What are the molecular boundaries of biological plasticity?
While developmental genetics provides a reasonable molecular framework for certain evolutionary processes, it does not provide the entire picture. Reversible molecular processes, such as DNA methylation, can steer the function of genes in novel environments allowing for adaptive plasticity regardless of genetic background. While a good half of a century has focused on a role for genes in a given trait, we know very little about how such plastic processes can influence evolution.
Our group is interested in the plastic molecular mechanisms that shape a genome’s response to natural changes to environment. We have adopted an African cichlid model system that shows robust changes to morphology and behavior to investigate these processes. Specifically, we use the blue-yellow color morphs of Astatotilapia burtoni to understand the cellular and molecular substrates of color changes in the periphery and its subsequent effects on behavior in the central nervous system. Our lab uses a combination of molecular , computational , microscopy and “-omics” tools to address our interests.
Since behavior and pigmentation are key factors driving the speciation of cichlids in the East African Great Lakes, we believe our work will contribute to a more inclusive understanding of the molecular processes that drive adaptive speciation.