Sandie Degnan

Current Research projects

  1.    Sponge - microbial interactions. We are exploring the interactions between microbes and metazoans using bioinformatic, metagenomic, functional genomics and electron microscopy approaches. Collaborations with Prof Phil Hugenholtz (Director, Australian Centre for EcoGenomics), Prof Lars Neilsen (Director, Centre for Systems and Synthetic Biology within Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology), Dr Jens Kroemer (Director, Centre for Microbial Electrosynthesis within the Advanced Water Management Centre) and Dr Kathryn Green (Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis) .

  2.    Lateral gene transfer from microbial to animal genomes. Using a combination of bioinformatic, phylogenetic and functional analyses, we are investigating the extent of lateral gene transfer (LGT) from microbial genomes into animal genomes. Although our primary focus is on the sponge Amphimedon as our model animal genome, the analytical pipeline that we currently are developing will be invaluable in innterrogating other animal genomes for evidence of LGT. The LGT team comprises Dr Selene Fernadez Valverde (postdoctoral bioinformaticist), Simone Higgie (research assistant) and Sandie Degnan.

  3.    Allorecognition and the evolution of immunity. We integrate genomic, population genetic, immunological and developmental studies in the demosponge Amphimedon queenslandica to understand the fundamentals of how animal cells allorecognise self from non-self. Allorecognition is an absolute requirement for all animals, ensuring cells within a multicellular individual cooperate with each other while excluding foreign cells (e.g. grafted tissues). Our research addresses this most fundamental element of the origin and integrity of multicellular individuality. Collaboration with Prof Tony DeTomaso (University of California, Santa Barbara).

  4.   Ecological regulation of larval settlement and metamorphosis. The survival, connectivity and evolution of marine communities depend on millions of microscopic zooplankters that represent dispersive embryos and larvae of animals that are benthic as adults. As these early life history stages are swept around by tides and currents, and eventually settle onto the seafloor and metamorphose into the adult reproductive form, they constantly sense their environment and adjust their phenotype. Applying field and laboratory experimental approaches to diverse coral reef invertebrates, we integrate functional genomics and developmental biology with population and behavioural ecology to elucidate the nature of these genome-environment interactions at different stages of the life cycle. Analysis of diverse genetic programs – including cell and environmental signalling, innate immunity and circadian rhythms – helps us to better understand how marine species respond to environmental heterogeneity. 

  5.    The origin, function and phylogenetic utility of the enigmatic octocoral mitochondrial MutS gene. We are interested in the origin and function of this unique gene, and how its presence might affect deep vs shallow water metabolism in this exclusively marine group of animals. Collaboration with Dr John Hooper (Queensland Museum) and Deep Ocean Australia.

  6.    Marine biotechnology in aquaculture. Working in collaboration with industry partners and government agencies, we apply advanced genomic and molecular methods to questions of larval settlement, growth and reproduction of commercially important tropical aquaculture and biofouling species.  

  7.   Marine invasion genomics. Occasionally we study a native coral reef solitary ascidian Herdmania momus, with a penchant for colonising man-made harbour habitats, as a model for understanding the phenotypic plasticity necessary for recruitment into non-native habitats. This species is a recognised invasive pest in Hawaii and the Mediterranean Sea, and we are fortunate to have a small population living locally in Moreton Bay available for biofouling studies.

Please contact me by email if you have an interest in the work we are doing, or in exploring options to come and work with us.