Evolution and Development

Élio Sucena

The Evolution and Development lab aims at exploring the interface between the fields of evolution, developmental biology and physiology with the ultimate purpose of contributing to the understanding of the rules by which this interplay shapes organisms across evolutionary time.

Currently, the research group focus on immune fucntion with the aim of dissecting its proximal and ultimate mechanisms. The research team uses an experimental approach that combines the comparative method and experimental evolution, encompassing different levels of biological organization.

Specifically, the reserach group looks at: 

  • the organismal level, using experimental evolution to study immune response evolution in Drosophila melanogaster;

  • the cellular level, by approaching immune cell function diversity and haematopoiesis, and

  • the genetic level, through the functional characterization of the genes identified with the strategies described above.


The mechanistic basis of the immune response in Drosophila has been widely studied; however, little is known about the evolutionary and physiological mechanisms that drive local adaptation to pathogens. It is also unknown if this adaptation is dependent on factors such as the infected life-stage, route of infection or pathogen type(s) and the associated trade-offs. We have used Drosophila outbred populations, in collaboration with Sara Magalhães (University of Lisbon) and Luis Teixeira (IGC), to conduct experimental evolution to different and contrasting immune challenges. We have shown that adaptation to pathogens often relies on simple genetic basis, is highly pathogen specific, highly contingent on infection route and implies little trade-offs with other life-history traits. We are currently determining in detail the genetic changes that underlie these adaptive processes using deep-sequencing technology in collaboration with Christian Schlötterer (Vienna, Austria).

We have shown previously that, contrary to the current view, Drosophila plasmatocytes (the functional analogues of vertebrate macrophages) constitute a heterogeneous population. This has been established through a novel protocol for hemocyte purification using a combination of GFP lines, specific staining and FACS analysis. Currently, we are using this technology and this knowledge to assess the putative roles of the different sub-populations in immunity and development. Using different genetic tricks to manipulate the populations under different challenges and throughout hematopoiesis, we have revealed novel control mechanisms that regulate these subpopulations. We aspire at revealing novel levels of complexity in the development and physiology of the innate response of Drosophila with the ultimate aim of contributing to a better understanding of this system in vertebrates and its evolution across metazoan.