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Evolutionary Morphology
Shigeru Kuratani Ph.D

By studying the evolutionary designs of diverse animal species, I hope to gain a deeper insight into the secrets behind the fabrication of morphological designs. Integrating the fields of evolutionary morphology and molecular genetics, our lab seeks to expand the understanding of the relationship between genome and morphology (or body plan) through investigating the evolutionary changes in developmental processes, and also the process of evolution in which phenotypic selection shapes developmental programs. Our recent studies have focused on novel traits found in the vertebrates, such as the jaw, the turtle shell, and the mammalian middle ear. By analyzing the history of developmental patterns, I seek to open new avenues toward answering as-yet unresolved questions about phenotypic evolution in vertebrates at the level of body plans.

Through the study of evolutionarily novel structures, our lab has identified changes in developmental mechanisms that have obliterated the structural homologies between organisms as evidenced in such novel structures as the jaw in gnathostomes (jawed vertebrates) and the turtle shell. Developmental studies of the cranial region of the lamprey are intended to shed light on the true origins of the vertebrate head and neck, as lampreys lack a number of important features, including jaws, true tongues, and trapezius muscles, that are possessed only by gnathostomes. We aim to resolve the question of what primary factors have changed during evolution by comparing the developmental patterns that yield such innovations, and by the experimental construction of phenocopies in one animal that mimic structures in another.

The turtlefs shelled body pattern appears at the end of a graded series of changes in the fossil record. Our labfs research into turtle carapace development addresses the developmental changes that resulted in this abrupt and dramatic morphological change, and is aimed at identifying genes that function differently in turtle and other amniotes, which it is hoped will provide a key to discovering the true targets of natural selection in the acquisition of a shell.

Select references

Hirasawa T, et al. The endoskeletal origin of the turtle carapace. Nat Commun 4.2107 (2013)

Wang Z, et al. The draft genomes of soft-shell turtle and green sea turtle yield insights into the development and evolution of the turtle-specific body plan. Nat Genet (2013)

Oisi Y, et al. Craniofacial development of hagfishes and the evolution of vertebrates. Nature 493.175-80 (2013)

Ota K. G, et al. Identification of vertebra-like elements and their possible differentiation from sclerotomes in the hagfish. Nat Commun 2.373 (2011)

Nagashima H, et al. Evolution of the turtle body plan by the folding and creation of new muscle connections. Science 325. 193-6 (2009)

Ota K G, et al. Hagfish embryology with reference to the evolution of the neural crest. Nature 446. 672-5 (2007)