Sea Urchins are a deuterostome which means they are more related to humans than insects. They are thus a distant cousin that can be studied for the benefit of humanity and the planet. Work recently has shown for example that sea urchins share the same genes and inflammation pathways as humans. They have long been study organisms for human health and recent work has focused on pathways for the treatment of cancers and auto-immune diseases.
I am working on projects on two major fields. The first aims to identify which sea urchin genes have responded to major past events such as changes in climate and extinction events in order to examine how the genome adapts to perturbations. It is particularly interesting to know which categories of genes change. One event which I am focusing on is a transition within the genus from cold to warm water. I am classifying and identifying positively selected genes so they can be linked to known cellular processes and biochemical networks in the urchin. This information can then be utilized to improve our understanding of how warming may affect marine and terrestrial organisms, which can be applied in fields such as aquaculture, medicine, or ecology. My work leverages these past events as natural experiments and combines them with evolutionary theory to better understand how cells and complex organisms adapt to change.
My second focus and the topic of my dissertation is how sea urchins evolved from a genetic perspective. Particularly how the species complex has traded genes through introgression, the mixing of gene pools after speciation. I am using sophisticated statistical techniques to identify which genes and chromosomal regions have been affected by introgression. The pattern of introgression in the genome will inform us on what it is affected by. For example, Does strong natural selection impede this process? The answers to questions like these affect how species can be cross-bred or how biological remediation can be preformed. It is a deeply interesting field that has sparked my interest in bio-technology.