Evolutionary Biology & Genomics
Work in my laboratory is broadly aimed at understanding biological evolution, from the molecular level to species diversification. We specialize in spiders, one of the most species-rich animal groups, and our current projects largely concern the evolution of proteins that have enabled their proliferation. Spider silks are renowned for their impressive mechanical properties and exhibit tremendous functional variation within and across species. We are using genomic tools to characterize the polymer-like proteins that make up spider silks from a variety of species. Because these proteins are encoded by a gene family, phylogenetic analyses of spiders and the silk proteins they synthesize are used to trace the long and complex history of silk evolution. Another major project is focused on the evolution of venom from black widow spiders and their close relatives. We are determining the molecular composition of these venoms to investigate the origin and diversification of potent toxins that enable prey capture. Such evolutionary work facilitates the discovery of beneficial and hazardous toxins with biomedical significance.