Fungal Evo-Devo and Beyond

Evolutionary biology has become a cross-disciplinary field that has recently drawn on genomics, cell, and developmental biology. These fields, traditionally the realm of biomedical research, have provided a new level of detail about the mechanisms of evolution. Some outstanding questions that motivate my research are: 1) What genetic and developmental changes accompanied the transition to multicellularity in fungi? 2) What are the origins of cell type diversity and functional specialization? 3) Are there conserved gene regulatory networks or genetic toolkits in fungal phyla with disparate lifestyles and morphology? 4) How do these genetic developmental toolkits contribute to fungal species boundaries within a phylum?

Evolution of Functional Specialization and Origins of Cell Type Diversity

Organisms can be deconstructed into a set of modules at various biological levels. I'm interested in taking an organismal approach to understanding how these modules were assembled in fungi.

The Mucoromycota are fungi with limited cell types that can be induced in the laboratory. Cell differentiation in this phylum is usually associated with sexual reproduction. Through my dissertation, I identified candidate sexual developmental toolkit genes in Phycomyces blakesleeanus.

I am particularly interested in using Mucoromycetes as models of functional specialization in the context of sexual reproduction. During sexual reproduction their cells undergo serial differentiation to ultimately produce transient cell types that support development of the zygospore. Within the phylum Mucoromycota, the morphology and behavior of sexual structures varies despite the limited number of cells involved in the process. This contrasts with the complex 3-dimension multicellular fruiting bodies of the dikaryan fungi.

Investigating the genes which control this process across the mucoromycete phylum will uncover additional components of fungal developmental toolkits and offer insight about how specialized cell types have evolved in the fungal kingdom.