About our research
Our primary research focus is on understanding the genetic basis of evolutionary innovations to investigate a critical evolutionary question: How do complex novel traits evolve?
We are currently investigating two evolutionary innovations: viviparity (live birth/pregnancy), and venom, although our focus these days is mostly on pregnancy. Both of these dramatic adaptive traits are encoded by many genes, which we study using state-of-the-art genomic techniques combined with physiology and histology.
Viviparity and Pregnancy
Viviparity is one of the most important biological innovations as its evolution has required a set of complex phenotypic changes to allow internal incubation of embryos, radically changing the way in which organisms interact with their environment and transmit their genes to the next generation. We are testing whether this complex trait evolved repeatedly in a diverse array of vertebrates using the same genes, or via divergent genetic elements due to different ancestry and evolutionary constraints.
We are currently investigating the genetic basis of pregnancy and the convergent evolution of the placenta in a variety of non-traditional model organisms, including seahorses, sharks, lizards, and Australian marsupials. We contributed to a special issue of Journal of Experimental Zoology B dedicated to the evolution of viviparity.
As well as contributing to the platypus genome sequencing project, we are examining the genetic basis of venom in the platypus and other mammals. This work involves the use of genome and transcriptome sequences in combination with traditional genetics methodology.
This research has resulted in breakthroughs of our understanding of key mechanisms of mammalian venom gene evolution, including recruitment from non-toxin genes, gene duplication to form multigene toxin families, alternative splicing and mutation, and convergent evolution of venom toxins between the platypus and other unrelated species. The novel putative venom toxins that we have identified represent promising candidates for future pharmaceutical development.