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Evolutionary and Organismal Biology

Caltech has a long history of evolutionary and organismal biology, including Thomas Hunt Morgan’s foundational contributions to population genetics and evolutionary theory, Seymour Benzer’s groundbreaking work on the molecular biology of circadian rhythms and behavior in fruit flies, and pioneering neuroethological studies of birds by Marc Konishi. The strong tradition of evolutionary and organismal science at Caltech continues today in the laboratories of numerous faculty in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering.


Evolutionary NeurobiologyEvolutionary Neurobiology

Evolutionary neurobiology examines how nervous systems evolve at the molecular and circuit levels to control sensory, cognitive, and behavioral differences between animal species. Insights into fundamental molecular and cellular features of nervous systems, and modes of information coding in the brain, can also be ascertained by exploring conserved or analogous neural architectures or computations in different species. 

Faculty and areas of interest:

Adolphs Functional and comparative approaches to the evolution of emotion
Alman Comparative anatomy and connections of frontal cortex in anthropoid primates
Anderson Evolution of neural circuits and genes controlling behaviors such as aggression
Dickinson Neural basis of insect behavioral evolution
Hong Olfactory perception and coding across insect species
Meister Evolution of neural circuits
Parker Neurobiology of social and symbiotic evolution; neural basis of behavioral convergence
Prober Evolution and conservation of genetic and neuronal mechanisms that underlie sleep and autism,
Siapas Evolution and conservation of hippocampal computations
Sternberg Evolution of behavioral novelty in nematodes
Tsao Evolution of cognition and object perception in primates
Zinn Evolution of neural circuits across fly species, and conservation of receptor-ligand interactions between insects and mammals    


Cell and developmental evolutionCell and Developmental Evolution

Organismal evolution occurs in part through the modification of cellular functions and properties, via the emergence of new cell types, and through changes in the development of multicellular body plans. Research in this area focuses on the genetic and molecular processes underlying cellular and developmental evolution in diverse species of animals and plants.

Faculty and areas of interest:

Bronner Development and evolution of vertebrate novelty
Glover Comparative studies of centrioles, basal bodies, cilia and vesicular structures in metazoans
Meyerowitz Comparative development of land plants and early diverging algae
Parker Development and evolution of exocrine glands; cell type innovations in animals
Peter Evolution of organogenesis
Rothenberg Evolution of lymphoid cell developmental programs across vertebrates
Sternberg Genetic control and evolution of nematode life cycles
Thomson Evolution of development and animal cell types    


Molecular and Genomic EvolutionMolecular and Genomic Evolution

Studies in molecular and genomic evolution focus on the emergence of complexity and role of variation at the molecular level. Fundamental questions include how the sequences of genes, whole genomes and proteins evolve, how complex molecular processes such as signaling pathways and multiprotein interactions can arise and undergo modification over evolutionary time, and what the adaptive consequences of these molecular phenomena are. 

Faculty and areas of interest:

Bjorkman Molecular arms race between viruses and the vertebrate immune system
Fejes Toth piRNA pathway and transposable elements in genome evolution
Jensen Evolution and assembly of multi-protein macromolecular machines
Pachter Technologies for comparative genomics and transcriptomics
Parker Genomic basis of convergent evolution; genome evolution in symbiotic organisms
Peter Evolution of gene regulatory networks
Philips Adaptive consequences of molecular biophysical changes in microbes     
Sternberg Comparative genomics of nematodes
Winfree Molecular self-assembly and self-replicating chemical systems   


Evolutionary MicrobiologyMicrobial Evolution

Basic questions in microbial evolution include how microbial species and their biologies evolve, how microbial communities assemble and evolve, and what role symbiotic microbes play in the evolution of multicellular host organisms.

Faculty and areas of interest:

Newman Geobiology and evolution of microbial metabolism and oxygenic photosynthesis
Orphan Evolution of microbial communities
Parker Microbe function in social and symbiotic animal lifestyles 

Biomechanics and BiophysicsBiomechanics and Biophysics

The fields of biomechanics and biophysics both seek to explain biological phenomena in terms of the underlying physics, often using tools and principles borrowed from engineering. Whereas biophysics typically focuses on phenomena relating to the cell and molecular levels of complexity, biomechanics addresses the performance of tissues and whole organisms.

Faculty and areas of interest:

Dickinson Functional morphology and biomechanics of insect flight         
Philips Biophysics of microbial cells      

Organismal PhysiologyOrganismal Physiology 

Large multicellular organisms require a vast array of homeostatic processes that carefully regulate the physical and chemical environment within the body. Organismal physiology studies these important regulatory mechanisms, which collectively allow each species of plant or animal to exploit a specialized niche within the environment.

Faculty and areas of interest:

Dickinson Comparative physiology of insects     
Goentoro Body plan regeneration and sleep in cnidarians
Lester Impact of plant toxins on animal neurochemistry   
Mazmanian Animal host-microbe interactions in behavioral regulation       
Prober Molecular regulation of sleep      
Rothenberg Genetic control of vertebrate immune system function          
Sternberg Nematode chemical ecology  
Zernicka-Goetz Mammalian pregnancy  

Neuroethology Neuroethology

Neuroethology is the exploration of how nervous systems are organized to control animal behavior. Species with naturally extreme or specialized behaviors are typically employed to comprehend how the nervous system processes stimuli and generates these organism's behavioral capabilities.

Faculty and areas of interest:

Dickinson Insect neuroethology
Lois Generation of behavioral sequences by the brain; resilience of brain function in response to perturbations        
Meister Natural behaviors and task learning in mice, and how these are implemented by neural hardware    
Parker Neural control of defensive, social and symbiotic interactions in rove beetles          
Sternberg Neural basis of adaptive nematode behaviors  
Tsao Visual behaviors in mice, tree shrews, and primates
Wagenaar Neuronal basis of sensory processing and sensory-guided behavior     

Evolutionary and Organismal EnginneringEvolutionary and Organismal Engineering

Evolutionary engineering exploits the process of Darwinian selection to artificially modify or enhance the properties of biological material, from proteins to whole organisms and populations.

Faculty and areas of interest

Arnold Directed evolution of enzymes and chemical novelty        
Gradinaru Directed protein evolution for gene delivery and optogenetics in brain research and behavior       
Hay Gene drive and population engineering technology; engineering organismal physiology 
Lester Directed evolution of fluorescent biosensors for drug monitoring     
Parker Directed evolution of novel organismal phenotypes