Cornerstone: Genetics of Zebrafish Development and Evolution
Biol 2970.047, 3 credits


A cornerstone of science, genetics.

Attracting new minds to science depends on teaching students to identify important questions that are interesting to them, and then learning how to apply the proper tools to address those questions. While the tools used may be unique to particular disciplines, the creative thinking process is universal for identifying an interesting scientific question and then determining how to address that question experimentally. Whether you have a budding interest in applied biomedical research (“I’m going to cure CANCER!!!”), or are interested in using the tools of molecular biology to address an interesting fundamental question (“Knowledge for the sake of knowledge”), the training methods to tackle these types of problems are the same. The proximate goal of this course is for you as a student to discover how knowledge of the rules governing cell structure and function can be used in basic research to make important advances in cell, molecular and developmental biology.  My ultimate goal for this course is to foster interest in the scientific process and to strengthen your curiosity to try and understand the natural world that surrounds you.
This course will use an inquiry-based approach to teach you how to formulate a scientific question, and experimentally approach that question. I believe that a key to motivating students is to allow them to discover their interests on their own.  My goal is to foster curiosity, and to teach you to critically evaluate the information you are presented; I hope to impact your thinking and decision-making skills long after you have left this course.  Through reading and open discussion of peer-reviewed primary literature, you will learn how to identify hypotheses being tested in scientific papers, judge if the proper tools/techniques have been applied, and determine if the scientific questions posed have been adequately addressed and answered.
Research in the McCauley lab is focused on two aspects of the role for genes required in development of the neural crest, an important cell type unique to all vertebrates. Our research is focused on genes that are required for development of neural crest related structures such as cartilage, neurons, and pigment, and how neural crest cells evolved to regulate development of these structures. Thus, questions posed in the McCauley lab focus on biomedical interests as well as basic questions on the evolution of protein function. When you enroll in this course section, you will learn how basic molecular research can be interrelated with research that also has applications of biomedical relevance.
 As a student in the course, you will take advantage of the two model organisms used in the McCauley lab, the sea lamprey and the zebrafish. You will learn how the same (homologous) genes that are present in both models play both unique and overlapping roles in these animals. You will also learn how development of a research project can be strengthened by using different model organisms with their own unique strengths, to best address a research question. You will have the opportunity to branch out and learn how the same genes can regulate various aspects of development and differentiation within different tissues. Since the common goal of the course is to foster independent thinking and interest in science, you will be encouraged to explore how to develop alternative research questions, based on the course topic: neural crest cell development.  Individually, you will be exposed to a common curriculum through lectures and participation in group reading and discussion of scientific papers.  Working in small teams, you will be guided through the steps required to develop an independent research project related to the overall course topic.  More broadly, you will benefit from experience gained through working in collaboration with other team members together with me, your professor, to learn how a smaller project fits into the overall larger goals of a research lab in making scientific contributions that benefit society.

Instructor bio

Dr. David McCauley is an Associate Professor

My interest as a scientist and researcher is to understand how vertebrate animals arose evolutionarily from a non-vertebrate ancestor. While all animals share many characters, there are some features that separate us vertebrates from our non-vertebrate relatives (Yes, ultimately, we are all related!!). I became curious about this fundamental difference when I was a graduate student at  . There, I became interested in an amazing cell type known as neural crest cells. These cells have fascinated scientists since their discovery in the 19th century. What makes them so remarkable is that they form many of the structures that make vertebrates so different from our non-vertebrate cousins. For example, your face is mostly derived from the neural crest. The jaws that enable you to bite and chew, your beak (if you are a bird), peripheral sensory and motor nerves outside the central nervous system, the pigment in your skin: These are all derived from this single cell type. What’s more, these cells start out in one location of the body (along the developing neural tube) and they migrate to different positions where they differentiate into these very different structures. Since my interest is specifically in understanding the evolution of these fascinating cells, I wanted to study their development in the most primitive vertebrate available. This animal is the lamprey, a primitive fish that parasitizes other fish. Lampreys are interesting because even though they are vertebrates with a neural crest cell population, they lack some of the derivatives present in other vertebrates; most notably they lack jaws!!! This makes them an important animal to study the origin of vertebrate characteristics. And because the sea lamprey is an invasive pest in the Great Lakes, it is easy to obtain spawning adult lampreys during their spawning season. As a scientist, I am also interested in using a comparative approach to my research. Thus, I have also chosen to work with another primitive vertebrate, a small aquarium fish you might be familiar with known as the zebrafish.  Zebrafish have other character traits that make them very good lab animals.  They are small and easy to breed, the embryos can be manipulated, the embryos are also clear, making them easy to see inside during development. This last part is important because neural crest cells are inside the embryo so being able to take photographs of these cells while they are still alive during development is very useful for understanding their behavior.

Since I started my research lab here at OU in 2006, we have used these two animal model organisms to investigate how changes in the functions of certain genes are related to differences in the development of the neural crest in these two animals. Since lampreys diverged from the jawed vertebrates (to which zebrafish belong) so early in vertebrate evolution, many of the genes that are important for developmental processes have undergone mutations in their amino acid sequences, making them a natural laboratory to study the evolution of genes that are important in the development of neural crest.  The thrill of making new discoveries about how these cells develop is what keeps me excited about science and I hope that I can instill some of that excitement into you through this course.