Annat grew up in Israel, where she got both her B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees. Her interest in vertebrate paleontology and macroevolution propelled her to move to the US for her PhD, which she received from the University of Chicago in 2010.
Her academic interests have spanned a wide range of topics over the years. Her high school research project aimed to understand how feral cats that crowd the streets of Jerusalem manage to overcome their territorial and solitary nature as they aggregate around artificial food sources such as dumpsters. As an undergraduate student in Tel Aviv University, she was introduced to the world of comparative morphology and evolution while analyzing animal remains from a Neolithic site under the supervision of Tamar Dayan. This project has developed into her master’s thesis on the early stages of animal domestication. In order to better understand evolutionary processes in “deep time”, she moved to Dallas, TX, and studied marine adaptations in mosasaurs in collaboration with Louis Jacobs and Mike Polcyn. Her PhD work at the University of Chicago involved the morphometric analysis of the ruminant skull in more than 130 extant species, with the goal of studying the effect of morphological integration on their diversification patterns.
Her future work at MSU will continue to explore the link between integration (character covariation within the population) and evolution. Understanding integration is crucial for understanding the evolutionary potential of species, because integration reflects the genetic and developmental factors that govern the coordinated development of different characters. These factors determine the kind of variation that is available for natural selection to work on: some combinations of characters would be more prevalent in the population than others because of their covariation, and therefore more amenable for selection. At the same time, integration itself evolves, and that could undermine its role in the evolution of the population: if the covariation structure can change quickly enough, so that any combination of characters is attainable when needed, then its potential to bias the evolution of the population will be limited. Both theoretical and empirical studies have shown that integration evolves in response to selection, mutational effects, and genetic drift, but the nature and consequences of this evolution is still poorly understood.
For her main project, Annat will be utilizing the experimental systems developed in the BEACON-associated laboratories of Ian Dworkin and Jeff Conner in order to better understand how integration evolves under different conditions. The mutant strains of Drosophila melanogaster developed in the Dworkin lab provide an opportunity to determine whether new mutations can fundamentally alter covariation, and if so, how. The selection experiments carried out by the Conner lab allow precise estimation of both selection and the genetic covariation, and thus a more thorough quantification of their interplay.
In addition to her experimental work, Annat is interested in using the Avida platform in order to extend her PhD study on the macroevolutionary implications of integration. Unlike natural systems, the model system of Avida combines easily-manipulated settings with organismal complexity that can be studied over time periods equivalent to geological time scales. This unique combination could provide unprecedented insights into what properties of integration affect evolution and diversification across different time scales and under different environmental regimes. These insights, along with the experimental results, could get us closer to understanding what makes complex systems evolvable while maintaining their robustness and functionality.
For more information about Annat’s work, you can contact her at annat22 at gmail dot com.