2009 - present Researcher, Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, UK
2005 - 2008 Postdoctoral researcher, Dept. Biology & Biochemistry, University of Bath, UK
2002 - 2004 Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow, Dept. Zoology, University of Cambridge, UK
2002 PhD in systematic biology, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
1997 MSc in biology, Utrecht University, Netherlands
Honorary Senior Lecturer, Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London (2012-)
This is a NERC funded project (Comparative venom transcriptomics of centipedes: evolutionary diversification of a key ecological adaptation: NE/I001530/1) in collaboration with Dr Jean van Elsen (University of Bath, UK) and Eivind Undheim (The University of Queensland, Australia).
Although most lay people have little problem in identifying creatures like jellyfish, wasps, spiders, and scorpions as potentially dangerous venomous organisms, far fewer know that the ca. 3,300 species of centipedes possess potent venoms. A pair of strong venom claws is located just behind the head, and they house large venom glands that contain complex cocktails of venom components. Unfortunately we know almost nothing about the make-up of centipede venom, which leaves not only a large hole in our understanding of an ecologically important group, but it also compromises our general understanding of venom evolution in the animal kingdom. This study aims to remedy this ignorance by performing the first extensive and intensive analysis of the composition of centipede venoms. This is not only important for enhancing our limited understanding of centipede biology, but also for asking and answering fundamental questions about the evolution of venoms across the animal kingdom.
Higher-level phylogeny of centipedes © Greg Edgecombe
The stone centipede Lithobius forficatus © Greg Edgecombe
This project will take a genetic approach, and will characterize the toxin profiles from the venoms of five species of centipedes. These five species have been chosen to represent all major groups of centipedes. For each species, up to half a million mRNA sequences will be characterized. These precursor molecules are the templates for the production of toxin proteins. By comparing the profiles of these sequences across the selected species we can start to address important questions relating to the evolution of venoms and venomous organisms. The most basic question that can be answered is simply: what toxins are expressed in the venom glands of centipedes? The answer to this question will be the basis for answering the other questions.
Left forcipule (venom claw) of the centipede Lithobius forficatus © Greg Edgecombe
Does centipede venom have many toxins in common with the venoms of other groups? We already know from previous research that different groups of venomous animals can recruit many similar toxins into their venom. They do this by taking a gene coding for normal body protein, duplicating it, and expressing one of the copies specifically in the venom gland. Changes in the sequence of the gene can create changes in the protein, and this can change the protein’s function to be more effective as a toxin. Preliminary work, however, has suggested that centipede venom may contain many toxins not (yet?) found in other groups. This study will allow us to see how many venom components in centipedes are unique for them
Another major question that can be addressed with the new data is whether the diversification of the centipede species and their toxins went hand in hand. By integrating the family trees of the toxin genes and the centipedes we can infer is particular episodes in the evolution of centipedes are associated with bouts of toxin evolution as well. We can also infer, by incorporating data from other venomous and non-venomous animals, from what kind of genes the toxin genes in centipedes have evolved. Since there were no centipede data available till now, we can broadly reassess our current understanding of the pattern of toxin in evolution across all animals.
We can use the new data also to ask what kinds of processes were important in shaping the composition of centipede venom. One factor that is likely to be important is the range of different kinds of prey the centipede eats. A species tackling a broad range of prey has perhaps a greater diversity of toxins, than a species specializing in just a particular prey species. By trying to correlate venom composition with the diversity of prey identified in their guts we can begin to answer this question. Lastly, by looking at what kinds of changes have occurred in the toxin sequences, and in which parts of them, we can infer the types and intensities of selection pressures that were likely important in shaping toxin diversity.
This project is funded by BBSRC (Tracking toxins in venomous Vermes: comparative venomics of polychaete annelids. BB/K003488/1) in collaboration with the lab of Dr Christoph Bleidorn (University of Leipzig, Germany).
The bloodworm Glycera capitata © Adrian Glover
Polychaete annelids are another group of animals that have been relatively neglected by venom researchers. Although it has been known for several decades that bloodworms (Glyceridae) are venomous, the composition of their venom remains largely unstudied. Our ignorance is even greater for the scale-worms, which comprise several related families of polychaetes for which morphological studies have indicated the presence of jaw-associated venom glands. Taking an approach similar to that of the centipede project our goal is to generate the first genetic characterization of the genes expressed in presumed polychaete venom glands, and to perform a comparative analysis of the results to better understand the general rules governing convergent venom evolution.
Giant Antarctic scale-worm (probably Eulagisca gigantea) © Les Watling
This project is supported by postdoctoral funding by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for Dr Bjoern von Reumont.
Despite the extreme body plan disparity found among extant crustaceans, it is remarkable that no venomous crustacean has ever been found. In contrast, venomous species abound in the other major arthropod groups, for instance with venomous spiders and scorpions in Chelicerata, venomous hymenopterans in Hexapoda, and venomous centipedes in Myriapoda. This project's aim is to establish whether the prime candidates for venomous crustaceans, the cave-dwelling remipedes, do indeed express venom genes in their venom glands, and what that can teach us about venom evolution.
Remipede venom apparatus © Bjoern von Reumont
This is a book project contracted with the University of California Press, to appear in the book series Species and Systematics.
I'm writing a book on the topic of ancestors in evolutionary biology. The book takes an in depth look at the role of ancestors in the history of evolutionary biology. It chronicles the origin of the concept from pre-Darwinian type concepts, explores the changing epistemological roles of ancestors in evolutionary biology and phylogenetics from 1859 to the present, and explores the interplay of facts and fantasy in the study of animal body plan evolution.
Word cloud of Gregory (2008, Evo. Edu. Outreach 1:121-137), showing the importance of ancestors in the explanation of evolutionary trees; the word is used 97 times in 15 pages of text.
Ernst Haeckel's vertebrate archetype (ideale Urbild des Wirbelthieres) from his 1874 Anthropogenie.