In humans, the orofacial region is enormously important. It is the gateway for our interactions with the environment such as food ingestion, breathing, communication and social interactions. Some of the most devastating and unfortunately the most common birth defects are those that affect the mouth and face. Our lab is interested in furthering our understanding of how two rather understudied parts of the developing face, the embryonic mouth and primary palate, are formed. We are also interested in how environmental factors can interact with the molecular signals important in face development and result in orofacial birth defects. Our research is important for two reasons. First, abnormalities in orofacial development result in facial birth defects such as cleft lip/palate. Thus, understanding the molecular mechanisms that lead to the formation of these defects could help direct future treatments and/or preventative therapies. Second, the orofacial region is derived from a common set of tissues in all vertebrates, thus our research has the potential to help us understand the evolution of facial variability across animals. The Lab uses a comprehensive multi-disciplinary approach to study these important questions in an innovative system, the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis.
Members of the Eckert laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University study the genetic basis of local adaptation, especially among populations of forest trees. We do this using genome-level data, in combination with observations from natural populations and common garden experimentation, to answer questions about the identities, effect sizes and genomic distribution of loci contributing to fitness differences among individual trees. Our study systems tend to be various species of conifers, although we occasionally work in other plant and animal species. For more information, please check out our website (https://www.eckertlab.com/) or contact Andrew Eckert (email@example.com) directly.
My general research interests lie at the interface of environmental science and microbiology, in studying how communities of microorganisms develop and function in the environment, and what biotic and abiotic factors control the stability of these communities and the important biogeochemical functions they perform. To this end, research in my lab seeks to identify the key constraints affecting the distribution, organization, and function of microbial assemblages, and to apply the knowledge gained to issues of environmental concern. To address these questions, we rely on both laboratory experiments and comparative field studies, often incorporating techniques from a variety of disciplines including microbiology, ecology, molecular genetics, multivariate statistics, and analytical chemistry. To help test the generality of our findings, we have considered several different types of habitats, including agricultural soils, salt-marshes, groundwater, and sewage.
Our research within the field of terrestrial plant and ecosystem ecology focuses on understanding the drivers of ecosystem productivity and carbon cycling, primarily in forests, but also in wetlands and urban ecosystems. These ecosystems are important components of the global carbon cycle, storing carbon in biomass, dead material, and soils. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby absorbing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. Rates of forest production, and carbon uptake (i.e., photosynthesis) and release (i.e., respiration) are affected by multiple variables, including land-use history, disturbance, ecological succession, climate, ecosystem structure, soil fertility, and management. Exploration of these controls on carbon cycling and ecosystem production processes at the tissue, whole-plant, ecosystem, and landscape scales is the focus of our research. Our research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, with products appearing in journals that disseminate fundamental and applied science to researchers, forestry professionals and educators, including Ecology, Ecological Applications, Ecosphere, PNAS, Forest Ecology and Management, BioScience, Global Change Biology, & Journal of Environmental Management.
Tropical Biodiversity and Phylogenetics
Research in the Hulshof Lab combines observational, experimental, and theoretical models to understand patterns of biodiversity across large spatial and temporal scales. In particular, we use phylogenetic and trait-based approaches to explain variation in the diversity of plants and Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) across space and time. We work mostly in tropical forests and across latitudinal, elevational, and edaphic gradients.
Why do populations fluctuate across a spatiotemporal landscape? This question is the common thread that links my various research interests. Understanding spatiotemporal population dynamics is critical to species conservation and management, yet the dynamics are not well understood, largely because population dynamics are inherently complex and often not amenable to experimentation. Models allow us to infer process from pattern when the experimental means are impractical or impossible. My research approach is to work at the interface of empirical data (observational and experimental) and theoretical modeling. I build data-driven models with the aim of understanding both the patterns and the underlying mechanisms driving complex spatiotemporal population dynamics across large spatial scales and use the models to test hypotheses about causal mechanism(s). While I have an interest in the population dynamics of a wide range of organisms, my research focuses on forest insects. Forest insects are great model systems because they are abundant and easily manipulated, much is known about their biology, and their dynamics are rich in interesting patterns such as fluctuations of five orders of magnitude (i.e. outbreaks), periodic cycles, spatial synchrony, and traveling waves of outbreak.
