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Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

Dr Elizabeth Williams

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.

PhD studentship currently available, commencing September 2024, application deadline April 14th 2024

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.


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Research interests

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?

Research projects

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.

Research Grants

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'.

Research networks

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Journal articles

(In Press). Abstract.
Jimenez-Guri E, Paganos P, La Vecchia C, Annona G, Caccavale F, Molina MD, Ferrández-Roldán A, Donnellan RD, Salatiello F, Johnstone A, et al (2024). Developmental toxicity of pre-production plastic pellets affects a large swathe of invertebrate taxa. Chemosphere, 356 Abstract.
Pysanczyn JW, Williams EA, Brodrick E, Robert D, Craggs J, Marhaver KL, Simpson SD (2023). The role of acoustics within the sensory landscape of coral larval settlement. Frontiers in Marine Science, 10 Abstract.
Williams EA, Jékely G (2021). Nervous systems: Neuropeptides define enigmatic comb-jelly neurons. Curr Biol, 31(23), R1515-R1517. Abstract.  Author URL.
Özpolat BD, Randel N, Williams EA, Bezares-Calderón LA, Andreatta G, Balavoine G, Bertucci PY, Ferrier DEK, Gambi MC, Gazave E, et al (2021). The Nereid on the rise: Platynereis as a model system. Evodevo, 12(1). Abstract.  Author URL.
Hoffmann KH, Williams EA (2020). Editorial: the Evolution of Neuropeptides - a Stroll Through the Animal Kingdom: Updates from the Ottawa 2019 ICCPB Symposium and Beyond. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 11
Williams EA (2020). Function and Distribution of the Wamide Neuropeptide Superfamily in Metazoans. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 11
Gintoli M, Mohanan S, Salter P, Williams E, Beard JD, Jekely G, Corbett AD (2020). Spinning Disk -- Remote Focusing Microscopy. Abstract.  Author URL.
Verasztó C, Jasek S, Gühmann M, Shahidi R, Ueda N, Beard JD, Mendes S, Heinz K, Bezares-Calderón LA, Williams E, et al (2020). Whole-animal connectome and cell-type complement of the three-segmented <i>Platynereis dumerilii</i> larva. Abstract.
Williams EA, Jékely G (2019). Neuronal cell types in the annelid Platynereis dumerilii. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 56, 106-116. Abstract.
Schmidt A, Bauknecht P, Williams EA, Augustinowski K, Gründer S, Jékely G (2018). Dual signaling of Wamide myoinhibitory peptides through a peptide-gated channel and a GPCR in Platynereis. FASEB J, 32(10), 5338-5349. Abstract.  Author URL.
Varoqueaux F, Williams EA, Grandemange S, Truscello L, Kamm K, Schierwater B, Jékely G, Fasshauer D (2018). High Cell Diversity and Complex Peptidergic Signaling Underlie Placozoan Behavior. Curr Biol, 28(21), 3495-3501.e2. Abstract.  Author URL.
Varoqueaux F, Williams EA, Grandemange S, Truscello L, Kamm K, Schierwater B, Jékely G, Fasshauer D (2018). High cell diversity and complex peptidergic signalling underlie placozoan behaviour. Abstract.
Verasztó C, Ueda N, Bezares-Calderón LA, Panzera A, Williams EA, Shahidi R, Jékely G (2017). Ciliomotor circuitry underlying whole-body coordination of ciliary activity in the Platynereis larva. Elife, 6 Abstract.  Author URL.
Verasztó C, Ueda N, Bezares-Calderón LA, Panzera A, Williams EA, Shahidi R, Jékely G (2017). Ciliomotor circuitry underlying whole-body coordination of ciliary activity in the<i>Platynereis</i>larva. Abstract.
Williams EA, Verasztó C, Jasek S, Conzelmann M, Shahidi R, Bauknecht P, Mirabeau O, Jékely G (2017). Synaptic and peptidergic connectome of a neurosecretory center in the annelid brain. Elife, 6 Abstract.  Author URL.
Williams EA, Verasztó C, Jasek S, Conzelmann M, Shahidi R, Bauknecht P, Jékely G (2017). Synaptic and peptidergic connectome of a neurosecretory centre in the annelid brain. Abstract.
Williams EA, Jékely G (2016). Towards a systems-level understanding of development in the marine annelid Platynereis dumerilii. Curr Opin Genet Dev, 39, 175-181. Abstract.  Author URL.
Shahidi R, Williams E, Conzelmann M, Asadulina A, Veraszto C, Jasek S, Bezares-Calderon LA, Jekely G (2015). A Serial Multiplex Immunogold Labeling Method for Identifying Peptidergic Neurons in Connectomes. Abstract.
Shahidi R, Williams EA, Conzelmann M, Asadulina A, Verasztó C, Jasek S, Bezares-Calderón LA, Jékely G (2015). A serial multiplex immunogold labeling method for identifying peptidergic neurons in connectomes. Elife, 4 Abstract.  Author URL.
Williams EA, Conzelmann M, Jékely G (2015). Myoinhibitory peptide regulates feeding in the marine annelid Platynereis. Front Zool, 12(1). Abstract.  Author URL.
Asadulina A, Conzelmann M, Williams EA, Panzera A, Jékely G (2015). Object-based representation and analysis of light and electron microscopic volume data using Blender. BMC Bioinformatics, 16 Abstract.  Author URL.
Randel N, Asadulina A, Bezares-Calderón LA, Verasztó C, Williams EA, Conzelmann M, Shahidi R, Jékely G (2014). Neuronal connectome of a sensory-motor circuit for visual navigation. Elife, 3 Abstract.  Author URL.
Conzelmann M, Williams EA, Tunaru S, Randel N, Shahidi R, Asadulina A, Berger J, Offermanns S, Jékely G (2013). Conserved MIP receptor-ligand pair regulates Platynereis larval settlement. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 110(20), 8224-8229. Abstract.  Author URL.
Conzelmann M, Williams EA, Krug K, Franz-Wachtel M, Macek B, Jékely G (2013). The neuropeptide complement of the marine annelid Platynereis dumerilii. BMC Genomics, 14 Abstract.  Author URL.
Stewart P, Williams E, Stewart MJ, Soonklang N, Degnan SM, Cummins SF, Hanna PJ, Sobhon P (2011). Characterization of a GABAA receptor ß subunit in the abalone Haliotis asinina that is upregulated during larval development. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 410, 53-60.
WILLIAMS EA, DEGNAN SM (2009). Carry‐over effect of larval settlement cue on postlarval gene expression in the marine gastropod <i>Haliotis asinina</i>. Molecular Ecology, 18(21), 4434-4449. Abstract.
Williams EA, Cummins S, Degnan SM (2009). Settlement specifics: Effective induction of abalone settlement and metamorphosis corresponds to biomolecular composition of natural cues. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2(4), 347-349. Abstract.
WILLIAMS EA, DEGNAN BM, GUNTER H, JACKSON DJ, WOODCROFT BJ, DEGNAN SM (2009). Widespread transcriptional changes pre‐empt the critical pelagic–benthic transition in the vetigastropod <i>Haliotis asinina</i>. Molecular Ecology, 18(5), 1006-1025. Abstract.
Williams EA, Craigie A, Yeates A, Degnan SM (2008). Articulated Coralline Algae of the Genus<i>Amphiroa</i>Are Highly Effective Natural Inducers of Settlement in the Tropical Abalone<i>Haliotis asinina</i>. The Biological Bulletin, 215(1), 98-107.
Jacobs MW, Degnan SM, Woods R, Williams E, Roper KE, Green K, Degnan BM (2006). The effect of larval age on morphology and gene expression during ascidian metamorphosis. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 46(6), 760-776.


