Investigating alternative life history trajectories in two species of Edwardsiid sea anemones using ecological, transcriptomic, and molecular approaches
Stefanik, Derek John
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Life histories unfold within the ecological context of an organism's environment, and thus are intimately linked to organismal fitness. The evolution of alternate life history strategies, either within or between taxa, can profoundly affect ontogeny, ecology, and population dynamics. Many cnidarians (sea anemones, corals, jellyfish, etc.) exhibit complex life histories involving sexual reproduction and multiple modes of asexual reproduction. Sea anemones of the family Edwardsiidae exemplify this complexity, and are therefore an attractive system for studying the developmental and ecological ramifications of life history evolution. I used intra- and interspecific comparisons of two Edwardsiid anemones, Edwardsiella lineata, and Nematostella vectensis to investigate alternative life histories using a multifaceted approach that included field-based ecological surveys, functional genetics, transcriptomics, and phylogenetics. Both anemones are capable of sexual and asexual reproduction. N. vectensis produces a rapidly maturing direct developing larva. By contrast, E. lineata has evolved a new larval stage that parasitizes the ctenophore, Mnemiopsis leidyi. Through fieldwork surveys and laboratory culture, I documented several life history traits, such as a previously un-characterized, pre-parasitic larval stage, and the developmental dynamics of early-stage parasitic infections, that augmented gaps in our knowledge of E. lineata's life history. To better understand how and when E. lineata evolved its novel, parasitic life history, I worked with collaborators in the Finnerty lab to sequence, assemble and annotate the transcriptome. Through a multigene molecular clock approach, enabled by the E. lineata transcriptome assembly, I estimated the divergence date for these two anemones between 215-364 million years ago, thereby establishing an upper bound for the innovation of E. lineata's derived, parasitic life history. Testing a hypothesis that Wnt signaling, which patterns the oral-aboral (OA) axis during embryogenesis, also patterns the OA axis during regeneration, I demonstrated that canonical Wnt signaling is sufficient for oral tissue fate across alternate life histories (embryogenesis and regeneration) of N. vectensis. Taken together, these dissertation research activities constitute an integrative approach to investigating the evolution of life histories, and are a step towards establishing E. lineata and N. vectensis as models for studying the evolutionary developmental mechanisms of parasitism and regeneration.