Animals with hard skeletons, bristling with teeth, spines and shells, first evolved around half a billion years ago, changing the planet forever. Fortunately for us this big event left its mark in the form of some of the tiniest fossils. Once pieced back together, these microscopic bits and pieces, reveal the origin of animal skeletons, the ecological complexity of the Cambrian, and the first vertebrates to bare their 'teeth'.
Dr Duncan Murdock is a Research Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and has been a JRF at Linacre for almost three years. Dr Murdock’s research is focused on using the fossil record to understand the early evolution of skeletons in animals. The earliest unequivocal animal fossils appear in the rock record almost ‘overnight’, largely in the form of microscopic disarticulated skeletal elements, an event known as the Cambrian Explosion. Locked within these shells, teeth and bones is a record of the expression of the molecular and developmental machinery that drove this event. By using high magnification electron microscopes and 3D X-ray imaging, it is possible to peer into the tiny differences in their microscopic internal structures and measure the variability of the shape of individual teeth, spines and shells. Using these data, Dr Murdock is able to disentangle the ecological, environmental and developmental drivers of the origination and diversification of biomineralisation in animals.
Diabetes mellitus is a major health issue worldwide, with 425 million affected individuals. It is well understood that diabetes can result in a wide range of serious complications. However, one of the most overlooked complications is that maternal diabetes during pregnancy increases the risk of having a child with a birth defect by over 4-fold, such that 10% of infants of diabetic mothers have a birth defect. Such defects include congenital heart disease; cleft lip/palate; and neural tube defects, including anencephaly, exencephaly and spina bifida. This is termed diabetic embryopathy. I have established a unique mouse model of diabetic embryopathy that recapitulates these defects and can be visualised using magnetic resonance imaging. I will discuss how rapid reversal of maternal diabetes can prevent some of these defects occurring and whether current public health guidelines for pregnant diabetic women are appropriate and efficacious.
Understanding how maternal diabetes affects embryonic development may suggest therapeutic approaches to reduce the incidence of birth defects and pregnancy loss in diabetic pregnancies.
Nikita is an EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College with an interest in complications associated with diabetes. She joined the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics 2016 on a Novo Nordisk Research Fellowship, investigating how pre-existing maternal diabetes induces embryonic heart defects with Dr Duncan Sparrow and Professor Dame Frances Ashcroft. In addition to her research, Nikita has a strong public outreach background and works with Pint of Science festival, British Science Association, the House of Commons and other outreach projects.