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 to experimental taphonomy. 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




  • Prof Sarah Gabbott (University of Leicester)
  • Prof Mark Purnell (University of Leicester)
  • Dr Vengamanaidu Modepalli (Marine Biological Association)
  • Prof Davide Pisani (University of Bristol)
  • Prof Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol)
  • Dr Xiaoya Ma (University of Exeter)

How to apply


First, you will capitalize 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) to identify neuronal diversity in the different groups and use whole-mount in situ hybridization to validate the neuronal diversity in carefully selected taxa (e.g. cnidarians and ctenophores).

Second, you will perform carefully designed decay experiments on different animal groups, with a focus on recording the effects of decay on nervous tissues. Data from these experiments will elucidate the rate and sequence of decay of these structures within and across different animal groups. Ultimately, this data, combined with examination of fossil material, will enable more robust interpretations of nervous tissues in fossils (Purnell et al., 2018).

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

You will be trained in molecular biology, genomics, phylogenetic methods, decay experiments and analyses of fossil material.

Partners and collaboration

PI: 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:

Please visit the University of Leicester website for application guidance:


This is a CENTA Flagship Project

These have been selected because the project meets specific characteristics such as CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS) or student co-designed project. These characteristics are a CENTA priority. Studentships associated with Flagship projects will be provided exactly the same level of support as all other studentships.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Molecular classification of Neurons (bioinformatics and in situ hybridization)

Year 2

Decay experiments and construction of matrix

Year 3

Phylogenetic reconstruction and model testing

Further reading

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

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.

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.


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. The experimental part is expected in the second year, it is flexible and it can be reduced without affecting the outcome of the project.