The appearance of both sexes from the same species is often highly diverse; sometimes it is even hard to tell whether a male and a female belong to the same species at all! Insects are one notable class of organisms that showcase extreme differences between sexes, called sexual dimorphism. In addition to their diverse appearances, insects also have an astounding diversity in their molecular pathway that determines the sex during early development, the sex determination cascade. This variation is unexpected as the net result is always the same: male or female development.
All insects studied have the same gene, called doublesex, that regulates their sexual development and morphology. Doublesex is a transcription factor and responsible for regulating all the different sexually dimorphic traits that can be observed in nature. However, we still have limited understanding of the molecular mechanisms that underlie the huge dimorphic differences that we can see in insects. Do genes come and go, or do all insects have more or less the same set of genes and is there a difference in the regulation of these genes?
Over 40 years ago, King and Wilson reported that enormous differences in phenotype and behaviour are often not due to differences in protein sequence. They discovered that the evolution of gene regulation is a key player in adaptation and speciation. We have now gained first insights into this regulatory evolution and its players, but we are a long way from having a comprehensive understanding of the relation between transcription factor protein evolution and the continuously changing genetic architecture of their binding sites that regulate target gene expression.
In our research we aim to get a deeper understanding of the way evolution shapes molecular pathways that result in a bewildering biodiversity. Our main research interests are:
1) unraveling the evolution ofsex determination cascades, an important developmental pathway; to understand the enormous diversity in sex determining mechanisms throughout the animal kingdom.
2) the interaction ofdoublesex with its target genes, the highly conserved transcription factor at the bottom of the cascade, to understand how this ultimately result in rapid evolution of sexual dimorphic traits.
In addition, we are involved in the fundamentals of using parasitoid wasps in biological control and integrated pest management.
On this website you can find more detailed information on our research and the study species involved, as well as information on the research team. Since we can always use a good MSc student, in the section available positions, a couple of projects are presented. In the section News/Blog you will find exciting news and blogs on science or lab work. If you would like to have more information or you would like to explore the possibility of a collaboration, please contact us!
"Most evolutionary novelties are not caused by the appearance of new genes, but are rather caused by changes in the regulatory elements of pre-existing genes"