Olson Lab

Department of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD United Kingdom

4th European Meeting on Planarian Biology

Join us on the Catalonian coast of Spain in September for the 4th European Meeting on Planarian Biology where Pete will be giving a presentation on Wnt signalling during strobilar development in tapeworms.


SEMINAR: Peter Dearden (Univ Otago, NZ)


Wednesday, 20 July, 11:00
Neil Chalmers Theatre, DC2

Peter Dearden

Director of Genetics Otago & Associate Dean of Research for Health Sciences
University of Otago, New Zealand


Notch signalling has been co-opted by queen honeybees to repress worker reproduction

Eusociality depends on reproductive division of labour. This implies that one individual, the queen in honeybees, can repress reproduction in other females. In honeybees this is achieved through queen bees producing a pheromone, queen mandibular pheromone, which causes worker bees to repress the activity of their ovaries, repressing worker reproduction. Removal of the queen, and thus queen mandibular pheromone, allows the workers to activate their ovaries and begin to lay eggs. We have examined changes in gene expression, using high-throughput sequencing, in worker ovaries as they respond to the absence of queen mandibular pheromone and become activated. Using this dataset we have investigated the mechanisms by which queen mandibular pheromone has its action. While it is not clear how queen mandibular pheromone is detected, or how its activity is transduced, we have identified a cell-signalling pathway that responds to the absence of queen pheromone, and, when blocked, enhances the activation of the ovaries. Comparison of the action of this pathway in the presence or absence of queen pheromone implies that this is the main pathway by which the activity of worker ovaries is constrained in the honeybee, giving us insights into both the mechanism and evolution of reproductive constraint.

Who's going to save the tapeworms?


Read Jason Bittel's expose on the loss of the unique New Zealand kakapo, and with it, it's unique parasite fauna, including the tapeworm Stringopotaenia psittacea

ISOMORPHOLOGY: An introduction to the art and science of Gemma Anderson


Gemma Anderson is unusually gifted artist who works at the interface of art, science and philosophy. In a recent blog post of the Journal of Zoology Gemma introduces her concept of 'isomorphology': an approach to discovering and understanding patterns and processes in the natural world through the process of drawing. Gemma has worked in association with a broad range of scientists, scientific fields, and scientific institutions and we have been privileged to host her in our lab where she has applied her unique skills to help us understand the complex ontogeny of tapeworms. Gemma is currently working on a funding application that will allow her to collaborate with a range of labs interested in developmental processes from the cell to the whole organism, and we look forward to continuing her association with our lab.

For more information please visit Gemma's

British Society of Parasitology, 11-13 April 2016

logoJoin us at Imperial College, London, for the British Society of Parasitology where Pete and Francesca will make the following presentations:

Thursday, April 13 - 2:45-3:00
LT 340 - Huxley Building

Session: Helminth Signalling and Developmental Parasitology I

From planarians to parasitism: Wnt/Hedgehog signalling controls AP patterning during larval and strobilar development in tapeworms

Francesca Jarero*, Uriel Koziol & Peter D. Olson

Wnt/Hedgehog signalling in free-living planarians is responsible for mediating head/tail decision making during early development and in regeneration. More broadly, canonical Wnt signalling has been found to underlie AP axis formation in animals generally. We show that AP specification during larval metamorphosis in tapeworms also involves canonical Wnt signalling, with scolex formation taking place at the site(s) of Wnt repression. Moreover, we show that the same system has been co-opted during strobilar development, with segmental boundaries expressing opposing ‘stripes’ of anteriorizing (SFRP) and posteriorizing (Wnt1) signals—tapeworm strobilation therefore being a form of paratomy. Expression of Hedgehog and Hox also appear linked to the system, upstream and downstream of Wnt signaling, mirroring the model of AP signalling in planarians as presently understood. Taken together, we show that parasitic and free-living flatworms share the same underlying AP patterning system despite their highly disparate body plans.

Thursday, April 13 - 3:45-4:15
LT 340 - Huxley Building

Session: Helminth Signalling and Developmental Parasitology II

Tapeworm tumours: how not to make a tapeworm

Peter D. Olson* & Atis Muehlenbachs

In a recently reported case of dwarf tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana) infection in an HIV-positive Columbian man (NEJM 373:1845-52), tumours were found in the lymph nodes, lungs and elsewhere that appeared to comprise non-human cells. Genetic analyses confirmed these to be H. nana cells, and their small size (< 10 um), spherical shape and low cytoplasm/nuclear ratio were all consistent with tapeworm germinative cells or ‘neoblasts' (i.e. flatworm stem cells). With the exception of a degree of syncitia formation (characteristic of tapeworm tissue architecture generally) no cell differentiation was seen. However clonal proliferation and evasive dissemination was evidenced by genetic analysis and the tumours proved fatal. Preliminary genomic analysis comparing the case study with a reference laboratory isolate revealed breaks in genes previously implicated in human cancers (e.g. LAMP2). I describe this case together with previous cases of tapeworm infection in immunocompromised patients in order to illustrate the most likely route of infection and demonstrate the necessity for cross-talk with the host’s immune system for normal development of the parasite. Lastly, I will briefly outline why studying parasites as animals rather than as some unique category of being is essential for understanding their biology and informs applied areas of NTD research.

