Atsuko SATO

Nationality Japanese
Year of selection2008
InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
CountryUnited Kingdom
RiskEnvironmental risks

Type of support

Post-Doctoral Fellowship

Granted amount

60 000 €

Duration

1 year


Transformation under stress: Darwin against Kafka

Environmental effect on animal development with special focus on chordat neural patterning In Franz Kafka’s book « The Metamorphosis » a man found himself turned into a giant insect one day. Atsuko Sato argues that this is no fiction: environmental changes can be drivers for the evolution of new forms and not only a major cause of species extinction. A genome can indeed accommodate multiple evolution paths, and life can adapt itself to its surroundings. For example, butterflies have seasonal polymorphism, and snails can change the shape of their shells as a defense mechanism.
Sato focused on ascidians to investigate how temperature changes could alter morphology and gene expression pattern during development. Ascidians are settled marine invertebrates, having simple and small genome, yet the closest invertebrate relatives of vertebrates. Therefore ascidians provides excellent simple model to study impact of environmental stress on our genome. Sato’s work is unique since there has been almost no study on the effect of rising temperature on the development of marine organisms at genomic scale, despite the fact that rising temperature is now a considerable problem for the marine environment.
Before coming to Oxford, I studied the developmental biology of crinoids (sea lilies and feather stars) as an MSc student in the Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, University of Tokyo and as a JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) postgraduate student at the Seto Marine Biological laboratory, Kyoto University.
My interests include developmental biology, evolutionary biology and the philosophy of biology. During my D.Phil., I studied hemichordates, close invertebrate relatives of vertebrates, to investigate origin and evolution of vertebrate body plan in Peter Holland’s lab in Oxford.
I successfully defended my DPhil in April 2008 and after a 5-month Ray Lankester Investigatorship at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, UK, and returned to Oxford as an AXA Research Fellow to join Dr Seb Shimeld’s lab.
Project December 2008 to December 2009 : Environmental changes are a major cause of species extinction, but it should also be noted that environmental changes can also be drivers for the evolution of new forms. This idea is not just a speculation; it is known that a genome can accommodate multiple developmental paths, and life can adapt itself to the surrounding environment, to some extent, by choosing the developmental path. For example, butterflies have seasonal polymorphism, and snails can change their shape of the shells for defence. How can such flexibility, termed developmental plasticity, react to environmental change and what sort of consequences would be brought about to development by environmental changes?
In this project, I will focus on ascidians, the closest invertebrate species of vertebrates, to address how changes of temperature could have been affected to the evolution of the chordate body plan. Ascidians are marine settled species, but their larvae represent simple model of vertebrate body plan. In addition, they have much simpler genome than that of vertebrates, which facilitates to investigate how genome could alter the developmental paths by environmental changes. Using an ascidian species Ciona intestinalis, I will investigate how temperature changes could alter morphology and gene expression pattern during development.
This project aims is relevant to AXA research topic « Climate change: associated risks and impacts »; although extremely unique in investigating the effect of rising temperature on development of marine organisms not only as a risk but also as a cause of evolution. This project is particularly important, since there has been almost no study on the effect of rising temperature on the development of marine organisms, despite the fact that rising temperature is now a considerable problem for the marine environment. To sum up, my project will provide knowledge of broad interest on both risks and contributions of the environmental change.

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