Research (blue links below open in new window)

Our lab investigates how evolution and development interact to generate the diversity of organismal forms we see in the world.  More specifically, we study the gene regulatory networks that drive vertebrate morphogenesis, with a primary focus on the development of appendages (fins & limbs).  We take a multi-species, comparative approach, studying vertebrates such as the American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), the small spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula), zebrafish (Danio rerio), and the axolotl salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum) to test hypotheses about gene function and evolution.  Our results have the potential to inform ongoing human health studies in congenital birth defects research and regenerative medicine.

Recent and ongoing lines of inquiry in the lab include:

  • The evolution of limbs from paired fins during the vertebrate invasion of land (Late Devonian period, ~375-360 million years ago) has inspired the imagination and scientific curiosity of biologists for centuries.  Our recent studies in paddlefish and catshark support a very ancient regulatory homology between the distal “compartment” in limbs and fins: the autopod (hands/feet in tetrapods) and the fin-fold, respectively. Download our recent Proceedings of the Royal Society paper here: [PDF]
  • In collaboration with international research partners, we are testing hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of limb and fin regeneration. These investigations hold promise to inform downstream regenerative medicine research.  Download our recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper here: [PDF]


Recent JMU news article about our limb and fin regeneration research.

Twitter @JMUCSM

JMU College of Science and Mathematics


Check it out!


Dr. Marcus C. Davis - PI

Associate Dean - College of Science and Mathematics

Professor of Biology - Department of Biology 

Contact: davis4mc at jmu dot edu

Research Gate link

Dr. Amanda N. Cass - co-PI

Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology - Department of Biology 

Contact: cassan at jmu dot edu

Research Team:

Benjamin Knick

Undergraduate Researcher

Maddie Fudala

Undergraduate Researcher

Katie Kourmadas

Undergraduate Researcher


Undergraduate Researcher

Contact us about upcoming research opportunities in the Davis Lab !

Davis Lab Alumni

Lab in Pictures

Publications (blue PDF links open in new window)

Westerman EL, Bowman SEJ, Davidson B, Davis MC, Larson ER, Sanford CPJ (2020) Deploying Big Data to Crack the Genotype to Phenotype Code. Integrative and Comparative Biology 60(2): 385-396. doi: 10.1093/icb/icaa055. [PDF]

Darnet S, Dragalzew AC, Amaral DB, Sousa JF, Thompson AW, Cass AN, Lorena J, Pires ES, Costa CM, Sousa MP, Fröbisch NB, Oliveira G, Schneider PN, Davis MC, Braasch I & I Schneider (2019). Deep evolutionary origin of limb and fin regeneration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(30): 15106-15115. doi:10.1073/pnas.1900475116. [PDF

Tulenko FJ, Massey JL, Holmquist E, Kigundu G, Thomas S, Smith SME, Mazan S and MC Davis (2017) Fin-fold development in paddlefish and catshark and implications for the evolution of the autopod. Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences 284: 20162780. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2780. [PDF]

Modrell MS, Lyne M, Carr AR, Zako, HH, Buckley D, Campbell AS, Davis, MC, Micklem G, and CVH Baker. (2017) Insights into electrosensory organ development, physiology and evolution from a lateral line-enriched transcriptome eLifee24197. doi: 10.7554/eLife.24197. [PDF]  

Tulenko FJ, Augustus, GJ, Massey, JL, Sims, SE, Mazan, S, and MC Davis. (2016)  HoxD expression in the fin-fold compartment of basal gnathostomes and implications for paired appendage evolution. Scientific Reports 6, 22720. doi: 10.1038/srep22720. [PDF]

Smith MM, Johanson Z, Butts T, Ericsson R, Modrell M, Tulenko FJ, Davis MC, and Fraser GJ.  (2015)  Making teeth to order: conserved genes reveal an ancient molecular pattern in Paddlefish (Actinopterygii).  Proceedings of the Royal Society B - Biological Sciences 282: 20142700.  doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2700. [PDF]

Davis, MC  (2013)  The Deep Homology of the Autopod: Insights from Hox Gene Regulation. Integrative and Comparative Biology 53(2): 224-232. doi: 10.1093/icb/ict029. [PDF]

Modrell, MS, Bemis, WE, Northcutt, RG, Davis, MC, and CVH Baker  (2011)  Electrosensory ampullary organs are derived from lateral line placodes in bony fishes.  Nature Communications 2 (496): doi: 10.1038/ncomms1502 [PDF]

Davis, MC, Dahn, RD, and NH Shubin  (2007)  An autopodial-like pattern of Hox expression in the fins of a basal actinoptergian fish. Nature 447: 473-476. [PDF]

Dahn, RD., Davis, MC,  Pappano, WN, and NH Shubin  (2007)  Sonic hedgehog function in chondrichthyan fins and the evolution of appendage patterning. Nature 445: 311-314. [PDF]

Davis, MC, Shubin, NH, and A Force  (2004)  Pectoral fin and girdle development in the basal actinopterygians Polyodon spathula and Acipenser transmontanus. Journal of Morphology 262: 608-628. [PDF]

Davis, MC, Shubin, NH, and EB Daeschler  (2004)  A new specimen of Sauripterus taylori (Sarcopterygii, Osteichthyes) from the Fammenian Catskill Formation of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24 (1): 26-40. [PDF]

Shubin, NH, and MC Davis  (2004)  Modularity in the evolution of vertebrate appendages. In G. Schlosser and G. Wagner (eds.), Modularity in development and evolution. University of Chicago Press. Pp. 429-440. [PDF]

Jeffery, JE, Davis, MC, Shubin, NH, and EB Daeschler  (2002)  Sauripterus Hall, 1843 (Osteichthyes, Sarcopterygii): proposed conservation as the correct original spelling. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 59 (3): 198-202. [PDF]

Davis, MC, Shubin, NH, and EB Daeschler  (2001)  Immature rhizodontids from the Devonian of North America. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 156 (1): 171-187. [PDF]


Students interested in research opportunities in our lab should please contact Dr. Amanda Cass (cassan at jmu dot edu)


Our research is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation: