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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Comparative Physiology and Evolution of Neuropeptide Signalling

Supervisor: Professor Maurice Elphick

Project description

Neuropeptides and peptide hormones have fundamental roles in controlling, regulating and integrating physiological and behavioural processes in humans and other animals. I am interested in reconstructing the evolutionary history of neuropeptide signalling systems and investigating how neuropeptides are utilised to co-ordinate physiological processes and behaviour in animals.

The primary focus of my neuropeptide research is on echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers), which are of special interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, as deuterostomes, echinoderms are much more closely related to vertebrates than the majority of invertebrates, and therefore research on echinoderms can shed light on the evolutionary origins of vertebrate characters.

Secondly, echinoderms have many remarkable morphological and physiological characteristics – they are typically five-sided and have a unique ability to rapidly change (under neural control) the stiffness of body wall collagenous tissue; they also have amazing powers of regeneration, which makes them of great interest from a medical perspective.

Thirdly, echinoderms are of economic importance both as predators on shellfish (starfish) and as foodstuffs (sea urchins, sea cucumbers).

I pioneered research on neuropeptides in echinoderms with the discovery of the SALMFamide neuropeptide family (Elphick et al., 1991). Now over twenty years later we are entering a new era for research on neuropeptide systems in echinoderms. Sequencing of the genomes/transcriptomes of several echinoderm species is providing fascinating new insights on the evolution and diversity of neuropeptide systems (Rowe and Elphick, 2012; Elphick, 2012; Elphick et al., 2013; Semmens et al., 2013).

Moreover, with the falling cost of DNA sequencing, any echinoderm species is now accessible to transcriptomic analysis of neuropeptide systems. For the first time we can comprehensively investigate neuropeptide function in animals that hitherto were intractable for molecular physiological studies.

Utilising recently obtained neural transcriptome data, my lab is using the common starfish Asterias rubens as a model system to investigate the evolution and physiological roles of neuropeptide systems and I welcome applications from students interested in PhD projects in this field of research.

Facilities and training

Training in a wide-range of research techniques will be provided, including bioinformatics, genomics, transcriptomics, peptidomics, molecular histology, in vitro pharmacology and behavioural studies. Personalised training in writing and communication skills will be provided, complemented with generic transferable skills training from the QMUL Learning Institute.

For more information about School and College training visit our student support page.


View a list publications from Prof Maurice Elphick

See also

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