My lab is broadly interested in the metabolic changes that occur in the process of cells becoming cancerous, and the benefits they gain as a result of these changes. For example, as compared to normal cells, cancer cells can undergo a dramatic reorganization of their lipid profiles. Because lipids are essential components of all cellular membranes, these changes are often accompanied by alterations in cellular processes that depend on the composition of membranes such as endocytosis and autophagy. In fact, in many cancers these critical cellular physiology pathways are exploited by to gain many advantages. My lab seeks to understand how specific mutations observed in cancer lead to changes in the lipid profiles of cells, and to define how these changes allow them to exploit endocytosis and autophagy in developing drug resistance and unbridled growth.
We study tidal marshes and other wetlands, with an emphasis on understanding how these systems respond to a changing environment. Environmental changes – including saltwater intrusion, sea level rise, and changes in nutrient/sediment inputs from watersheds – are likely to impact the cycling of elements within wetlands, the ability of tidal wetlands to keep pace with rising sea levels, and the effects that these systems have on global climate. In addition to studying disturbances, we are also taking advantage of a large-scale tidal wetland restoration project at VCU's field station, the Rice Rivers Center, as another vehicle for learning how wetlands function and respond to environmental changes. Working with undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, technicians, and faculty collaborators at VCU and elsewhere, we ask questions that cover scales from the composition of microbial communities to soil biogeochemical transformations to ecosystem processes.
The Prosser lab studies the molecular mechanisms regulating protein sorting and transport within eukaryotic cells. This is achieved primarily through a process known as vesicular trafficking, in which cargo proteins are concentrated into a vesicle that buds from a donor organelle, is transported through the cytoplasm, and fuses with a target organelle. Correct cargo sorting and transport is important to ensure that proteins reach their correct destinations; defects in vesicular trafficking are linked to a variety of diseases in humans. We use a combination of yeast genetics, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry techniques to study (1) mechanisms and regulation of clathrin-mediated and clathrin-independent endocytosis, and (2) dysfunction of trafficking mechanisms and identification of potential therapeutic targets in neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; Lou Gehrig’s disease). For more information, please contact Derek Prosser, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Evolution and Ecology of Marine Invertebrates
My research focuses on the morphology, ecology, systematics, phylogeography, and species delimitation of nemerteans (ribbon worms), especially those species that inhabit the marine intertidal and shallow subtidal zones.
We are interested in how the brain is built. The function of the nervous system depends on the precise assembly of neural circuits during embryonic development. Once neurons differentiate from neural progenitor cells they undergo two fundamental steps required for circuit assembly. First, neurons migrate considerable distances from their place of birth to their final positions where they will receive input from other neurons. Secondly, neurons extend axons that navigate to their correct targets in response to guidance cues that provide directional information for pathfinding. Many human neurodevelopmental disorders are the result of mutations in genes that control these two processes. We study the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neuron migration and axon pathfinding in the optically clear zebrafish embryo, an ideal system to image cellular behaviors in live animals.
Plant Evolution and Development
One of the most intriguing questions in biology is how molecular evolution alters developmental programs that shape morphology. The pursuit of this interest involves utilizing comparative methods that integrate phylogenetic, molecular, and morphological studies to determine the origin and evolution of novel floral traits in flowering plants within the context of a well-established developmental genetic framework. The work in the Zhang Lab has also tried to resolve how developmental networks and environmental pressures imposed by insect pollinators shape the evolutionary outcomes. We hope our research will contribute to a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of evolution, particularly as it relates to changes in floral form in response to plant-insect interactions.
Coastal Plant Ecology
My research is focused on plant ecology within the context of global change: long-term changes in plant communities, biotic interactions, and interactions with the physical environment. As a coastal plant ecologist, both atmospheric and oceanic drivers of climate change are important in shaping plant communities; however, recently scientists have recognized that plant communities interact with the physical environment, reinforcing persistence of some species across the landscape. Research in my lab is driven by the need to understand what attributes of biotic communities at the organismal level control ecosystem functioning and modulate responses of the abiotic environment under global climate change. I approach questions at a variety of scales, working at the individual level across the landscape by combining cutting edge laboratory studies, field work, and airborne/satellite remote sensing.