Dr Elizabeth Williams
BBSRC David Phillips Fellow, Senior Lecturer
Living Systems Institute T05.12
Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter, Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4QD
Development, ecology and evolution of marine invertebrate animals.
My primary research interest is 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.
Join us: We are keen to hear from prospective colleagues around the world who share our interest in marine invertebrate systems and sensory signalling. If you are interested in our research and want know more or would like to join an enthusiastic and supportive team as a postgraduate student or Postdoc please get in touch.
For further details and informal discussion please contact Elizabeth Williams by email.
2010 PhD Molecular Marine Biology, University of Queensland
2004 BSc Hons I Zoology, University of Queensland
2003 BSc Marine Biology, University of Queensland
2022 - Senior Lecturer (E&R) (Proleptic)
2021 - Senior Research Fellow, University of Exeter
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.
Royal Society Research Grant - 'Developing the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii as a model for studying the gut-brain connection'
The enteric nervous system provides feedback between the brain and digestive system to regulate animal feeding, digestion and metabolism. Peptidergic molecules, known as neuropeptides, in the enteric nervous system interact to regulate communication between the gut and the brain. Advancing our understanding of enteric system neuropeptide signalling is vital to improved digestive system and mental health. However, studying neuropeptide signalling in the nervous system of vertebrates such as humans and mice is challenging due to their complex nature, as well as ethical and practical considerations. Simpler invertebrate animal model systems, such as worms, may prove useful for addressing this gap. I propose to use the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii as a model for investigating neuropeptidergic signalling in the enteric nervous system. Importantly, Platynereis shares a higher overlap in neuropeptide types with vertebrates than other invertebrate models, such as fruit fly or roundworms. The transparent body wall and small size of the young worms allows imaging of neuronal structure and digestive processes in the whole animal without interference. My aim is to map the expression of neuropeptides and their receptors important for the vertebrate enteric nervous system in Platynereis. Using a novel custom-built, environmentally stable, high-throughput microscopy system for behavioural analyses, I will confirm whether these neuropeptides carry out similar functions in this marine worm as they do in vertebrates. Through these efforts, I plan to develop a unique model system for understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms through which the enteric nervous system regulates gut-brain signalling.
2022 Royal Society Research Grant - 'Developing the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii as a model for studying the gut-brain connection'
2020 Association of European Marine Biological Laboratories (ASSEMBLE) Plus - "Species-specific effect of diatoms on larval settlement in the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii"
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
Publications by category
Publications by year
- BIO2074 Marine Biology
- Pelagic Ecosystems
- Tropical Ecosystems
- BIO3037 Ecology of Environmental Change
- Tropical Coral Reefs
- BIO3047 Advanced Applications of Physiology
- Neuropeptide Signalling
- Independent research projects with focus on marine larval biology
- Independent research projects with focus on bioimaging and neuroethology
Supervision / Group
- Susanne Vogeler
- Josh Pysanczyn Sound detection in coral larvae: Mechanisms, effects of habitat degradation and potential for reef restoration
- Callum Teeling
- Sophie Den Hartog
- Emily Collins 2020 Investigating larval settlement strategies in the coral Acropora millepora
- Mia Griffin 2021 Effects of diatom-bacteria biofilm cues on larval settlement in the polychaete Platynereis dumerilii
- Sasha Hills 2022 Role of endogenous and exogenous cues in metamorphosis of the model sea anemone Nematostella vectensis
- Rosy Kilty 2021 Review of the larval apical sensory organ in marine invertebrates
- Kari Webb 2020 Effects of age on coral larval settlement behaviour