Plasticity of biological systems occurs to any level of complexity: molecular, cellular, systemic and behavioural and refers to the ability of living organisms to change their ‘state’ in response to any stimuli and applying the most appropriate, adaptive response. By using marine organisms, the project “Biological Plasticity” aims at benefiting from biological complexity and diversity that characterize marine life to investigate this important subject, combining different expertise in various fields (genome evolution, cell biology, physiology and animal behaviour).
Plasticity of biological systems refers to the ability of living organisms to change their ‘state’ in response to any stimuli and applying the most appropriate, adaptive response. This occurs at any level of complexity: molecular, cellular, systemic and behavioural. The response to a given event, may also be traced and memorized so that the original state may not be restored. This is what happens, for example, in the immune response and learning. Research will be oriented, in compliance with the requirements of Horizon2020, towards identification of mechanisms related to environmental changes caused by natural phenomena and anthropogenic effects, and will exploit those possibilities that may produce innovation even at technological scale.
The starting point is the study of genome plasticity. The genome contains information that encode the molecular features of living organisms. Biological PlasticityThese specific features are the basis of plasticity that each organism is able to produce in the interaction with the environment. The ability to exploit genome mutations as a mechanism of evolution and to create variability represents, in the history of life, the instrument to modify and/or extend the levels of plasticity. On a different scale, this also applies to the immune system which is responsible not only for the health of each individual, but must also contribute to the success of species through effective defense, and in the long term, to their evolution.
Indeed, the marine environment is particularly rich in biological and chemical diversity. Predation, symbiosis and pathogenicity govern the coexistence of species belonging to very distant taxa (taxonomic unit). Each individual is immersed in a variety of quite diverse organic and biological molecules deriving from decomposition and catabolism processes, and also from the coastal anthropogenic activities. This molecular universe is interpreted by each individual as a potential antigenic repertoire to which the plasticity of the immune system provides the means to respond specifically.
Another fundamental level of plasticity is represented by behavioral response. Animals perceive their surroundings with a rich array of sensory structures, that is particularly enriched and diversified in the marine realm. They adapt to each potential source of stimuli with an ample behavioural repertoire; changes in the behavioural response may be identified at different levels (e.g. motion, feeding, reproduction, defense). The large variety of behavioural performances observed in marine animals indicates a notable plasticity, which involves a large spectrum of biological mechanisms. Thus, a final goal of this project is to evaluate biological and physiological mechanisms involved in behavioural plasticity and to understand how the information acquired is associated to the behavioural responses.
The research program, which is included in the three year research plan 2013-2015 of the Stazione Zoologica, has three main objectives:
- Genome level
- Immune response level
- Behavioral plasticity