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Tracing the origin and early evolution of animal cell type regulation with genomics and single-cell approaches

Project description

Early animal phyla shed light on how cell types have evolved

Within the last decades, the emerging area of gene regulatory networks (GRNs) has garnered a tremendous amount of interest. GRNs play roles in development, differentiation, and response to environmental cues by modulating which genes are expressed and when. The origin and evolution of animal cell types is linked to the corresponding evolution of the underlying GRNs, yet little is known about either. The ambitious EU-funded EvoCellMap project is investigating the evolutionary origins of genome regulation and the evolution of major cell types and their GRNs. Combining single-cell and cross-species studies in multicellular organisms lacking bilateral symmetry (Metazoa), the project plans to fill important knowledge gaps regarding how cell types and their GRNs evolve.


Cell types are the fundamental units of animal multicellularity. Distinct cell types are established and maintained by specific gene regulatory networks (GRNs), as well as epigenomic mechanisms that mediate the asymmetric access to genetic information within each cell. This cell regulation results in complex metazoan functions and structures. However, cell types and their regulation have only been characterized in a few species. Therefore, the origin and evolution of animal cell types remain largely unexplored, and so remains the evolution of the underlying GRNs and epigenomic mechanisms.
In this project, we will develop a unified comparative framework to study cell type evolution and regulation from a multi-level and phylogenetic perspective. This project will focus on non-bilaterian metazoan lineages (Porifera, Ctenophora, Placozoa, and Cnidaria) as they are maximally informative towards reconstructing the evolutionary origins of metazoan genome regulation and of major cell types and their GRNs (e.g. neurons, secretory cells, stem cells, epithelial cells). To this end, we will integrate single-cell genomics and epigenomic profiling methods with advanced computational tools in order to: (1) investigate the origins of the animal regulatory genome; (2) characterize the diversity of cell type programs in non-bilaterian metazoans; and (3) model the structure and evolutionary dynamics of cell type-specific GRNs in these lineages.
This evolutionary systems biology approach provides a complementary angle to both phylogenetically-restricted single-cell analyses and traditional cross-species studies based on targeted marker genes. Therefore, our results will fill a large gap of knowledge in our understanding of the origin and diversification of animal cell type programs and epigenomic mechanisms. In a broader context, this research program will provide unprecedented insights into the fundamental question of how cell types and their defining regulatory networks evolve.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 498 070,00
08003 Barcelona

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Este Cataluña Barcelona
Activity type
Research Organisations
Total cost
€ 1 498 070,00

Beneficiaries (1)