Evolutionary and Developmental Biology

Module code: BS2076

Module co-ordinator: Dr Sinéad Drea

The old chestnut says “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. In this module we will further address the evolution of developmental processes in diverse organisms and how understanding 'evo-devo' can explain why organisms have such diverse morphologies - or as Darwin described it, “endless forms most beautiful.” We will focus on how key genes conserved across evolution specify why there are eye structures as diverse as our camera-type eye and the primitive cup-like 'eye' of amphioxus; why rice flowers have no petals while roses have so many; why butterfly wings have such an array of patterns.

This module will provide you with a thorough grounding in developmental biology including fertilisation, cell and tissue differentiation, pattern formation, cell-cell communication and the importance of gene expression and epigenetics in these processes. We will study the common and divergent processes that underpin development and generate different cell and tissue types (morphogenesis) in diverse organisms..

Topics covered

  • Life cycle of various organisms from fertilisation through differentiation of cell and tissue types
  • Embryonic polarity systems and the importance of cell lineage and position in embryonic pattern formation
  • Cell-cell interactions and differential gene expression during development; mechanisms that regulate gene expression
  • Experimental approaches to the study of development; molecular genetic techniques and the use of 'model' organisms
  • How evolutionary variation in developmental programs can generate diverse morphologies
  • Natural selection: how it works
  • Gene drift, gene flow, founder effects and speciation
  • Proximate and ultimate explanations and how they combine to explain traits
  • Evolutionary theory behind virulence


  • 30 one-hour lectures
  • 18 hours of practicals
  • 4 one-hour tutorials


  • Practicals: analyses and write-ups (20%)
  • Essay (10%)
  • Exam, 3 hours (70%)