Ion channels and the tree of life
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The field of comparative neurobiology has deep roots. I will begin by giving an overview of the parts of its history that I feel are most relevant for this dissertation. Within this history lies a wealth of zoological research and penetrating theories that are underutilized by modern evolutionary biologists. The age of whole-genome sequencing provides a perfect opportunity to revisit and perhaps update this corpus to better understand the phylogenetic history of organismal behavior. The first three chapters of my dissertation will be case studies on the evolution of sodium-selective ion channels. Sodium channels are responsible for much of the electrical signaling in animal nervous systems and muscles, but their evolutionary relationships have not yet been explored with the modern tools of phylogenetics and comparative genomics. Chapter 1 will deal with the classic Nav channels which create action potentials in nerves and muscles. There I will show that this gene family pre-dates the nervous system and even animal multicellularity. Chapter two will investigate sodium leak channels, which likley create the leak conductance measured by Hodgkin and Huxley. These channels turn out to be close relatives of fungal calcium channels, a relationship which illuminates the evolution of both groups. Chapter three is on bacterial sodium channels and their use as models for other sodium channel types. The final chapter will turn away from sodium channels in particular and discuss the evolution of animal nervous systems by means of ion channel genomics. In that chapter I will show that the genomic complements of ion channels that animals with nervous systems possess evolved independently to large degree, and that the early evolution of nervous systems also involved periods of gene loss. I will end with a more general discussion of convergent evolution, a key theme of this dissertation, and its effect on comparative analyses in the age of genomics.