What first drew TFUI Founder Melissa to Rory Cooper's work was his Twitter (you should check it out here). He posts a lot of cool stuff!
Rory currently works at Gareth Fraser's research group in the Animal and Plant Sciences Department at The University of Sheffield. Although he has a busy schedule, The Fins United Initiative was able to take up a few moments of his time to chat with him about his fascinating work!
Dive on in to this jawsome interview...
The Fins United Initiative: Did you always want to be a scientist? Were you always interested in marine biology?
Rory Cooper: I’ve been interested in nature from a young age, and growing up near the coast definitely got me interested in marine biology. I wouldn’t say I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, but I think working with animals in some respect has always appealed to me.
TFUI: Your Twitter bio says you are a PhD researcher studying "EvoDevo" of sharks and their scales. For TFUI readers who don't know what "EvoDevo" is, can you please elaborate?
RC: EvoDevo is short for Evolutionary Developmental Biology. It’s a field of biology that involves studying and comparing the development of different organisms, to see what we can learn about their evolution. A really important aspect of this is understanding how developmental processes can give rise to the huge diversity of life that has arisen on this planet, both past and present.
TFUI: As for their scales, what are you studying?
RC: Sharks have scales which are structurally very similar to the teeth of other vertebrates, consisting of dentine and enamel-like tissues. Scales are part of a group of organs known as ‘epithelial appendages’ which include hair, feathers and teeth. Sharks belong to one of the oldest vertebrate groups, and their scales represent an early-arising epithelial appendage first observed in the fossil record 450 million years ago. My research involves investigating the processes that give rise to the development of shark scales and the genes that underlie them.
More broadly, this enables me to examine the evolutionary relationships between different epithelial appendages and to understand the processes governing their diversity throughout vertebrates.
TFUI: In your opinion, why do we need to sequence genomes of sharks (i.e. why is it important for science)?
RC: Genome sequencing is an important tool for understanding how an organism is built and maintained. As sharks belong to an ancient vertebrate group, they provide researchers with a window into the past, providing insight into the evolution of early vertebrates. Sequencing the shark genome will provide a platform upon which scientists can build a greater understanding of how vertebrates have evolved and diversified. Sharks also possess various interesting characteristics, including teeth which continuously regenerate throughout their lives. Genome sequencing will be a step towards fully understanding the genetic basis underlying this trait, and learning how other animals (including as ourselves) have lost this ability.
TFUI: What have you learned so far in your research?
RC: It is widely known that different organisms share a huge amount of genetic information. For example, us humans share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, but we also share 50% of our genes with bananas.
TFUI: That's bananas! (Sorry, we had to.)
RC: One of the key findings that has emerged from the field of EvoDevo is that shared genes can give rise to huge diversity. They can be viewed as common tools for building varied structures in different organisms. I’ve learnt that there is an incredible level of developmental similarity between shark scales and the epithelial appendages of other animals, such as hair, feathers and teeth. The same genes are recycled throughout vertebrates to control
the development of these different appendages.
TFUI: Why is your research important?
RC: Very broadly, my research answers questions about how the diversity of life that we see on our planet has come to exist. This means it has some implications for understanding how certain aspects of our own species has developed.
TFUI: And specifically?
RC: More specifically, studying the evolution and development of epithelial appendages is an important stepping stone for achieving future biomedical goals. For example, researchers studying human hair and tooth loss will first need to understand how these systems work before they are able to alter them for our benefit.
TFUI: In your opinion, what is the coolest technology you use in your research and why?
RC: I’ve really enjoyed using advanced high-resolution imaging techniques in my research. This includes Micro CT and Light Sheet Microscopy, which provide us with incredibly detailed 3D reconstructions of samples such as shark scales and teeth.
TFUI: Is it technology many people have access to or just your lab?
RC: To use such technology, our research group collaborates with the Imaging and Analysis Centre at The Natural History Museum, London, and the Light Microscopy Facility at Sheffield University. This equipment is very expensive at the moment so its availability is limited, but hopefully this will change and become more accessible as the technology matures.
CT scan of a whole embryo at developmental stage 32 (~75 dpf), which hasn't yet developed its body scales. The filaments protruding from its neck are the external gill filaments which become internalised later in development. Credit: Rendered by Rory Cooper (University of Sheffield), Scanned by Kyle Martin (Imaging and Analysis Centre, NHM, London)
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
RC: I really enjoy the flexibility that comes with doing a PhD. I find it satisfying having a long-term project to manage, and deciding upon the best way to progress my research. Also, working towards publishing articles in scientific journals is something I find really rewarding. I like the idea that at some point in the future other researchers may find certain results from my work interesting and/or useful, meaning it can help to further knowledge in this field.
TFUI: We like thinking of it like that! So, switching topics... do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment? If not, what can be done to better it?
RC: One of the biggest threats to our ocean environment (and conservation more broadly) is Brexit. There is a real danger of losing European laws that currently safeguard our seas through measures such as fishing quotas. Ensuring that any replacement laws are comprehensive, robust and evidence based will be key to combating this threat. Wildlife documentaries such as Blue Planet are starting to get people in the UK increasingly interested in
learning about our planet’s oceans, but I think more needs to be done. For example, I’d like to see more aspects of marine biology included in the school curriculum. I believe education is key to achieving conservation goals – stoking public interest and curiosity in marine life is a sustainable way to ensure there is demand for its long-term protection.
TFUI: What about with sharks?
RC: Education about sharks is really important too, in order to show people these predatory species have an important role in ocean ecosystems, and that their behaviours are not necessarily of inherent danger to humans.
TFUI: You are a bit famous on Twitter for sharing shark embryos! What do you hope these tweets show/teach people?
RC: Sharks are formidable predators, but showing people their embryonic form is a chance to portray their more vulnerable (and adorable) side. Also, I think it’s important to raise interest and awareness of shark biology to garner support for both evolutionary research and marine conservation, so hopefully my tweets achieve this.
TFUI: Well, we sure think they do! What is the hardest aspect of your research and why?
RC: As most EvoDevo research using sharks is relatively new, they can be a tricky model to work with. There are limitations with certain techniques, for example it is difficult to access the embryo through the egg case in the really early stages of development without causing mortality. This means new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR remain a challenge. Furthermore, development is a much slower process in sharks than more classic model organisms such as mice and chicks. This means it takes comparatively longer to study certain processes – scale patterning takes three months in the shark, whereas feather patterning takes roughly three days in the chick. This can be problematic if time is limited, and means long-term planning is really important in order to achieve specific aims and ensure projects run smoothly.
TFUI: Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
RC: That depends on what I can achieve during the remainder of my PhD research. At the moment, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing so if I get the opportunity to continue working in research that would be great.
TFUI: What is your favourite elasmobranch to work with and why? Which has had the most fascinating "results"?
RC: I’m going to have to say the small-spotted catshark (which weirdly is also known as the lesser-spotted dogfish), as this is the model that I’ve done most of my research on. It’s an emerging model in evolutionary and developmental biology, as it is abundant throughout the coasts of Europe and is relatively straight forward to keep in aquariums whilst in its embryonic form. Furthermore, genome sequencing of this species is underway, which will really push forward the boundaries of what we can achieve using this elasmobranch model.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK rory FOR His TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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