Project highlights

  • Training in molecular biology, genomics and fossil analysis
  • Use cutting edge approaches in genomics, phylogenetics, molecular biology and palaeontology
  • Opportunities to visit the Marine Biology Association in Plymouth and access to fossilised specimens


The evolution of the nervous system is one of the most controversial problems in Biology (Pani et al., 2012; Holland et al., 2013; Martín-Durán et al., 2018; Arendt, 2018; Martín-Durán and Hejnol, 2019). While it is clear that any evolutionary scenarios require the integration of phylogenetic, fossil and molecular data, the interpretation of these different lines of evidence are often in conflict (Northcutt, 2012).

For example, molecular data indicate that several genes involved in the patterning of the nervous system are evolutionarily conserved (e.g. WNT signalling pathway, proneural genes, and brain regionalization genes) irrespectively to the nervous system morphology (e.g. Arendt et al., 2016; Bridi et al., 2020; Lowe et al., 2003; Pani et al., 2012). This indicates that conserved gene expression cannot be used to infer ancestral morphologies. To further complicate the problem, the nervous system usually decays before it can be fossilized, making it difficult to reconstruct the exact conformation of the nervous system in extinct species (Purnell et al., 2018 and refences within).

As a consequence, several questions concerning the evolution of the nervous system are still open. For example, what was the morphology of the nervous system in the urbilaterian ancestor? Did a centralized nervous system evolve once or multiple times?

This project will answer these questions by investigating the evolution of the nervous system at different levels (from cells to morphology) and using tools from computation and molecular biology. Ultimately, the results of this project will clarify the evolution of nervous system morphology and neuronal diversity in metazoans.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Leicester


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability


Project investigator

  • Roberto Feuda


How to apply


First, capitalizing on existing single-cell RNA-sequence data from different animal phyla (e.g. Sebé-Pedrós, Chomsky, et al., 2018; Sebé-Pedrós, Saudemont, et al., 2018, as well as newly generated single-cell RNA-seq data from sponges) and using computational methods (e.g. Tarashansky et al., 2021) you will identify neuronal cell type families and map their distribution in metazoans (Arendt et al., 2019).

Second, you will investigate the morphological organization of the nervous system in animals. This will include the analysis of the nervous system conformation in extant and extinct species and the assembling of a matrix for the nervous system in animals (see Hejnol and Rentzsch, 2015; Schmidt-Rhaesa et al., 2016).

Finally, you will integrate morphological and molecular information to assemble a morphological matrix for animals’ nervous system and neuronal diversity and, using phylogenetic methods, you will test evolutionary hypotheses on a single or multiple origin of neurons, and centralization of the nervous system.

The composition of the supervision team (from molecular and computation biology to palaeontology) will offer a unique combination of expertise that can guide the student through the different aspects of the project. Importantly the project provides scope for being personalized according to the student’s interests and within the main research question of the project (i.e. the evolution of the nervous system in metazoan).

Training and skills

The project specific training will include phylogenomic methods, genomics, and analysis of fossil data. The emphasis will be on robust quantitative analysis and statistical hypothesis testing.

At Leicester, you will join the Department of Genetics and Genome Biology and you will be affiliated with the Centre for Palaeobiology Research. You will interact with researchers, PhDs and Masters students with backgrounds in genetics, genomics, evolutionary biology and palaeontology.

This project is ideal for applicants with a first degree in geological or biological sciences, an strong interest in evolutionary biology and an aptitude for interdisciplinary research.

Partners and collaboration

Roberto Feuda

Co-I: Prof Sarah Gabbott (University of Leicester), Prof Mark Purnell (University of Leicester), Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli (Marine Biological Association, UK)

Collaborators:  Prof Davide Pisani (University of Bristol), Prof Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol), Dr Xiaoya Ma (University of Exeter)

Further details

Roberto Feuda: [email protected]

To apply to this project please visit:

Possible timeline

Year 1

Analyse single-cell RNA-seq data from different animal species and map neuronal diversity distribution in animals.

