This Postdoctoral Research Fellowship award to Dr. Kevin M. Kocot is supported by both the Directorate for Biological Sciences and the Office of International Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation. During the 24-month fellowship, Dr. Kocot will work on a project titled, "Evolution of Biomineralization in Aculiferan Molluscs" under the sponsorship of Dr. Bernard Degnan at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Biomineralization is the process by which organisms secrete mineralized structures such as skeletons or shells. The goal of this research is to study the process of biomineralization in a group of evolutionarily important molluscs using a genomic approach. High-throughput DNA sequencing will be employed to survey the genomes of aplacophorans (sclerite-covered, worm-shaped molluscs) and chitons (slug-like molluscs with 8 shell plates) and identify genes involved in biomineralization. Where and when these genes are 'turned on' (expressed) in the various types of cells involved in biomineralization will be investigated and visualized using in situ hybridization. Also, non-mineral compounds incorporated into mineralized structures will be identified using mass spectroscopy. Additionally, a secondary goal of this research is to contribute to the paucity of knowledge on the diversity of Australian aplacophoran molluscs including formal description of unnamed species.
Mollusca is the second most species-rich group of animals and includes many economically, ecologically, and biomedically important taxa. The great success of molluscs can be attributed, at least in part, to their ability to secrete calcified structures that provide them with physical support and defense. Because of their beauty, intrigue, and diversity, biomineralized structures (especially shells and pearls) produced by molluscs such as snails and bivalves have long been valued by humans. This work focuses on the less familiar aculiferans (aplacophorans and chitons) because recent genetic studies have shown that they comprise an evolutionary important group, distinct from all other molluscs. Additionally, recent paleontological studies indicate that aculiferans have retained ancestral characteristics that have been modified or lost in other molluscs. As molluscs are one of the first animal groups to appear in the fossil record, this work will have important implications for understanding of early animal evolution in general. In addition, this work will inform studies on economically important molluscs such as pearl oysters and abalone.
Dr. Kocot will train undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds on this research. He will continue to be an active curator of invertebrates for The Encyclopedia of Life and an active contributor to Wikipedia articles in my field. In addition, he will continue to serve as a mentor to undergraduate and early-career graduate students through MentorNet.
This award provides a unique opportunity for a US scientist to collaborate with foreign scientists, and utilize the unique facilities, expertise and experimental conditions available abroad.