Williams EA, Carrier T (2018). An -omics Perspective on Marine Invertebrate Larvae. In Carrier T, Heyland A, Reitzel A (Eds.) Evolutionary Ecology of Marine Invertebrate Larvae, Oxford University Press, 288-304.

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  • BIO2074 Marine Biology
    • Pelagic Ecosystems
    • Tropical Ecosystems
  • BIO3037 Ecology of Environmental Change
    • Tropical Coral Reefs
  • BIO3047 Advanced Applications of Physiology
    • Neuropeptide Signalling
  • BIO3096, BIOM560
    • Independent research projects with focus on marine invertebrate & larval biology
  • NSC3001
    • Independent research projects with focus on bioimaging and neuroethology

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Supervision / Group

Postdoctoral researchers

  • Susanne Vogeler

Postgraduate researchers

  • Sophie den Hartog
  • Imran Luqman
  • Josh Pysanczyn Sound detection in coral larvae: Mechanisms, effects of habitat degradation and potential for reef restoration
  • Callum Teeling

Research Technicians

  • Jamie Haddon


  • Emily Collins 2020 Investigating larval settlement strategies in the coral Acropora millepora
  • An Mei Daniels 2023 - BDSB Gurdon Summer Student: Environmental cues for larval settlement and metamorphosis in the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis
  • 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
  • Caspian Horlick 2023 - BIOM560 Role of allatotropin neuropeptide in feeding and growth of the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii
  • Rosy Kilty 2021 Review of the larval apical sensory organ in marine invertebrates
  • Kari Webb 2020 Effects of age on coral larval settlement behaviour

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