I’m an ecologist by training, an evolutionary biologist by trade rapidly evolving into an Evo-Devo scientist.
When I started doing research, I was fascinated by the interaction between the environment and organisms at different levels, from species distribution to phenotypic and genetic diversity, and their ecological drivers. To be honest, as many students of the Natural Sciences, I hoped to travel to exotic places, like the famous naturalist explorers of the 19th century, and study the incredible biodiversity of those ecosystems. With that goal in mind, I obtained an Excellence Initiative Fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and designed my PhD project to make it happen! That’s how I found myself studying the amphibian community of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
After chasing frogs up and down the roof of Africa, I joined Wolfgang Wüster’s lab to investigate the causes and mechanisms of variation in venom composition in the Mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus). Which is how I discovered the wonderful world of animal venoms!
Venomous animals are found throughout the entire tree of life, where organisms have independently evolved sophisticated apparatuses to produce and deliver potent biochemical weapons. There are more than 200,000 known venomous animal species and, unsurprisingly, they have been subject of public fascination throughout human history for good reason - small and often fragile-looking animals are capable of injecting complex cocktails of bioactive molecules that can result in devastating damage and often death. The evolutionary acquisition of venom therefore remodels the predator-prey interaction from a physical to a biochemical battle enabling small animals to defeat larger organisms. Acquiring such weaponry involves evolving a “factory” for venom production including, for instance, an exocrine gland, ducts and muscular bulbs, as well as a delivery system such as fangs, stingers, harpoons, forcipules among others.
This raises the question: how did animals repeatedly evolve such a successful trait? Within the framework of my Marie Curie project “EVER – Evolution of Venom Regulation” at DEE, I will uncover the secrets of one of nature’s most remarkable examples of convergent evolution: VENOM.
Venomous animals offer an incredible opportunity to investigate the regulation and development of cell and tissue novelty, and to test whether the underlying molecular mechanisms are similar across taxa, thus to contribute to a more general and predictive formulation of evolutionary theories.
The recent omics revolution has generated an explosion of venom-gland transcriptomes mainly for biodiscovery and drug development. However, the mechanisms underlying the emergence and regulatory evolution of venom remains unknown. In this first part of the project, I compare transcriptomes of non-homologous venom glands across the major lineages of the animal kingdom to shed light on the processes underpinning the repeated evolution of the venom apparatus.
Secondly, to understand the mechanisms responsible for the evolution of a derived novel structure, I focus on one lineage which includes organisms with and without venom. The study system of choice is the Neogastropoda, an order of marine predatory molluscs that includes the Conoidea (cone snails), characterized by a well-developed venom apparatus, and two other non-venomous clades - the Muricoidea, characterized by the gland of Leiblein, and the Cancellarioidea which possess a mid-oesophageal gland. For this project, I collaborate with Maria Vittoria Modica (Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Napoli), Sébastien Dutertre (Université de Montpellier), Nicolas Puillandre (Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle Paris), Alexander Fedosov and Yuri Kantor (Russian Academy of Sciences), and the MNHN New Caledonia expedition (http://www.nouvellecaledonie.laplaneterevisitee.org/fr). By means of comparative transcriptomics of the venom gland and its homologous non-venom structures, I test if novel genes or the differential orchestration of pre-existing genes contribute to the evolution of the venom system, hence which mechanisms underpin the regulatory evolution of innovative traits.
Cone snails deploy different sets of toxins for defense or predation. These toxins are differentially expressed and synthesized along the venom duct, with defense-evoked venom produced in the proximal region (P) whereas predation-evoked toxins are synthetized in the distal region (D). Structural differences are also observed along the venom duct. In this last part of the project, I aim to explore the molecular mechanisms responsible for the evolution of progressively derived cell types by analysing gene expression patterns between structurally and functionally different regions along the venom duct.
2010 - 2013
PhD in Integrative Biology, University of Würzburg, Germany
2007 – 2009
MSc in Conservation and Animal Biodiversity, University of Turin, Italy
2003 – 2007
BSc in Natural Sciences, University of Turin, Italy
1 July 2019 - present
Marie-Curie Fellow, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Unil, Lausanne, Switzerland
Project title: “EVER – Evolution of Venom Regulation”. Marc Robinson-Rechavi’s group.
1 December 2018 - present
Bioinformatician, Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Lausanne, Switzerland
Project: “Host genomics and transcriptomics: a novel approach for the diagnosis and management of candidemia.” PI: Pierre-Yves Bochud.
