Postdoctoral Fellow

e-mail: abdul.rafiqi@mail.mcgill.ca

I joined McGill in May 2011. My graduate studies involved three institutions in three countries. While my MSc and PhD were awarded by Wageningen University in The Netherlands, early part of my PhD work was done at Max Planck Institute in Göttingen Germany and later and most of my research was conducted at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Prof. Urs Schmidt-Ott.

Interests and past work
During my PhD I studied developmental genetic mechanisms of the evolution of extraembryonic membranes in the insect order Diptera (true flies). Flies are a very powerful model taxon to study evolutionary developmental biology due to their amenability to experimental biology and in depth understanding of the developmental genetic mechanisms in Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly). The ultimate aim of my PhD was to test the causal relationship between specific developmental genetic variants and the evolution of distinct morphologies. Studying molecular genetic changes over large evolutionary distances is challenging; comparisons of gene expression and function often lead to inferences of correlations rather than causality. Comparing gene expressions between embryos of flies with ‘ancestral’ and ‘derived’ extraembryonic morphology and describing the ancestral and derived variants in gene expression in space and time my work demonstrated a correlation between the spatio-temporal expression differences in the homeobox gene zerknüllt (zen) and extraembryonic morphology (Rafiqi et al., 2008). Using gene knockdowns and overexpression, I was then able to mimic the ‘derived’ state of gene expression in a species with ‘ancestral’ morphology artificially transforming it to a derived state thus providing evidence for a causal link between the changes in gene expression and evolution of morphology (Rafiqi et al., 2010).

Body plan evolution in ants and ant mimics
My research at McGill falls under the Eco-Evo-Devo program at the Abouheif lab. Research in evo-devo in the last decade including my previous work has shown association between gene expression differences and evolution of diverse life forms. However, these studies mostly focus on developmental origins of evolutionary change without functional reference to ecological contributions in the process. At the same time, studies in the field of ecology and evolution (eco-evo) have shown that the environment plays a significant role in evolution of adaptive characters in organisms. The goal of my research is to integrate these studies using the comparative system of ants and ant mimics.
Ants are one of the most ecologically dominant and evolutionarily successful organisms on our planet. Predators often avoid them, either because they are unpalatable, or aggressive. Thus some other organisms mimic ants to escape predation. In rarer cases ant mimics are also predators of ants. The morphologically diverse flies contain species within two families (Sepsidae and Ulidiidae) that mimic ants in their body plans. Their close evolutionary proximity to the model organism Drosophila melanogaster, where developmental basis of body plan morphology is best known among insects, makes them an excellent system to study the evolutionary developmental basis of body plan evolution. Moreover the known ecological context, for example predator avoidance, provides an opportunity to integrate the ecological contribution into the developmental genetic basis of body plan evolution among animals using this system.

With these studies I intend to simultaneously explore the influence of ecology and development in the process of evolution of body plans in insects. This will add to the understanding of the developmental, genetic and epigenetic basis of the evolution of morphology.

Selected Publications

Abouheif E., Rafiqi, A.M. “Sex combs find middle ground in evolution debate.” (2014) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A. 111(39):14011-2.

Abouheif E., Favé M.J., Ibarrarán-Viniegra A.S., Lesoway M.P., Rafiqi A.M., Rajakumar R. “Eco-evo-devo: the time has come.” (2014) Adv Exp Med Biol. 781:107-25.

Rafiqi A.M., Park C.H., Kwan C.W., Lemke S., Schmidt-Ott U. “BMP-dependent serosa and amnion specification in the scuttle fly Megaselia abdita.” Development (Cambridge, England). 2012 Sep;139(18):3373-82

Rafiqi, A. M., Lemke S.J., & Schmidt-Ott, U. “Postgastrular zen expression is required to develop distinct amniotic and serosal epithelia in the scuttle fly Megaselia”. (2010) Dev. Biol, 341, 282-90.

Rafiqi, A. M., Lemke, S. J., Ferguson, S., Stauber, M. & Schmidt-Ott, U. “Evolutionary origin of the amnioserosa in cyclorrhaphan flies correlates with spatial and temporal expression changes of zen” (2008) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A 105, 234-239.

Rafiqi A. M., Lemke S. J., Schmidt-Ott U. (2011). The scuttle fly Megaselia abdita (Phoridae): A link between Drosophila and mosquito development. Cold Spring Harb Protoc doi: 10.1101/pdb.emo143.

Schmidt-Ott U., Rafiqi A.M., Sander K., & Johnston J.S. “Extremely small genomes in two unrelated dipteran insects with shared early developmental traits.” (2009) Dev. Genes Evol. 219, 207-10.

Schmidt-Ott U., Rafiqi, A. M., Lemke, S. J. “Hox3/zen and the Evolution of Extraembryonic Epithelia in Insects” (2010) Adv Exp Med Biol. 689, 133-44. Review.

Lemke, S. J., Stauber, M., Shaw, P. J., Rafiqi, A. M., Prell, A. & Schmidt-Ott, U. “bicoid occurrence and Bicoid-dependent hunchback regulation in lower cyclorrhaphan flies”(2008) Evol. Dev. 10, 413-420.

Last update: April 13, 2015