Evolutionary perspective offers new insights, from sponges to HIV

12 Jul 2013

Dr Grace McCormack, head of Zoology at the School of Natural Sciences in NUI Galway, and principal investigator in the Marine Institute's Beaufort Marine Biodiscovery Project

Dr Grace McCormack’s research looks at subjects as diverse as sponges, HIV and even how to protect honey bees. She talked to Claire O’Connell about getting the evolutionary perspective.

“One of the things I really like about what I do is that I can choose to look at many different questions,” says McCormack, who is head of Zoology at the School of Natural Sciences in NUI Galway. “I am curious, and for my research I do get to explore lots of different types of organisms.”

She’s not joking. Her career so far has seen her delve into the mysteries of marine sponges (and the bacteria that hitch a ride with them), the genetic shuffling of HIV, and now she is adding honey bees to the mix.

More than meets the eye in sponges

In one of her early breakthroughs, she discovered there’s more to marine sponges than meets the eye. While people had long been classifying sponges on the basis of their morphology – or shape and visible characteristics – when McCormack looked at the DNA she found the genetics could tell quite a different story.

“Marine sponges are really interesting because they were the very first animals and they arose between 600m to 700m years ago. That means their evolution can give insights into the evolution of other animals,” she explains. “I was interested in looking at the evolutionary relationships between sponge species, but I found that the results using DNA analysis were very different from the morphological analysis.”

In effect, that meant even if two sponge species looked similar they could be genetically quite different, or if they looked unlike each other they could still have similar DNA. Meanwhile, many species also show unusual evolutionary patterns. 

“I think my initial results weren’t believed but we and others have been doing a lot of work on it since and have been finding similar results,” says McCormack, who works with collaborators around the world to look at marine sponges. “The work has been throwing up all sorts of interesting questions.”

Sponges – and the bacteria they contain – are also considered a potential source for marine ‘bioactives’, or molecules with biological activity, and McCormack is a principal investigator in the Marine Institute’s Beaufort Marine Biodiscovery Project, through which she and colleagues have been mining sponge species from the west coast of Ireland for molecules of interest.  

“We have preliminary results for bioactives from sponges with selective anti-cancer activity against breast and prostate cancer,” she says. “And we are starting to look at whether there’s a role for the bacteria in making these interesting compounds.”

Her lab is now looking to culture sponges with the Carna Research Station to develop a sustainable source of the animals, adds McCormack, whose research is mainly funded through Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council.  

Virus evolution

Another strand of McCormack’s research has been looking at evolution in quite a different situation – this time in HIV. She first became interested scientifically in the virus in the 1990s, when she saw how the evolutionary approach she was taking with sponges could apply here, too.  

“I was using techniques to look at animals that had been evolving for hundreds of millions of years, and here was a virus that was evolving quickly and we could see it happening,” she recalls. “The questions were similar – what kinds of HIV were present, how does it move or transmit, what was its level of evolution – and we could use the same types of analysis.”

The buzz on bees in Ireland

And now bees are also very much on McCormack’s radar – with an innovation voucher from Enterprise Ireland, her lab has been working with Galway company Advance Science on methods to identify diseases in hives. 

“Bees are under huge pressure from factors such as disease and climate change,” she says. “We already know that wild bees in Ireland are affected and bees in hives seem to be dying in large numbers here, too, but we don’t really know the full extent.”

Along with Advance Science, which is developing natural products to support bees in hives, McCormack recently ran a workshop at NUI Galway for beekeepers.

“We brought them into the university and we showed them how to use microscopes to look for parasites in the bees,” she says. “We had 38 beekeepers in here and they were chuffed – we hope to run another workshop later in the summer, too. And ultimately we would like to develop a bee research centre here and really look at an Irish level, work on products to support bees and develop a bee breeding programme.”

The evolutionary strand

While evolutionary biology is now the key strand that ties much of McCormack’s work together, she wasn’t initially that enthusiastic about it when she studied zoology as an undergrad at NUI Galway.  

“When I was first learning about evolution, I didn’t appreciate how interesting it was – I thought this is all stuff in the past. But then I realised how evolution underpins so many things, and has become a huge part of what I do,” she says. “Also you have to be adaptable in science, and this partly is why I have been drawn to working with so many different organisms and applications. Plus it shows how useful and beneficial evolutionary techniques can be.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication