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Defining the blueprint of the ancestral vertebrate brain

Supervisor: Dr Elia Benito-Gutierrez

Project summary:

The evolutionary origin of the vertebrate brain is still uncertain. This is due to the lack of unambiguous homologues of key
vertebrate brain regions in invertebrate chordates. The invertebrate chordate amphioxus not only occupies the most basal position within chordates but also it possesses the most primitive ventricular brain on earth. However, accessing such primitive brain in different stages of its development has been very difficult until now. This project will benefit from a newly developed amphioxus facility at the Zoology Department allowing access to amphioxus in the lab throughout the entire year. The project will focus on defining major brain boundaries in the amphioxus brain and the molecular fingerprint of the cells within them. The objective will be to define the brain genoarchitecture of amphioxus, with the idea of this being close to the ancestral one setting the basis for all vertebrate brains. 

What the student will be doing:

The student will be assessing the expression of key brain genes by in situ hybridisation on different preparations of amphioxus brain tissue. Additional candidate genes will be considered by RNA-seq and subsequently cloned. All in situ experiments will be imaged by confocal microscopy at a high resolution. It might be also possible to do comparative analyses with basal vertebrate brains and to functionally assess some of the neuronal types discovered. Overall, the student will have the chance to train in a variety of molecular biology techniques and image analysis. 


Pani, A. M., Mullarkey, E. E., Aronowicz, J., Assimacopoulos, S., Grove, E. A., & Lowe, C. J. (2013). Ancient deuterostome origins of vertebrate brain signalling centres. Nature, 483(7389), 289–294.

Wicht, H., & Lacalli, T. C. (2005). The nervous system of amphioxus: structure, development, and evolutionary significance. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 83(1), 122–150.

Albuixech-Crespo, B., López-Blanch, L., Burguera, D., Maeso, I., Sánchez-Arrones, L., Moreno-Bravo, J. A., et al. (2017). Molecular regionalization of the developing amphioxus neural tube challenges major partitions of the vertebrate brain. PLoS Biology, 15(4), e2001573–34.


Some consumables funding is available in the lab.