Professor Maurice Elphick
Location: Room 6.05, Fogg Building
Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience
Phone: +44 (0)20 7882 6664
The Neurobiology and Evolution of Signaling Molecules
I am interested in the evolution and physiological roles of chemical signalling systems that neurons use to communicate with each other and with other cell types. My research has explored a variety of types of neuronal signalling molecules, including nitric oxide and endocannabinoids. The current focus of research in my group is on neuropeptide signalling.
Neuropeptides and peptide hormones have fundamental roles in controlling, regulating and integrating physiological and behavioural processes in humans and other animals. I am interested in reconstructing the evolutionary history of neuropeptide signalling systems and investigating how neuropeptides are utilised to co-ordinate physiological processes and behaviour in animals.
The primary focus of my neuropeptide research is on echinoderms (e.g. starfish, sea urchins), which are of special interest for a number of reasons:
- As deuterostomes, echinoderms are much more closely related to vertebrates than the majority of invertebrates, and therefore research on echinoderms can shed light on the evolutionary origins of vertebrate characters
- Echinoderms have many remarkable morphological and physiological characteristics – they are typically five-sided and have a unique ability to rapidly change (under neural control) the stiffness of their body wall collagenous tissue; they also have amazing powers of regeneration, which makes them of great interest from a medical perspective.
- Echinoderms are of economic importance both as predators on shellfish (starfish) and as foodstuffs (sea urchins, sea cucumbers).
I pioneered research on neuropeptides in echinoderms with the discovery of the SALMFamide neuropeptide family. Now we are entering a new era for research on neuropeptide systems in echinoderms - sequencing of the genomes/transcriptomes of several echinoderm species is providing fascinating new insights into the evolution and diversity of neuropeptide systems. Furthermore, using the common European starfish Asterias rubens and other echinoderms as a model experimental systems, we are investigating the physiological and developmental roles of neuropeptides.
Our research is providing “missing links” in our understanding neuropeptide biology, bridging the huge evolutionary gap between protostomian invertebrates (e.g. Drosophila, C. elegans) and the vertebrates.