My research focuses on the evolution and diversification of venoms, complex cocktails of toxins injected by specialized delivery systems for the purpose of predation, defense, competition, digestion, and numerous other nuanced ecological functions. Changes in venom composition (and therefore function) can occur over the development of venomous animals, typically in response to changes in their ecological interactions, e.g. dietary shift, different predation pressures. The relationship between venom composition and ecological interactions is not well studied in many venomous lineages, but this work is especially lacking for invertebrates. Furthermore, the mechanistic and evolutionary pathways that result in the emergence of novel toxins or toxin families, including neo- or subfunctionalization of toxin genes, or processes than lend to the specialization of toxins to specific ecological roles are also poorly understood. My research aims to understand how venom composition and function are influenced by ecological interactions, and how these relationships change over evolutionary time.
Specifically, I am interested in the phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish and their relatives. Cnidarians are the earliest diverging venomous animals, yet, relative to other venomous lineages, they are some of the most poorly explored in terms of their venom composition, function, and evolutionary relationships. Cnidarians display an astonishing diversity of developmental and complex life history characteristics, as well as play important ecological roles across all major marine and some freshwater habitats. I argue that cnidarians are a compelling model for understanding how venom structure and function evolve for specialized ecological roles and across complex life histories. Specifically within cnidarians, I am interested in how venoms vary between functionally distinct tissues, such as across colonies that display a division of labor, and across different life stages, including the change from a benthic polyp to a pelagic medusa.
I am a PhD Candidate and Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Kansas, advised by Dr. Paulyn Cartwright. My thesis focuses on the evolutionary patterns of and ecological influences on the venoms of medusozoans, which includes hydrozoans (hydroids and hydromedusae), scyphozoans (true jellyfish), cubozoans (box jellyfish), and staurozoans (stalked jellyfish).
I am using various "omic's" techniques, including genomics and transcriptomics, to understand venom evolution and expression patterns across different tissues and life stages, primarily using the rising model Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus. I also use a variety of molecular biology and microinjection-based techniques to study the localization and in-vivo function of specific venom components, primarily pore-forming toxins. I further am investigating in the relationship between venom composition and specific types of stinging cells, the complex venom-delivering structures found only in cnidarians.