The first animals were marine invertebrates: tiny, spineless organisms from which all modern fauna evolved. Through a largely unknown series of evolutionary accidents and adaptations, those marine invertebrates became a multitude of new species with body plans and developmental processes different from those of their predecessors. While it’s easy enough for scientists to observe major differences in animals’ morphologies (i.e., anatomical structures) or in the process by which an embryo turns into an adult, the molecular mechanisms that underlie those differences are mostly still mysterious. Researchers in the Lowe Lab at Hopkins Marine Station are working to demystify the mechanisms by which vertebrates like us evolved from our wormy, water-bound ancestors.

Specifically, Lowe Lab members investigate deuterostomes, a superphylum that comprises chordates, including humans; hemichordates, including acorn worms; and echinoderms, including sea stars and urchins. Understanding the mechanisms that dictate the development of our closest living invertebrate relatives gives scientists insight into the processes by which vertebrates arose.

By Maggie Millner