Over the past decade classical evolutionary biology and modern molecular genetics have merged. Their union has created an exciting new field of research, Evolutionary Developmental Biology or ”Evo-Devo”. It has long been known that a fly looks different from an earthworm since they undergo different embryonic development. The evolution of different types of animals must therefore be based on changes in the genes that govern their embryonic development. A precondition for ”Evo-Devo” is that it is now possible to determine and compare these developmental genes with methods from molecular genetics. For the first time researchers can tackle the question of how the different types of animals have emerged from the level of genes.
”Evo-Devo” is characterized by a multitude of approaches, from bio-informatics to developmental genetics and paleontology. Through collaboration, scientists in ”Evo-Devo” can now begin to dig into the many unanswered questions of animal evolution. In January 2005 the EU:s Sixth Framework Program is providing 3.77 million euro for a new graduate education network, which constitutes a major subsidy for European ”Evo-Devo”. The new network comprises nine laboratories throughout Europe, including paleobiology at Uppsala University. The network, which has the code name ZOONET, is designed to promote European collaboration in ”Evo-Devo” research and to provide a broad research based graduate program for a new generation of comparative zoologists.
ZOONETs research targets important questions in animal evolution, such as how the main groups of animals are related, the emergence of evolutionary innovations like the brain and bodily segmentation and extremities, and the genetic mechanisms that underlie these morphological mutations in animals. The network will also deal with issues of great practical interest, such as how so-called model organisms (Drosophila melanogaster, Caenorhabditis elegans, and mice) relate to other organisms of scientific, economic, or medical interest (vectors of disease, agricultural pests, etc.), and how techniques for altering genetic functions (such as RNA-interference and transgenesis) can be applied to organisms other than the model organisms.
ZOONET is coordinated at University College, London, by Max Telford. The network has two other laboratories in the U.K. (Michael Akam at Cambridge and Richard Copley at Oxford) and laboratories in Greece (Michalis Averof), Sweden (Graham Budd), Italy (Maria Ina Arnone), and Germany (Detlev Arendt, Wim Damen, and Ernst Wimmer). The network will employ nine doctoral students and nine post-doctoral fellows during the four years of the project.
FACTS: The Framework Programs are the primary source of support for elite research and technological development. The Budget amounts to 19 billion. This funding is used to finance organizations of varying size during the 2002-2006 period throughout the EU.