James Lightfoot

Genetics of Behavior
We explore the evolution of complex behaviors by investigating behavioral diversity across comparative nematode species.

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Neuroscientists have long utilized a select group of model organisms to identify fundamental principles regulating animal behaviors. While this has proven essential for understanding conserved features of the nervous system, little is known of the evolutionary events generating behavioral diversity. Importantly, studies of this kind are often hindered by a lack of comparative organisms capable of providing a genetic, molecular mechanistic, and a neuronal understanding of behavior across an evolutionary context.

In my research group, we aim to overcome these difficulties by exploring the divergent behaviors observed between the free-living round worms, C. elegans and P. pacificus. These two nematodes last shared a common ancestor ~120 million years ago and accordingly, there are an array of behavioral differences between these species. We are currently focusing on their feeding behaviors as while C. elegans is a microbial feeder, P. pacificus is omnivorous and uses teeth-like structures to predate on other nematodes. Alongside this, they have also evolved a robust kin-recognition system to prevent them from killing their own offspring and close relatives. Therefore, as many genetic tools are available in both organisms, we are determining the molecular and cellular innovations which contribute to their behavioral adaptations and additionally are investigating how these changes are incorporated into their nervous system.

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