Dr Elizabeth Williams
BBSRC David Phillips Fellow
Newman Lower Ground Floor (The Cave)
Development, ecology and evolution of marine invertebrate animals.
My primary research interest lies in understanding the developmental phenomenon of metamorphosis in marine animals. Many marine animals, including sponges, corals, jellyfish, shellfish, crustaceans, worms, sea urchins, starfish and sea squirts, have a life cycle which includes a free-swimming larval stage that must find the ideal location to settle down on the sea floor and undergo metamorphosis to an adult form. I use molecular biology approaches to study the sensory and neuroendocrine systems of marine invertebrate larvae to understand how they interact with their surrounding environment to navigate through the ocean and regulate the timing of their metamorphic transition. These larvae are crucial to the survival, connectivity and evolution of marine populations.
My background lies in marine biology and molecular biology. Following a BSc in Marine Biology at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, I carried out a BSc Hons research project investigating natural variation in gene expression during sea squirt larval development. During my PhD I studied the interplay of genes and environment in the metamorphosis of tropical abalone, an emerging aquaculture species. I then joined the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, as a postdoctoral researcher working on neuropeptide signaling in the life cycle of marine worms, sea anemones, jellyfish and placozoans. Following a move to the University of Exeter's new Living Systems Institute with my postdoctoral research lab in 2018, I was awarded a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship in late 2019. Commencing May 2020, this fellowship allows me to build my independent research group in the Exeter Biosciences.
2010 PhD Molecular Marine Biology, University of Queensland
2004 BSc Hons I Zoology, University of Queensland
2003 BSc Marine Biology, University of Queensland
2020 - BBSRC David Phillips Fellow, University of Exeter
2018 - 2019 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter
2010 - 2017 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany.
Metamorphosis is an excellent example of the important role that environment can play during animal development, since for many larvae, this process is initiated by specific environmental cues. While the regulation of insect, frog and fish metamorphosis is relatively well understood, metamorphosis occurs in at least 15 other animal groups. To fully understand how the environment regulates development, we need to investigate the external cues and internal neuroendocrine signalling that guide metamorphosis beyond insects and vertebrates, and in different environments. Research in my lab focuses on understanding the metamorphic process in the larvae of marine invertebrates. We primarily use the marine polychaete worm Platynereis as a lab model. Our research has three main areas of investigation:
- identification and characterization of species-specific environmental cues for marine invertebrate larval settlement and metamorphosis
- developing understanding of the morphology and physiology of the sensory systems larvae use to detect environmental cues for metamorphosis
- revealing the molecular signaling pathways within larvae that trigger the metamorphic transition, with particular focus on neuropeptides and neurohormones.
Improving our understanding of marine invertebrate metamorphosis, from environmental cues to internal neuroendocrine signaling, allows us to address important questions including:
- What are the similarities and differences in the metamorphic process of different animal groups - how does metamorphosis evolve?
- How will changes to the marine environment impact the critical process of larval metamorphosis?
- Can we exploit knowledge of the environmental cues and molecular signals regulating metamorphosis to improve marine invertebrate aquaculture productivity?
Current Research Projects
BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship - 'Unravelling the neuroendocrine signalling pathways guiding the developmental transition of marine invertebrate larval settlement'
For many marine invertebrates, larval settlement is a key developmental transition. This process is strongly linked to the environment in that larvae must detect specific cues to determine the time and place of settlement. How environmental cues are detected and activate internal hormone signalling to regulate larval settlement is not yet clear. To better understand this, I will investigate larval settlement in the polychaete Platynereis dumerilii. Platynereis settlement is internally regulated by myoinhibitory peptide (MIP) signalling through two different receptors, a MIP-activated G protein- coupled receptor (MAG) and a MIP-gated ion channel (MGIC). My recent identification of diatom biofilms as a cue for Platynereis larval settlement provides an opportunity to test the link between external and internal settlement signals in a system amenable to detailed molecular analyses. Here, I will characterize the response of Platynereis larvae to different diatoms. Using calcium imaging and transcriptome analyses, I will investigate short- and long-term responses of larvae to diatom cues. Through phenotypic characterization of MIP- and MIP receptor-knockout lines, I will dissect the contribution of MIP signalling to settlement and assess its link to environmental cue detection. I will also investigate whether thyroid hormone signalling is downstream of MIP signalling during Platynereis larval settlement. To determine whether the function of MIP in larval settlement is conserved throughout protostomes, I will use synthetic MIP treatments to characterize MIP function in three invertebrate species; the oyster Crassostrea gigas, the mussel Mytilus edulis, and the prawn Litopenaeus vannamei. Understanding how external and internal signals combine to guide the developmental transition of marine invertebrate settlement will inform our understanding of animal-microalgae interactions and the evolution of environmentally-guided animal development.
2019 BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship - 'Unravelling the neuroendocrine signalling pathways guiding the developmental transition of marine invertebrate larval settlement'
2018 Association of European Marine Biological Laboratories (ASSEMBLE) Plus - 'Regulation of larval metamorphosis in the jellyfish Clytia hemisphaerica'.
2015 German Research Council (DFG) Research Grant #JE777/1 - 'Mechanisms of neuropeptidergic regulation of larval settlement behaviour in the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii.
2011 Association of European Marine Biological Laboratories (ASSEMBLE) - 'Role of VWamide in settlement and metamorphosis of the Hydrozoan Cnidarian, Clava multicornis'.
- Dr Rob Ellis - Marine ecophysiology, sustainable aquaculture
- Dr Katherine Helliwell - Phytoplankton ecophysiology
- Dr Glen Wheeler - Algal signalling and physiology
- Prof Vincent Laudet - Marine ecology, evolution and development
- Prof Gaspar Jekely - Neurobiology of marine zooplankton
- Prof Bernie Degnan - Marine genomics, development and evolution
- Prof Sandie Degnan - Marine genomics, ecology and evolution