skip to content

Department of Zoology



Elia Benito Gutierrez is a Biologist by training. She did her PhD in the University of Barcelona on the Evolutionary Origins of the Neurotrophic System using Amphioxus as a model system. She made a field-changing discovery by demonstrating that the Neurotrophic System, previously thought to be a pre-requisite for evolving a complex brain in vertebrates, predated the origin of the vertebrates themselves. She received several prizes for this discovery and thereafter she moved to the EMBL where she continued developing amphioxus as a lab-based model system. In EMBL, she developed an automated culturing system for cephalochordates, validated by using species collected from all over the world. She has participated in two cephalochordate Genome Projects and she is currently working on those of rare cephalochordate species. She is building up on all these resources as a Junior Group Leader in the University of Cambridge, to try and reconstruct the molecular paths that lead to morphological innovation in vertebrates. Her lab is now developing new techniques in amphioxus that allow profiling, quantifying and modelling gene expression in situ, during development and at a single-cell resolution, as a means to identify morphological novelties before they are anatomically obvious.


Our research focuses on understanding the evolutionary origins of complex traits within the vertebrate head. Such complex traits include an elaborated ventricular brain, neural crest and placodal derivatives, and the development of craniofacial structures. Because of their absence outside the vertebrate subphylum, they are generally regarded as vertebrate innovations, thus closely linked to the invertebrate-vertebrate transition. My main objective is to decipher the molecular changes that underlie the emergence of such morphological innovations, which likely facilitated the evolution and radiation of vertebrates on earth. To do this, I use the pre-vertebrate amphioxus (cephalochordate) as a model system, since it is currently regarded as the best extant proxy to the ancestral chordate that gave rise to all vertebrates.


Key publications: 

- Andrews TGR, Pönisch W, Paluch E, Steventon BJ, Benito-Gutierrez E. (2021). Single-cell morphometrics reveals ancestral principles of notochord development. Development. Aug 3:dev.199430. doi: 10.1242/dev.199430.

- Benito-Gutiérrez E, Gattoni G, Stemmer M, Rohr SD, Schumacher LN, Tang J, Marconi A, Jekely G, Arendt D. (2021) The dorsoanterior brain of adult amphioxus shares similarities in expression profile and neuronal composition with the vertebrate telencephalon. BMC Biology. May 21;19(1):110. doi: 10.1186/s12915-021-01045-w.

- Andrews TGR, Gattoni G, Busby L, Schwimmer MA, Benito-Gutierrez E. (2020) Hybridisation chain reaction for quantitative and multiplex imaging of gene expression in amphioxus embryos and adult tissues. Methods Mol Biol. 2020;2148:179-194. doi: 10.1007/978-1-0716-0623-0_11.

- Zawisza-Álvarez M, Pérez-Calles C, Gattoni G, Garcia-Fernàndez J, Benito-Gutiérrez È*, Herrera-Úbeda C*. (2020) The ADAR Family in Amphioxus: RNA Editing and Conserved Orthologous Site Predictions. Genes Nov 30;11(12):1440. doi: 10.3390/genes11121440.

- Marletaz F, Firbas P, Maeso I, Tena JJ, Bogdanovic O, Perry M, Wyatt CDR, Calle-Mustienes E, Bertrand E, Burguera D, Heeringen S, Jimenez-Gancedo S, Aldea D, Marquez Y, Buono L, Kozmikova I, Louis A, Permanyer J, Acemel RD, Albuixech-Crespo B, Le Petillon Y, Florian AL, Subirana L, Farahani E, Albalat R, Aury JM, Benito-Gutierrez E, et al. (2018) Amphioxus functional genomics and the evolution of vertebrate regulatory traits. Nature Dec;564(7734):64-70. doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0734-6.

- Benito-Gutiérrez E, Weber H, Bryant DV, Arendt D. (2013) Methods for generating year-round access to amphioxus in the laboratory. PLoS One. Aug 26;8(8):e71599. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071599.

Other publications: 

- Vitsios DM, Kentepozidou E, Quintais L, Benito-Gutiérrez E, van Dongen S, Davis MP, Enright AJ. (2017) Mirnovo: genome-free prediction of microRNAs from small RNA sequencing data and single-cells using decision forests. Nucleic Acids Res. gkx836.

- Arendt D, Benito-Gutierrez E, Brunet T, Marlow H. (2015) Gastric pouches and the mucociliary sole: setting the stage for nervous system evolution. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 19: 370.ii: 20150286.

- Vopalensky P, Pergner J, Liegertova M, Benito-Gutierrez E, Arendt D, Kozmik Z. (2012) Molecular analysis of the amphioxus frontal eye unravels the evolutionary origin of the retina and pigment cells of the vertebrate eye. PNAS U S A. 109:15383-8.

- Benito-Gutiérrez E. (2011) Amphioxus as a Model for Mechanisms in Vertebrate Development. Encyclopaedia of Life Sciences [DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021773].

- Benito-Gutierrez, E. and Arendt, D. (2009) CNS evolution: new insight from the mud. Curr Biol.19:R640-2.

- Putnam, N.H., Butts, T., Ferrier, D.E., Furlong, R.F., Hellsten, U., Kawashima, T., Robinson-Rechavi, M., Shoguchi, E., Terry, A., Yu, J.K., Benito-Gutierrez, E. et al. (2008) The amphioxus genome and the evolution of the chordate karyotype. Nature. 453:1064-71.

Senior Research Associate - Group Leader

Contact Details

T19 or T10 Lab
01223 (7)63895 or (3)36663 or (7)65408
Accepting applications for PhD students.