Hockman Group Research
My research uses the power of comparative embryology and genetics to understand vertebrate development, evolution and diversification. My past projects have included investigations of the molecular mechanisms of bat wing development, as well as an exploration of the evolutionary and developmental origins of vertebrate oxygen-sensing cells.
My current research programme uses the lamprey, the most basal vertebrate, as a model to determine the genetic programme for one of the defining features of the vertebrates: the neural crest. The neural crest is a migratory embryonic cell population that contributes to many critical adult features including the skull, teeth and peripheral nervous system. Knowledge of the “recipe” for making neural crest cells will help us determine the causes of neural crest defects in humans, and will also assist in harnessing the potential of this tissue for therapeutic purposes. While the neural crest has been studied extensively we do not know how it was first specified in our evolutionary ancestors. I am tackling this problem using the latest genome-wide analysis techniques (RNA-seq, ATAC-seq, ChIP-seq) in the lamprey for the first time. By comparing the results to similar datasets for other vertebrates, such as chicken and zebrafish, I am uncovering critical regulatory elements and sets of expressed genes that are shared across vertebrates and others that are either present in lamprey alone or missing from the lamprey. In this way, this study focuses attention on the regions of the genome that gave neural crest cells their properties in the earliest vertebrate ancestors and form the core recipe for specifying this unique cell type in modern vertebrates.
A transgenic lamprey