To understand how chordate nervous systems evolved and how they function. Currently, we are focusing on two main research questions.
How does a simple chordate brain function?
We will use modern genetic, neurophysiological and imaging tools to study simple nervous systems starting with the larval form of the basal chordate Ciona intestinalis. Ciona intestinalis larva is an exciting model organism to study nervous system development and function for many reasons. A primary reason is that it has a chordate body plan and shares key homologies with vertebrates. Moreover, the larval nervous system is composed of roughly 330 cells and thus offers the tantalising opportunity to study a chordate nervous system at the single cell level.
We will begin with studying the mechanosensory and chemosensory behaviours of the freely moving larva. We hope to identify the key circuits and molecules that mediate these behaviours. To achieve this, we will use optogenetics, calcium imaging, quantitative behavioural analysis and reverse genetics.
How does species diversity in neural mechanisms arise?
Traditionally neuroscientists have used a wide range of animal species to address neurobiological questions. But in recent times, studies have focused on a handful of model organisms.
These organisms have been successfully used to study conserved neuronal process such as sensory transduction, neuronal plasticity and excitability. However, they present only a small fraction of the total biological diversity. For example, we have a very detailed understanding of how ion channels in mice or worms work in neuronal signalling, but how their diversification underlies the ability of other animals to adapt to the physical environment remains largely unexplored. We plan to study the evolution of the molecular toolset (e.g. ion channels and receptors) and cell types that different marine organisms use in order to sense and respond to sensory cues. Our efforts will be greatly facilitated by the extensive expertise on comparative genomic and functional analysis of marine organisms available at the Sars Centre and the UoB.