Next Generation Systematics


We live in an age of ubiquitous genomics. Next generation sequencing (NGS) technology, both widely adopted today and advancing at pace, has transformed the data landscape, opening up an enormous source of heritable characters to the comparative biologist. Its impact on systematics, like many other fields of biology, has been felt throughout its breadth: from defining species boundaries to estimating their evolutionary histories.

This volume examines the broad range of ways in which NGS data are being used in systematics and in the fields that it underpins, from biodiversity prospecting to evo-devo. The authors draw on contemporary case studies to demonstrate state-of-the-art applications of NGS data. These, along with novel analyses, comprehensive reviews and lively perspectives are combined to produce an authoritative account of contemporary issues in systematics that have been advanced and impacted by the recent adoption of NGS.

Peter D. Olson is a Researcher in the Department of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, London. His research integrates comparative, developmental and genomic studies of parasitic flatworms aimed at unravelling the genetic basis of their evolution. He became involved in the field of molecular phylogenetics when PCR and manual sequencing were being widely used to generate the first ribosomal-based estimates of animal phylogeny.

Joseph Hughes is an evolutionary biologist working at the Medical Research Council – University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research. He is particularly interested in understanding the evolutionary forces that have shaped the solutions that different species have found to adapt to their environment. He has embraced the deluge of data from high throughput sequencing platforms and currently works on non-living particles known as viruses.

James A. Cotton is a Senior Staff Scientist in the Parasite Genomics group at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. His background is in phylogenetic theory and methods, and he now leads projects on comparative, evolutionary and population genomics of parasites of medical and veterinary importance.

The Systematics Association Special
Volume 85
Next Generation Systematics
Edited by
Peter D. Olson
Natural History Museum, London
Joseph Hughes
University of Glasgow
James A. Cotton
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge


List of contributors

Introduction: studying diversity in an age of ubiquitous genomics
James A. Cotton and Peter D. Olson

Part I Next generation phylogenetics

1 Perspective: Challenges in assembling the ‘next generation’ tree of life
Michael J. Sanderson

2 The role of next-generation sequencing technologies in shaping the future of insect molecular systematics
Joseph Hughes and Stuart Longhorn

3 Phylogenomics of Nematoda
Mark Blaxter, Georgios Koutsovoulos, Martin Jones, Sujai Kumar and Ben Elsworth

4 High throughput multiplexed mitogenomics for metazoans—prospects and limitations
Peter G. Foster, Maria A. Stalteri, Andrea Waeschenbach and D. Timothy J. Littlewood

5 Investigating bacterial microevolution through next-generation sequencing
Josephine M. Bryant and Simon R. Harris

Part II Next generation biodiversity science

6 Perspective: Après le déluge: ubiquitous field barcoding should drive 21st century taxonomy
Richard M. Bateman

7 Perspective: Biodiversity and the (data) beast
Holly M. Bik and W. Kelley Thomas

8 Next generation biodiversity analysis
Mehrdad Hajibabaei and Ian King

9 Protist systematics, ecology and next generation sequencing
David Bass and Thomas Bell

Part III Next generation challenges and questions

10 Perspective: Systematics in the age of genomics
Antonis Rokas

11 Perspective: The role of next generation sequencing for integrative approaches to evolutionary biology
Ralf J. Sommer

12 Next-generation apomorphy: the ubiquity of taxonomically restricted genes
Paul A. Nelson and Richard J. A. Buggs

13 Utilizing next generation sequencing for evo-devo study of plant traits
Rachel H. Walker, Paula J. Rudall and Beverley J. Glover

14 An NGS approach to archaeobotanical museum specimens as genetic resources in systematics research
Oliver Smith, Sarah A. Palmer, Rafal Gutaker and Robin G. Allaby

15 From sequence reads to evolutionary inferences
James A. Cotton


Nobel Laureat William C. Campbell


Huge congratulations to long time American Society of Parasitologists member Bill Campbell who shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the co-discovery of Ivermectin, the most widely-used drug against nematode (roundworm) parasites, including the etiological agents of river blindness and elephantiasis! Many years ago as a graduate student in parasitology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln I had a chance to hear Bill speak about this discovery made while an employee of Merck Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey.


