We investigate embryonic development using an integrative approach combining molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology, genetics, biochemistry, and bioinformatics in order to get insight into the molecular mechanisms underlying the process of animal development and its tinkering during the course of evolution. We are especially interested in the role of transcription factors and signalling cascades integrated into complex gene regulatory networks. Several vertebrate and invertebrate model systems including mice, fish, amphioxus, annelids, and cnidaria are used in the laboratory to study various aspects of animal development and evolution. The long-term interest of the group lies in the studies of vertebrate eye development and eye evolution.
The vertebrate eye development has been studied for a long time, but only in the last two decades the function of individual transcription factors began to be elucidated. Genetic manipulation in mice combined with interrogation of whole-genome occupancy of key transcription factors allows addressing the role which individual transcription factors play during embryonic development and how they interact with each other. Dissection of the regulatory networks will enhance our understanding of specific aspects of mammalian eye development and will lead to a more profound understanding of congenital eye defects in humans. We currently investigate the gene regulatory networks associated with transcription factors Pax6 and Meis during the retina, lens, and cornea development.
Eye evolution has been enigmatic since Darwin’s time. Eyes of some sort occur in many animal phyla, but their anatomy, ontogenetic origin and degree of sophistication vary enormously. Despite the enormous diversity of animal eyes, the same transcription factors have been co-opted for eye development in phylogenetically distant species. For example, Pax6 has been redeployed for visual system development in Drosophila, as well as in mice and humans. This led to the concept of Pax6 as the ‘master control gene’ of animal eye development. We currently re-visit this view using genetics in less traditional model organisms.