What we aim at

Our group is focused in the study of Evolution. We are mostly interested in the evolution of complex phenotypes and gene networks. We focus mostly on morphology but we also study other phenotypic levels (even beyond biology). Our approach considers that both natural selection and variation determine the direction of evolutionary change. Variation is, however, neither totally random (it is only random in respect to its adaptive value) nor equally possible in all phenotypic directions. The directions of possible variation are determined by the process of development in which genetic and environmental variation gives rise to specific phenotypic variation. Thus, to understand the direction of evolutionary change one needs to understand something about developmental dynamics and its variation. That "something" is mostly pattern formation and morphogenesis. This is how a simple egg cell gives rise, over time, to many different cell types that are organized in a specific and complex manner in space. Variation in that process is what gives variation in the final morphology. In addition, development itself also evolves so, in the long run, to understand the direction of evolutionary change, one also needs to understand the forces affecting the evolution of development (this is again natural selection and variation). We aim, thus, to understand which kind of phenotypic variation is possible in the different modes of development existing in animals. We also aim to understand its evolution by looking at the genetic bases (mostly gene network topology) of each mode of development and its relationship with the kind of phenotypic variation it can produce. Then we study how this and natural selection determines how the phenotype changes. In that process we have found that there is a limited number of ways in which genes can connect into networks to lead to pattern formation and morphogenesis. This largely simplifies the understanding of development and its evolution because:

  1. The whole development of an organism can be understood as a composition of those basic gene networks
  2. The evolution of development can be understood as the replacement between those gene networks on the bases of which ones are most likely to arise by mutation (that depends on its genetic structure: e.g. number of genes) and which of them are most likely to produce adaptive phenotypic variation in each different environment.

We largely explore this to better understand evolution and improve the theoretical bases of evolutionary biology (that so far has not focused much on the nature of variation as such).