The Wriggles: Worms and Evolution with Philipp Schiffer

We are pleased to welcome our new curator, Dr Philipp Schiffer (@evolgenomology), Senior Postdoctoral Fellow a UCL, London, UK. Philipp works on that most underrated organism: the worm. In fact, Philipp works on worms of all kinds. Most of us may be familiar with earthworms, which, in many ways, are as important to human agriculture as bees. You could almost think of earthworms as bees of the soil, without the social structure or stings. Worms are classified as a range of organisms that are basically tubes with no limbs – some types can cause diseases, others process soil, some live in water. They were also some of the earliest forms of life, and we use some species to study important molecular processes. This week, Philipp will take us through the importance of worms and his fascinating studies into evolution. How did he end up here? Here’s Philipp in his own words.


On how he ended up in science:

I fear it is a family thing. Been (softly) “pushed” towards natural sciences by my parents all along (my sister is a scientist, too). Wanted to cure HIV and get a Nobel


(C) Philipp Schifferby the age of 33 when I was at 9th grade. (Have since learnt what a dumb idea that was – the latter, not the former)

by the age of 33 when I was at 9th grade. (Have since learnt what a dumb idea that was – the latter, not the former)


I have always been interested in evolution, I mean why are we here, why is life the way it is?!? So, I took Zoology, Palaeontology, and Genetics as subjects for my Diplom. Well and then it was just chance events. My palaeontology Prof. Hans-Georg Herbig found some goose barnacles during his holidays, brought them back and was then looking for somebody to analyse the shell microstructure. I said “yes”, but “only if I am allowed to do some molecular phylogenetics, too”. Since palaeontology was an “external” course for us biologists in Cologne I needed an internal supervisor and Einhard Schierenberg was willing to play that role. So, when looking for a PhD supervisor later on he was willing to take me in, and him working on nematodes I decided to use these organisms when writing a grant proposal to study the evolution of sex/parthenogenesis. Being in an EvoDevo lab for my PhD, and previously having taken interest in that subject, I naturally also worked on the evolution of development during my PhD. At the same time 2nd generation sequencing came up, it fitted quite well into my project, and I liked working on the computer. Thus, I transformed from a (mostly) molecular biologist (I never studied those barnacle shells in the end) into someone using the computer to study genomes and evolution. Well, and I am basically focussing on EvoDevo since then for it being so fascinating and explaining a lot about why life is, the way it is. … I should then say that I am just about to move on to a different research focus: in the future I will work on helminths (mostly nematodes) causing neglected tropical diseases. This is simply because I feel that we as scientist in these times have an obligation to do something for the people who will suffer the most from recent changes in (world) politics. Also, of course there is climate change. However, while venturing in this new field I intend to take an evolutionary point and view and implement knowledge from EvoDevo and a comparative genomics approach to tackle the problem.


I do sit in front of a computer and transform data from one format into the other hoping for something interesting to pop up. Every now and then, and I wish it was more often, I sneak into the lab to do some minor molecular experiments. Actually, I am working a various projects, but my main project is studying the evolution of development and genome evolution in the enigmatic Xenacoelomorpha. These are tiny little marine worms, which are a very early offshoot in the Deuterostome tree. That is, they are in the part of the tree of life, that also contains us humans, and the dinosaurs, and fish, and all this boring megafauna* we see all day. My side projects range from gene family evolution, the immune system and host parasite interactions in zebrafish, to the evolution of sex, and genomics of phylum evolution. *Really, I mean it. Take one look into the microscope at a drop of water extracted from some random beach – that is fascinating life!


On why the public should care about your research:

I spent their (tax) money. In general terms, when moving into research on helminth parasites of men, livestock, and plants my research becomes very relevant for the general public, especially now that we are in an area of rapid climate change. These worms will come up to Europe rather sooner than later. On the evolutionary side, aren’t we all interested to learn where life on earth came from and why species we see today, are build the way they are?


On external/extracurricular obligations:

Obligations? No. But, I am very interested in the world, people, and politics. I try to voice my opinion there, but am not sure if anyone is interested to hear it. This again might be very sensible of anyone then.


I just started AIKIO – well, been there twice. Did some origami – well, three. Cycling to work each day, because London is so expensive: don’t know is that a hobby? Then there is the paddle boarding, but this is England! And I am the proud owner of a wind surfing board, resting in my parents garage for 10 years or so. I do read a lot about history, politics, philosophy and tend to think about it a lot too, especially politics, diversity and social injustice. Don’t know if that would (a) count as a hobby, and (b) is interesting.


How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

Sorry, I don’t get the question. Of course we are. Very ordinary people to be precise – nothing special there. So, spending time with my two sons, just that. Maybe even on my friends sailing boat. Guess like everybody else.


Please welcome Philipp to Real Scientists!



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