Neuropeptide function during embryonic development

Neuropeptides are important regulators of physiological processes and behaviour in animals. Much of what we know about neuropeptide function is based upon studies on adult animals and little is known about the roles of neuropeptide signalling systems during embryonic/larval stages of development.
In this project the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus will be used a model system to address this issue.

Natalie Wood (LIDo PhD Student - 2015 cohort)

Dr. Paola Oliveri, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London
Prof. Maurice Elphick, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary, Unicverity of London

The student view

I read Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford for my undergraduate degree. During which my passion for biology excelled and I decided to further investigate the world of evolutionary developmental biology. The LIDo programme allowed me to do so, whilst also giving me the ability to diverge my scientific interests through the SysMIC and Bioindustry modules in the first year. Further, the flexibility of choosing from a range of PhD projects was a huge draw for me, as I hadn’t quite committed to a particular question to investigate, but knew only of my deep interest in a particular field of biology.
After the rotation projects I chose to undertake my PhD project with Dr Paola Oliveri at University College London, supervised secondarily by Professor Maurice Elphick at Queen Mary University London. My project investigates the role of neuropeptides in the early development of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus.


Neuropeptides are ancient neuronal signalling molecules that act as key regulators in physiological processes and behaviour in metazoans. However much of what we know about neuropeptide function is based upon studies on adult animals and little is known about the role(s) of neuropeptides during the embryonic and larval stages of development. This model invertebrate deuterostome is placed at an intermediate phylogenetic position between vertebrates and protostomes, and therefore can provide the missing link for the reconstruction of neuropeptide evolution. Further the sea urchin embryo is a model organism when answering developmental questions. Artificial spawning, fertilisation and rearing of sea urchin embryos and adults can all be done in a laboratory environment. Additionally the transparency, ability to genetically manipulate the embryo (CRISPR/Cas9 knockouts, antisense morpholino knockdowns) and the S. purpuratus sequenced genome make the sea urchin embryo an ideal model organism to investigate the role of neuropeptides during development.


I thoroughly enjoy combining the fields of developmental biology, molecular biology and neuroscience. The biggest challenge in my PhD so far has been to work in an unfamiliar field (neuroscience). However the benefits of being an interdisciplinary scientist greatly outweigh the challenges. I have most enjoyed learning how to become an embryologist, albeit working with embryos and adult animals can sometimes be quite frustrating, it is an extremely entertaining and rewarding task.

The supervisors view

To solve complex biological problems, such as the genomic program of development or evolution of new structures, modern biology needs cross-insemination from different disciplines and different perspectives. The training of a new class of scientists capable to integrate different approaches is of paramount importance and the LIDo programme perfectly suit to this purpose. Furthermore, LIDo gives a concrete opportunity of collaboration across London Universities and research Institutions.


In my lab we are interested in the regulatory network underlying embryonic development and regeneration, and mechanisms of evolutionary rewiring. Natalie with great enthusiasm joined the lab and she is exploring the role of a set of signaling molecules expressed during embryonic development, which so far have been studied only in the context of the adult nervous system. In her first year Natalie is growing as independent scientist and she is mastering well-established techniques in molecular embryology, as well as pioneering new techniques and experimental approaches. Her project is getting shaped and her preliminary data is quite promising. Natalie plays a key role in the collaboration between the Elphick lab at QMUL and my lab at UCL.