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Isabel Almudí and her “mayFLYeye” project, awarded of an ERC Consolidator Grant.

The ERC Consolidator Grants, European grants for scientific excellence, are aimed at researchers of any nationality with between seven and twelve years of research experience since obtaining their PhD, with a scientific track record that shows great promise and an excellent research proposal.

Isabel Almudí, a researcher in the Beatriz Galindo programme at the Institute for Research on Biodiversity (IRBio) at the University of Barcelona, has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant of 2 million euros over 5 years. Dr Almudí received her PhD from the University of Barcelona, followed by a postdoc at ETH Zurich and then at Oxford. In 2015 she was awarded an EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship to work in Professor Casares' lab at the CABD (Andalusian Centre for Developmental Biology). Here she started her career as an independent researcher.

Thanks to the Beatriz Galindo talent attraction programme, in 2021 she started her own independent group in the Department of Genetics, Microbiology and Statistics at the UB.

The conquest of the sky: In search of the origin of the wings

The history of life on Earth has been defined by key game-changing events. In animals, this has often been driven by the emergence of new organs, which confer new abilities to explore new niches and adaptive landscapes, completely changing the subsequent evolution of certain lineages.

The origin of wings was the key innovation that allowed insects to become the most numerous and diverse group of animals on Earth; the diversification and adaptation of winged insects to natural environments promoted the transformation of terrestrial ecosystems.

Mayflies are a key group for investigating crucial morphological developments in the evolution of this lineage. They are also excellent for studying adaptations to different environments, as they exploit two completely different ecological niches during their life cycle: juvenile stages (called nymphs or naiads) develop in water, while adults develop in soil and air.

Another key factor in this conquest of the sky is the insects' visual system. The differentiated evolution of the eye in insects may be one of the triggering effects in shaping the anatomy of flying insects; male mayflies have an additional set of specific eyes that they use to find mates during flight.

We study the genetic basis and key factors underlying the origin of these two organs, with a multidisciplinary view combining single-cell omics, evolutionary and functional approaches, and, in the case of the new eyes, their impact on physiology and diversification. By comparing these two evolutionary processes, we will reveal key common and specific events in the evolution of the gene regulatory networks behind the origin of these two new organs.

The evolutionary origin and genetic basis of insect wings and the additional visual system available to male mayflies ("The evolution of new organs during the insect conquest of the sky (mayFLYeye)"). "These are two morphological innovations that have had a major impact on the evolution and diversification of insects," explains Almudí.

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