Following the theme of networking, I recently hosted my friend Pam from the University of Alberta. I met Pam at the Northwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Developmental Biologists in 2007. Pam was an undergraduate who works on the development of freshwater sponges, and I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon working on marine worms, and we found our shared appreciation for enigmatic invertebrates and how studying their development helps us to understand the evolution of the animal body plan.
Pam has continued with sponges for her doctoral work, and has identified a number of sponge genes that look very similar to vertebrate genes that are critical for generating the primary body axes. Sponges arguably are the most basal branching group of animals (metazoa) from a group eumetazoa, which includes most other animals (including cnidarians such as corals and sea anemones, and bilaterians animals such as vertebrates and invertebrate groups including echinoderms, arthropods, annelids, etc.), so versions of these genes must have been present in an ancestor approximately one billion years ago.
One classic assay of these genes functions has been their ability to induce a second axis when overexpressed in an area where it is normally at low levels; for instance, when overexpressed in the presumptive belly (ventral) side of a developing frog embryo, you generate a frog with two heads; this is true if you use the fly, or even sea anemone version of this gene. However, sponges lack clear body axes, but Pam is hoping to determine if the sponge genes function similarly by testing their ability induce a secondary axis in frog developing tadpoles.
For my postdoc, I fortuitously ended up working on the same gene family in frogs. Through the magic of the social network, I ended up seeing several requests for advice/papers on the subject from Pam, and we (and our PIs) soon decided it would be a logical place for collaboration. After several months advising on project preparation from afar, we recently had an intense 10-day session to get the bulk of the experiments finished. It should end up in a publication (pretty much our biggest ‘product’ as researchers), and be good experience for both of us. Feel free to use this excuse the next time your boss catches you checking Facebook… “I’m keeping an eye out for future collaborations...”