Homeobox genes encode transcription factors with a characteristic 60 amino acid DNA-binding homeodomain which frequently play critical roles in early embryo patterning and cell fate specification.
Fast-evolving homeobox genes have in the past been largely overlooked, but are now at the centre of an exciting area of evolutionary developmental biology.
For my work in the Holland Lab, I use the ETCHbox genes, which are a group of homeobox genes unique to the placental mammals, as a model to answer a number of questions about fast-evolving homeobox genes’ evolution and function. Intriguingly, these genes are expressed only at the 8- and 16-cell stages of human embryonic development and then never utilised again. I am aiming to gain a better understanding of the function of these genes, for example by using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to create loss of function mutant cow embryos. I am also aiming to understand the evolutionary factors that have caused the ETCHbox genes to evolve so quickly.
Overall, this will provide a better understanding of the role ETCHbox genes play in mammalian embryonic development, and illuminate more general processes underlying the rapid evolution of homeobox genes.