Neuroscientists have long utilised a select group of model organisms to identify fundamental principles regulating animal behaviours. While this has proven essential for understanding conserved features of the nervous system, little is known of the evolutionary events generating behavioural diversity. Importantly, studies of this kind are often hindered by a lack of comparative organisms capable of providing a genetic, molecular mechanistic, and a neuronal understanding of behaviour across an evolutionary context. In my research group, we aim to overcome these difficulties by exploring the divergent behaviours observed between the free-living round worms, C. elegans and P. pacificus. These two nematodes last shared a common ancestor ~120 million years ago and accordingly, there are an array of behavioural differences between these species. We are currently focusing on their feeding behaviours as while C. elegans is a microbial feeder, P. pacificus is omnivorous and uses teeth-like structures to predate on other nematodes. Alongside this, they have also evolved a robust kin-recognition system to prevent them from killing their own offspring and close relatives. Therefore, as many genetic tools are available in both organisms, we are determining the molecular and cellular innovations which contribute to their behavioural adaptations and additionally are investigating how these changes are incorporated into their nervous system. Our current projects focus on three main areas:
(1) Identifying the genetic, molecular mechanisms and neurobiological circuits regulating the evolution of P. pacificus predation behaviours.
(2) Identifying the genetic, molecular mechanisms and neurobiological circuits regulating the evolution of P. pacificus kin-recognition behaviours.
(3) Developing and improving P. pacificus methods including molecular techniques and behavioural tracking.