Bill is also amateur painter and routinely donates his parasite inspired oil paintings to the ASP's annual student travel auction. I successfully bid for his work "Vincent's Worms" shown above and inspired by Van Gogh's famous sunflower painting. A colourised detail of this is used in some of the banner images on this site.

Matilda and the Mammoth (Exhibition)

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My eldest daughter, Matilda, had fun posing with mammoths for the NHM's promotion of the new mammoth exhibition

Hymenolepis Genome Published in Nature!

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The first tapeworm genomes published in Nature! READ NOW

Editor’s summary:

Four tapeworm genomes sequenced
Tapeworms cause echinococcosis and cysticercosis, two of the most severe parasitic diseases found in humans, and both on the World Health Organization's list of neglected tropical diseases. The publication of four tapeworm genome sequences — human-infective tapeworm species Echinococcus multilocularis, E. granulosus, Taenia solium and the laboratory model Hymenolepis microstoma — and identification of potential new drug targets for treating tapeworm infections is therefore a welcome development. Analysis of the sequences provides insights into the evolution of parasitism and reveals extreme losses of genes and pathways ubiquitous in other animals on one hand and species-specific expansions of genes on the other. More than a thousand E. multilocularis proteins emerge as potential targets, and of these, close to 200 with the highest scores may be targeted with existing pharmaceuticals.

See videos and other
PRESS coverage

Now Accepting Submissions: "Planarians to Parasitism" Special BMC Thematic Volume

Planarians to Parasitism: Evolution, Development and Stem Cells in Flatworms

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We are pleased to announce that a new thematic series ‘Planarians to Parasitism: Evolution, Development and Stem Cells in Flatworms’ to be published jointly in EvoDevo and Parasites & Vectors is now accepting submissions. Pete Olson (Natural History Museum, London) will be guest Editor for this series, which aims to promote comparative approaches between the free-living and parasitic flatworm groups.
Historically, there has been a gap between the research conducted on parasitic and free-living flatworms due to the separate communities that work on them. This series aims to bridge this gap, bringing together diverse aspects of flatworm research for publication in one place. Recent availability of whole genome data and the ability to develop ‘new model’ organisms quickly, has provided a common language by which the groups may be more readily compared despite the great differences in their life histories and ecologies. More specifically, the themed series aims to emphasise three key topics in contemporary flatworm research: the ‘neoblast’ stem cell system, developmental and signalling pathways, and genome evolution. Wherever possible, authors are encouraged to provide insight into these and related topics using a comparative approach.
open access journals, all articles published in the series will benefit from high visibility and permanent, free availability. Both journals can support unlimited figures and video clips and we would encourage authors to include as many of these as necessary.
Manuscripts can be submitted online via either journal homepage, clearly stating in your covering letter that your submission is intended for the ‘Planarians to Parasitism: Evolution, Development and Stem Cells in Flatworms’ thematic series.
For more information about the series or to discuss your potential contribution, please contact
Pete Olson directly (P.Olson@nhm.ac.uk).

Congratulatoins to Francesca Jarero!


Congrats to Francesa Jarero who was recently awarded a joint UCL/NHM PhD to work on a project entitled “De novo evolution of segmentation in tapeworms”, co-supervised by Max Telford (UCL) and project partners Matt Berriman (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) and Tim Barraclough (IMP)! Francesca is working with us now and will begin a degree programme in the Autumn.

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Planarians to Parasitism: Stem Cells and Development in Flatworms

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Planarians to Parasitism: Stem Cells and Development in Flatworms

Together with the
Pearson Lab, and sponsorship from BMC Parasites & Vectors and The Systematics Association, we are pleased to announce a symposium that will be held during the 2012 Lisbon conference of the European Society for Evolutionary BIology, entitled “Planarians to Parasitism: Stem Cells and Development in Flatworms”.

The symposium aims to bring together workers on the developmental biology of free-living flatworms with those working on parasitic groups in order to foster greater synergy between these traditionally disparate research disciplines, i.e. developmental biology and parasitology. We are currently working on a book proposal for an edited volume to follow from the symposium, but including many additional contributors (watch this space!).

Peter D Olson (Natural History Museum, UK)
Bret Pearson (Hospital for Sick Kids, Canada)

Aziz Aboobaker (University of Nottingham, UK)
Klaus Brehm (Universitat Wurzburg, Germany)
Francesc Cebria (University of Barcelona, Spain)
Kyle Gurley (University of Pittsburgh, USA)
Peter Ladurner (University of Innsbruck, Austria)
James Collins (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Canada)