From Gene Networks to Organismal Systems
3rd Summer School in Evolutionary Developmental Biology
Sep 23 to Sep 27, 2013Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Palazzo Franchetti, Venice
Organized by: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti & KLI
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Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) faces a number of significant conceptual and methodological challenges as it is moving beyond qualitative comparative analyses of gene expression and key regulatory factors, and begins to focus on quantitative, systems-level studies of evolving developmental processes. This course will expose its participants to these challenges, with the aim of providing evo-devo PhD students and postdocs with the methodological and conceptual toolkit required to face them.
The course is centred on the complex relationship between genotype and phenotype. It will start with an introduction on the history and current status of evo-devo, and an introductory outline of a possible extended synthesis for evolutionary biology. We will discuss problems of phylogenetics and the choice of model organisms as a necessary practical prerequisite for any investigation into evo-devo. The course will cover different approaches to the study of evolution at the phenotypic level: comparative genomics, macro-evolutionary comparisons of body plans across phyla, comparative embryology/morphology, the principles of cis-regulatory evolution and its consequences on organismic form, the importance of other, post-transcriptional mechanisms, the role of regulatory networks in constraining and shaping evolutionary processes, as well as the influence of cell- and tissue-level processes and the environment. This will include discussions of central concepts such as evolvability, robustness, and phenotypic plasticity and their respective roles in evolution. Finally, we will explore the connections and differences between evo-devo and evolutionary genetics, discussing how these approaches can be combined to study phenotypic evolution at the population level.
The course will follow a structure in which lectures by the invited speakers in the morning will alternate with participatory activities moderated by teachers, such as journal clubs and discussions on specific topics in small groups, in the afternoon. The course will also feature practical and demonstration sessions on building phylogenetic trees, as well as on modelling developmental networks and processes. On the final day, small groups of students will present small, virtual grant proposals to address specific challenges and open questions. These projects will be judged and criticized by an expert panel consisting of the invited teachers. The course will conclude with a plenary discussion on how to integrate the diverse topics covered during the week into a unified theoretical framework with the aim of extending existing evolutionary theory.
For the first time, our course this year will follow a somewhat unusual teaching format, inspired by a commentary by Martin Schwartz (2008; J Cell Sci 121: 1771), and an excellent short book by Stuart Firestein titled Ignorance: how it drives science. Teachers are asked to focus on what is not known in their field. Lectures are intended to be informal. After providing a brief introduction to their specific sub-discipline, each instructor will present three important unanswered questions. This format will facilitate student participation and discussions, and is very well suited to prepare young researchers for the challenges facing them in their own projects.