Year 2

Construction of morphological matrix and publication of a paper on the distribution of the neuronal in animals.

Year 3

Integration of morphological and molecular data and model testing of hypothesis on the nervous system evolution. Writing the thesis will occur during the final year, but papers will be published throughout the project. There will also be opportunities to give presentations at international meetings in the UK and overseas.

Further reading

Arendt, D. 2018. Animal Evolution: Convergent Nerve Cords? Current Biology. 28(5), pp.R225–R227.

Arendt, D., Bertucci, P.Y., Achim, K. and Musser, J.M. 2019. Evolution of neuronal types and families. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 56, pp.144–152.

Hejnol, A. and Rentzsch, F. 2015. Neural nets. Current Biology. 25, pp.R782–R786.

Holland, L.Z., Carvalho, J.E., Escriva, H., Laudet, V., Schubert, M., Shimeld, S.M. and Yu, J.-K. 2013. Evolution of bilaterian central nervous systems: a single origin? EvoDevo. 4, p.27.

Lowe, C.J., Wu, M., Salic, A., Evans, L., Lander, E., Stange-Thomann, N., Gruber, C.E., Gerhart, J. and Kirschner, M. 2003. Anteroposterior patterning in hemichordates and the origins of the chordate nervous system. Cell. 113(7), pp.853–865.

Martín-Durán, J.M. and Hejnol, A. 2019. A developmental perspective on the evolution of the nervous system. Developmental Biology.

Martín-Durán, J.M., Pang, K., Børve, A., Lê, H.S., Furu, A., Cannon, J.T., Jondelius, U. and Hejnol, A. 2018. Convergent evolution of bilaterian nerve cords. Nature. 553(7686), pp.45–50.

Northcutt, R.G. 2012. Evolution of centralized nervous systems: Two schools of evolutionary thought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109(Supplement 1), pp.10626–10633.

Pani, A.M., Mullarkey, E.E., Aronowicz, J., Assimacopoulos, S., Grove, E.A. and Lowe, C.J. 2012. Ancient deuterostome origins of vertebrate brain signalling centres. Nature. 483(7389), pp.289–294.

Purnell, M.A., Donoghue, P.J.C., Gabbott, S.E., McNamara, M.E., Murdock, D.J.E. and Sansom, R.S. 2018. Experimental analysis of soft-tissue fossilization: opening the black box. Palaeontology. 61(3), pp.317–323.

Schmidt-Rhaesa, A., Harzsch, S. and Purschke, G. 2016. Structure & evolution of invertebrate nervous systems First edition. Oxford ; Oxford University Press.

Sebé-Pedrós, A., Chomsky, E., Pang, K., Lara-Astiaso, D., Gaiti, F., Mukamel, Z., Amit, I., Hejnol, A., Degnan, B.M. and Tanay, A. 2018. Early metazoan cell type diversity and the evolution of multicellular gene regulation. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2(7), pp.1176–1188.

Sebé-Pedrós, A., Saudemont, B., Chomsky, E., Plessier, F., Mailhé, M.-P., Renno, J., Loe-Mie, Y., Lifshitz, A., Mukamel, Z., Schmutz, S., Novault, S., Steinmetz, P.R.H., Spitz, F., Tanay, A. and Marlow, H. 2018. Cnidarian Cell Type Diversity and Regulation Revealed by Whole-Organism Single-Cell RNA-Seq. Cell. 173(6), pp.1520-1534.e20.

Tarashansky, A.J., Musser, J.M., Khariton, M., Li, P., Arendt, D., Quake, S.R. and Wang, B. 2021. Mapping single-cell atlases throughout Metazoa unravels cell type evolution. eLife. 10, p.e66747.


This work has a strong computational aspect (e.g. analysis of existing single-cell RNA-seq data and phylogenetic inference) that does not require access to the laboratory and can be performed from home.