Michael Brent Hawkins
I am generally interested in understanding the developmental genetic mechanisms that underlie craniofacial variation within and between vertebrate species. In particular, I am currently working on several research projects to explore different aspects of beak evolution and development in birds. One such project seeks to understand beak growth zone dynamics in several bird lineages in order to test a mathematical model of beak development created through our collaboration with the Brenner group in the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In addition, I am investigating conserved and divergent gene regulatory elements that regulate gene expression in three species of Darwin’s finches: the small ground finch (Geospiza fuliginosa), the medium ground finch (G. fortis), and the large ground finch (G. magnirostris). Finally, I am participating in an emerging collaboration with the Utkan group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brigham and Women’s Hospital with the goal of culturing cranial neural crest (CNC) cells using modern 3-dimensional cell culture methods to better understand CNC cell patterning and differentiation.
I am also interested in the development and evolution of barbels and barbel-like head appendages in vertebrates. Perhaps most commonly known as the “whiskers” of catfishes, and often dismissed as simple fleshy outgrowths, barbels are complex appendages that consist of numerous cells types and display extensive morphological patterning. While these appendages are present in a wide range of species across vertebrates, and likely arose independently in many of these species, very few studies have investigated the evolution and development of barbels. As a Master’s student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I worked with David Stock to investigate the developmental genetic mechanisms underlying barbel evolution and development in the channel catfish Ictalurus punctatus. Currently, I am collaborating with the Hanken group to investigate the evolution and development of amphibian head appendages.