Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Uncovering the Molecular Basis of Diversity in the Vertebrate Lung

2021 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2021-2023

Princeton professors Celeste M. Nelson and Ricardo Mallarino will explore the vast diversity of lung structures in vertebrates — from mammals and birds, to reptiles and amphibians — in order to better understand the molecular processes behind biodiversity. This interdisciplinary project will combine the Nelson Group’s expertise in bioengineering and developmental lung biology with the Mallarino Lab’s work in functional and comparative genomics to uncover the molecular and evolutionary processes that produced the “beautiful biodiversity” of lung form and physiology. They will first construct an atlas of the genes that act to govern the differentiation of airway smooth muscle, a key tissue in establishing lung architecture. Then, the researchers will work to uncover the regulatory sequences that control the activity of smooth-muscle genes across vertebrate classes, and identify genomic patterns of natural selection. Nelson and Mallarino plan to segue their data into proposals for federally funded projects focused on the mechanisms that give rise to biodiversity across organ systems.

Image of a lung. (Photo by Katie Goodwin)


Educational Impact

The project will support four undergraduate students pursuing their junior independent projects and senior thesis research in bioinformatics, comparative genomics, bioengineering, and fieldwork, as well as provide mentoring experience for the project’s postdoctoral fellow. Nelson and Mallarino also will develop and teach a hands-on workshop on “Hidden Biodiversity” for Princeton Wintersession 2022. The workshop will introduce students to the richness of biodiversity through an overview of evolutionary developmental biology and its underlying theory, as well as through practical experience with cutting-edge bioinformatic analysis of whole genomes and transcriptomic and epigenomic data.

Participating Departments


Wilke Family Professor in Bioengineering and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology


Graduate Students