We study how early animal development evolves and contributes to phenotypic change.
Nearly all animals originate during a process called embryogenesis, in which a single cell – the zygote – develops into a multicellular complex organism. This is a stepwise process, where the zygote first divides and defines a primary set of cells that act as progenitors of the wealth of cell types, tissues, and organs of adult animals. Changes in the specification of these progenitor cells can promote variation in adult morphology, and thus the evolution of the wondrous diversity of animal forms. But their misspecification can also dramatically compromise development and foetus survival. Which cellular and genetic mechanisms control the specification of the primary progenitor cells? How do these mechanisms evolve over time? And how does its change contribute to animal morphological diversity and human pathogenesis? We study the early embryonic development of marine segmented worms to untangle these questions.