10 April - 16 May 2017
EMBO Fellow, Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics, Czech Academy of Science, Liběchov, Czech Republic
Project: “Mapping an arsenal: molecular cytogenetics of venom”. Hosted by Martina J. Pokorná
June 2014 - September 2017
Research Officer, Molecular Ecology and Fisheries Genetics Laboratories, Bangor University, UK
Project: “Going with the flow? The genetic basis for snake venom evolution”. PI: Wolfgang Wüster
January 2014 - May 2014
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, University of Würzburg, Germany
April 2010 - December 2013
PhD Candidate, Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, University of Würzburg, Germany
Project title: “Amphibian diversity along the slope of Mount Kilimanjaro: from species to genes”. Supervisory committee: Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, Dieter Mahsberg and Mark-Oliver Rödel.
May - August 2008
Molecular Lab Technician, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Ensenada, Mexico
Project: “Molecular Ecology of the elephant seals (genus Mirounga) using microsatellites as molecular markers”. PI: Filippo Galimberti
1 April 2018 – 31 October 2018
Journal Development Specialist, Frontiers, Lausanne, Switzerland
December 2013 – present
Peer-reviewer for various scientific journals
February – March 2017
Scientific Consultant, Bangor University, Bangor, UK
September 2014 - January 2017
Molecular Ecology Seminar Organizer, Bangor University, Bangor, UK.
October 2014 - January 2017
Teaching Molecular Ecology Techniques, Bangor University, Bangor, UK.
February - April 2016
Visiting Scientist, Instituto de Biomedicina de Valencia, Spain. Hosted by Juan J. Calvete
24 September 2015
Omics–An Introduction, IST 2015 Pre-congress workshop, St Hilda’s College, Oxford, UK
10 - 14 June 2013
Summer School in Bioinformatics, EMBL-EBI Wellcome Trust Center, Hinxton, Cambridge, UK
21 January - 01 February 2013
European Course on Comparative Genomics, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, Lyon, France
August - November 2012
Visiting Scientist, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA. Hosted by Andrew Storfer
GIS Workshop, Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, University of Würzburg, Germany
Grants and Awards
2019 – 2022 H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship
“EVER – Evolution of Venom Regulation”. € 286,724.16
2017 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Short-Term Fellowship
“Mapping an arsenal: molecular cytogenetics of venom”. € 2,636.36
2016 Young Investigators Travel Award
Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution. $ 2,000
2016 Santander Early Career Researcher Scholarship
Bangor University. £ 3,000
2014 Career Development Fellowship
Graduate School of Life Sciences, University of Würzburg. € 14,000
2013 German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Travel Grant “PROMOS”
Graduate Schools, University of Würzburg. € 1,000
2012 Universitätsbund Würzburg Travel Grant
University of Würzburg. € 2,000
2010 – 2013 German Research Foundation (DFG) Excellence Initiative Fellowship
PhD Scholarship, Graduate School of Life Sciences, University of Würzburg. € 76,800
Conference and Seminar Presentations
Zancolli G (peer-reviewed oral presentation) When one phenotype is not enough – divergent evolutionary trajectories govern venom variation in a widespread rattlesnake species. The Second Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology 2018, Montpellier, France, 19-22/09/2018.
Zancolli G (oral presentation) Mapping an arsenal: molecular cytogenetics of the venom system. Molecular Ecology and Evolution seminar series, School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University, Bangor, UK, 2/06/2017.
Zancolli G (invited oral presentation) Animal venom: the evolution of a biochemical weapon. Ecology and Evolution seminar series, Department of Ecology and Zoology, Charles University, Prague, 09/05/2017.
Zancolli G (oral presentation) Going with the flow? The genetic basis for snake venom evolution. Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution Conference 2016, Gold Coast Queensland, Australia, 3-7/07/2016.
Zancolli G, Mulley J, Wüster W (oral presentation) Venom variation in rattlesnakes: it’s “all” about the genes. Venom Day, 21/11/2015.
Zancolli G, Mulley J, Wüster W (poster presentation) Transcriptomic differences in the venom of Mohave rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus) are dictated by presence or absence of toxin genes. The 18th World Congress of the International Society on Toxinology, Oxford, UK, 25-30/09/2015.
Zancolli G (oral presentation) Landscape Genetics: a bridge between landscape ecology and population genetics. Department Seminar series, Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, Biocenter, University of Würzburg, 20/06/2013.
Zancolli G (oral presentation) Amphibian diversity on tropical mountains: a perspective from the roof of Africa. VII World Congress of Herpetology, Vancouver, Canada, 08 - 14/08/2012.