system of a morphologically simple sea anemone larva with a phylogenetic position key for understanding the evolution of nervous system. In the long term, our discoveries of mechanisms regulating the life cycle of marine invertebrates will assist in conservation of coastal marine ecosystems.
Regeneration in sponge Sycon ciliatum mimics postlarval development
A long-standing question in the field of regeneration is whether and to what degree regeneration recapitulates embryonic developmental pathways. Somatic cells dissociated from an adult sponge have the unique ability to reaggregate and fully reconstitute into a functional sponge. This makes the sponge a unique model system for understanding the molecular and evolutionary underpinnings of regeneration. We demonstrated that dissociated sponge cells progressed through a series of morphological and cellular events that vastly overlapped with embryonic and postlarval development. Suggest that sponge regeneration represents somatic or non-zygotic development. Our findings shed new light on the key biological properties that are crucial to understanding the evolution of animal regeneration and Evo-devo.
Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli
Anne Warner Research Fellow
Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli
Anne Warner Research Fellow
I am a comparative and molecular evolutionary biologist, I explore non-bilaterian animals like sponges and cnidarians (corals, sea anemones, and jellyfish) to gain insights into fundamental evolutionary principles. After completing my PhD at Deakin University in Australia, I joined Professor Yehu Moran’s lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel to investigate the workings of post-transcriptional gene regulation by small RNAs in cnidarians. In 2018, I received an Anne Warner Research Fellowship to establish my research group at the Marine Biological Association. My research group explores various evolutionary topics, including the emergence of neurons, the evolution of the larval sensory system, and the process of small RNA biogenesis. Our work encompasses molecular and ecological perspectives, as well as directs on immediate global environmental issues while exploring fundamental mechanisms.
Research group: Evolution of early branching metazoans
I am a PhD student at the University of Plymouth and the Marine Biological Association. I am funded by ARIES (NERC) and work with Dr Venky Modepalli. My project uses transcriptomics, bioinformatics and molecular techniques to look at the evolution of the apical organ and apical tuft in cnidarians. I work primarily on the starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis), but also moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and coral (Acropora sp.).
My entire academic career has been based in Plymouth. I obtained my BSc in Marine Biology and Oceanography from the university in 2019 and continued onto the MRes Marine Biology masters before applying for my PhD.
I would like a career in industry following my PhD. I am keen to apply the lab techniques that I have learned here in the field of biotechnology. I am particularly interested in biopharmaceuticals, sustainable product development, and food security.
Outside of academia, I am a musician, a keen cook, an avid swimmer, and I spend a lot of my free time reading and crafting.
Belle Heaton MRes
Belle Heaton MRes
I am a research technician working mainly with the Coastal Ecology research groups. I work mainly on Nova Mieszkowska’s team, helping with both fieldwork surveys and the processing and identification of marine organisms. I also work as part of the aquarist team to help maintain the condition of the Research Aquarium and ensure good health of the resident marine organisms.
I have previously been on a placement year (2018-2019) during my undergraduate degree (Marine Biology and Oceanography) within the MBA working within the Outreach Team. I was subsequently employed briefly by the MBA (2019) to help promote the opening of the National Marine Park.
I now have an MRes in Applied Marine Science, which focused on the effects of Magallana gigas (Pacific Oysters) on macrobenthic biodiversity within estuaries of the Southwest, UK. I feel extremely lucky to work at the MBA and I wish to further build upon my coastal ecology and taxonomic knowledge. I am intrigued to see how the Pacific Oyster story unfolds within the UK and in the future would potentially pursue further research into the species.
I love going gym, swimming, snorkelling, climbing and hiking so Plymouth has been kind of perfect for me the past few years. I look forward to the new opportunities and surprises that await me within this new job role.
In my role as a cell and molecular Research Technician, I am working with teams researching marine fungi, phytoplankton and the evolution of early-branching animals. I am particularly experienced at using cell culture based approaches and molecular techniques to investigate biological questions. Furthermore, I am responsible for the MBA’s Marine Fungal Culture Collection.
I have a Bachelor of Science in marine biology and Master of Research in applied marine science from the University of Plymouth.
My undergraduate honours project examined whether differences in immune response between genotypes could influence population dynamics in a Mytilus spp. hybrid zone.
My masters thesis focused on investigating temporal variation in growth and condition of juvenile turbot, Scophthalmus maximus, in nursery habitats around the south west UK.