My primary interest is in the link between genotype and phenotype, i.e., how and what types of genetic changes lead to changes in phenotype and how this contributes to evolution. Gene expression is a critical intermediate in this process so during my PhD with Dr Patricia Wittkopp at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I focused on understanding evolution of gene regulation. Specifically, I studied changes in cis-regulatory elements called enhancers, how their sequence, activity and location differ between species using a single pigmentation gene “yellow” as my model. I found all three properties of yellow enhancers are highly divergent between species. A more in depth dissection of yellow cis-regulatory regions gave me clues about how enhancer activity and location evolved rapidly in this locus, e.g., cryptic enhancer activities. I also looked at changes in transcription factor binding between yellow enhancers and am in the process of analyzing this data.
After working on a rapidly diverging trait like pigmentation, in the Lott Lab one of my goals is to understand evolution of highly conserved traits, e.g. segmentation. Typically these are traits when disrupted would be detrimental to the organism hence many of them are also quite robust to perturbations (Lott et al., 2010). These traits, however, do evolve so what types of genetic changes can alter such highly conserved characters? I am also interested in the genetics of robustness, i.e., genetic factors that differentiate robust traits from more sensitive ones, both at the single gene and systems level.