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Sainsbury Laboratory


Dr Renske Vroomans has been appointed to the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU) to lead research into the evolutionary dynamics of developmental processes in plants.

Dr Vroomans joins SLCU during an exciting time for evolutionary developmental biology, also known as evo-devo, with new data and modelling tools and innovative approaches being employed to help answer some of the most complex questions we have about how plants and animals evolved from single celled organisms into complex multi-organ bodies.

Every generation, multicellular life is recreated from a single fertilised egg through the process of development. This is one of the most complex processes in the universe and the focus of Dr Vroomans’ research.

Using mathematical models, Dr Vroomans will simulate millions of years of plant evolution to study how the development programme of modern plants came about.

“I hope to find general principles of evolution that are shared between plants and animals, as well as interesting and informative differences,” Dr Vroomans said.

In both plants and animals, embryonic development generates a complete multicellular organism from a single, fertilised egg cell. This is a program which is (mostly) encoded in the genome, but then requires coordinated interactions between several different levels of organisation.”

Gene mutations are happening all the time with most not having any effect, but some can lead to subtle, accumulative, or dramatic phenotype changes and some are even lethal and will kill the cell.

“Because of this complex mapping from the genotype to the phenotype, we need to understand how development influences the effects of mutations and how mutations in turn alter the developmental program, to understand the evolution of multicellular organisms as a whole, Dr Vroomans explained.

“The time scales of these evolutionary processes are vast, and therefore difficult to study in the lab alone. I will therefore construct computer models in which I simulate an evolving population of plants which have to grow and develop. When a successful plant reproduces, its offspring will inherit their genome, with mutations. In this way, I can simulate thousands of years of evolution in days or weeks, and store a perfect fossil record of all the changes in the developmental program. This allows me to study in detail how, over evolutionary time, the accumulation of mutations leads to new developmental programs that make new organs. By switching up the starting conditions or the environment, we can dissect why modern plant organs function the way they do now.”

SLCU Director Henrik Jönsson said: “We are delighted to welcome Dr Vroomans to SLCU’s interdisciplinary plant research institute. Dr Vroomans will be pioneering research into studying the long-term evolution of plant development with computational models. She brings valuable expertise in how gene regulatory networks and dynamical processes that generate complex morphologies can evolve. The SLCU environment will allow feedback from experimental experts on the hypotheses generated. Understanding how multicellular life has changed and how undifferentiated cells have established patterning and shape to develop into complex organs will tell us more about how plants have evolved.”

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