Zoology - Functional Morphology of Animals
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Projects

1. Functional implications of mitochondrial ultrastructural diversity

2. Functional morphology of the cardiovascular system in ectotherm sauropsids

3. Phenotypic flexibility and exercise physiology in domestic dogs

4. Functional exchange capacity of snake lungs

5. Evolution of the phylotypic stage in zebra fish

 

1. Functional implications of mitochondrial ultrastructural diversity

mitoThe project aims at analyzing the functional implications of mitochondrial structural diversity. Mitochondria are key cellular organelles involved in a network of metabolic and regulatory pathways. Mitochondrial impaired function is engaged in aging and a range of diseases. Mitochondria occur in various shapes, complexes and ultrastructure, however, the functional significance of this diversity remains unresolved. The ambition of this project is to understand how the mitochondrial structural diversity relates to the functional efficiency of the organelle. This will be achieved by using state-of-the-art techniques enabling to measure and consequently link structural and functional details of mitochondria. As a basic tool in comparative and experimental cell biology, we have begun developing an explicit reference system for mitochondrial shape and size. This reference system is based on the standard laboratory model “mouse” (Mus musculus domesticus) and provides a tissue specific reference system of size and shape of mitochondria under standard laboratory conditions. Such atlas of structural diversity is an effective tool to develop and test explicit functional hypotheses about differences in shape and size, within tissues and among tissues. We will continue by sampling mitochondria  from different mouse lines selected for different metabolic performance, different hormanal conditions, and ageing.

2. Functional morphology of the cardiovascular system in ectotherm sauropsids

heart-projectThe morphology of the heart of reptilian sauropsids allows to re-direct blood flow into the pulmonary or systemic circulations, i.e., central shunting. We study the functional morphology of the heart of reptilian sauropsids to understand the mechanisms of shunting and the physiological conditions when shunting occurs. We wish to answer the following questions: (1) what is the mechanism (functional anatomy) of shunting? (2) What are the conditions when shunting occurs, and (3) how much blood is shunted between circulations? In this project we are testing explicit functional hypotheses in a comparative framework to solve these questions and to understand why different heart morphologies evolved to serve the function of central shunting (Refs: Campen and Starck, 2012; Waas et al. 2010; Starck 2009)

 3. Phenotypic flexibility and exercise physiology in domestic dogs

dogprojectWe are interested in how mammals adjust to seasonally fluctuating conditions of living. We study different breeds of (aboriginal) domesticated dogs as the comparative framework of a large scale evolutionary experiment. Over the past years we have studied seasonal adaptations (effects of exercise, temperature and food quality) of energy metabolism and muscle structure of Inuit sled dogs in Greenland. Our current research is focused on testing effects of training in a laboratory setup, i.e., running dogs on a treadmill. Once we have established a detailed reference system for morphological and physiological responses to work load we plan to go back to the field to study adaptations of different aboriginal dog breeds. – In a side project, we use geometric morphometrics to analyze shape changes of domestic dog skulls in the context of a known phylogeny of domestic dogs (Refs: Gerth et a., 2009; Gerth et al. 2010)

4. Functional exchange capacity of snake lungs

snake-projectIn a collaboration project with the Clinic for Birds of Reptiles of the Department of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Leipzig, we investigate the functional pulmonary exchange capacity of snakes. We use quantitative measures of lung volume, tissue exchange capacity and diffusion barrier to estimate the capacity of snakes for exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Special attention is given to the changes of the thickness of the diffusion barrier following infection and the associated restrictions of the pulmonary exchange capacity. The data acquired in this project are of immediate relevance estimating the condition of snakes (Refs: Starck et al. 2012)

5. Evolution of the phylotypic stage in zebra fish

fish-projectThe evolution of the overall similarity of early vertebrate embryos, historically described as the biogenetic law, is still vividly debated. Currently, three main hypotheses aim at explaining the overall similarity of early vertebrate embryos. (1) Random: The phylotypic period is neither selected nor constrained; it emerges randomly from selection for specialized later embryonic stages. (2) Epigenetic: the phylotypic period results from constraints during early embryogenesis, i.e., multiple inductive interactions among cells, tissues and developing organs prevent selection on the phylotypic period because any change of one element might have deleterious consequences on the many interconnected / integrated structures / functions. (3) Stabilizing selection causes a stable phenotype of early vertebrate embryos. The reasons why stabilizing selection acts on the phylotypic period are multiple among vertebrates and may reach from maintaining common gene expression pattern to morphological integration. – We are testing these evolutionary hypotheses by using a quantitative genetic breeding approach, morphometrics and growth analysis (Refs: Schmidt and Starck, 2004, 2010, 2011)