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1851 Fellowship - Imran Rahman

StatusFinished
Period1/01/141/01/17

Description

The riotous diversity of modern animals is founded upon major body plans that were established over half a billion years ago. Attempts to uncover the mechanism underlying this ancient origin of animals have created links between otherwise disparate disciplines, from developmental biology to palaeontology, and from comparative anatomy to molecular phylogenetics. Ambiguity has arisen, however, because a hard, mineralized skeleton was a relatively late innovation in most phyla, and thus their earliest representatives are unlikely to be preserved as fossils. Not so the echinoderms, which have an outstanding fossil record because a mineralized skeleton was among their first derived characters; consequently, there is a rich record from which the assembly of their body plan can be deciphered. My aim is to elucidate the evolutionary assembly of the echinoderm body plan as an exemplar for understanding the mode of assembly of animal body plans more generally. This will be achieved by studying the form and function of fossil echinoderms using cutting-edge methods, including synchrotron X-ray tomography and finite element analysis. The results obtained will transform our understanding of the evolution and development of echinoderms in particular and the pattern of animal body plan assembly in general.

Layman's description

The origin of animals was an incredibly significant event, which occurred deep in the history of life, over half a billion years ago. In theory we can study the fossilized remains of ancient animals to better understand this fundamental evolutionary radiation, but unfortunately the early fossil records of most groups are very incomplete. Echinoderms (e.g. sea urchins, starfish) are an exception to this; they possess an excellent fossil record because a hard, mineralized skeleton was one of the first defining traits evolved by the group. Consequently, there is a rich record from which their evolutionary origins can be deciphered. My aim is to uncover the origin and early evolution of echinoderms as an example for understanding the evolution of animals more generally. This will be achieved through a new approach that combines palaeontology, computers and engineering. I will make use of state-of-the-art methods, including 3-D imaging with high-energy X-rays from a particle accelerator, and computer modelling. The results obtained will transform our understanding of the evolution and development of echinoderms in particular and animal origins in general. Ultimately, my research will contribute to society by providing essential deep-time perspective on the evolution of life, thereby increasing our understanding of the history of modern organisms, including humans, and putting our own existence into context

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