Scheme: Newton International Fellowships
Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Dates: Jan 2014-Jan 2016
Summary: My research uses DNA from stranded whales and dolphins (cetaceans) to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of these charismatic organisms. Knowing the evolutionary relationships of cetaceans will help to characterise priorities for conservation and aid in the development of genetic resources to study declining populations. My approach utilises a relatively new technique in genetics called ‘target sequence capture’, a way of targeting specific sequences of DNA. Through this, I intend to retrieve as many as 10,000 genes for almost all of the 90 species of cetaceans. In addition, I also use this DNA to investigate what genes were responsible for the remarkable transformation of cetaceans into animals that are wholly adapted for living in water. For example, in comparing these genes with the nearest living relative of cetaceans, the hippo, my group found that many genes related to blood coagulation have undergone natural selection. This is undoubtedly related to the diving capabilities of whales and dolphins, as cetaceans sequester their blood in stagnant reservoirs during long dives. Sequencing more genes from more species will allow us to look at this in more detail, as we expect to find many genes related to hindlimb formation, vision, hearing, and metabolism to have changed on the cetacean lineage.