Jessica Edge

MicroRNA evolution in placental mammals: Unravelling conservation and divergence in their regulatory mechanisms in early pregnancy in different placental mammals

About me

I completed my BSc at the University of Leeds in Genetics, with a particular interest in reproductive and developmental biology, with a view to become a Clinical Embryologist. I undertook my final year project in Dr Niamh Forde’s lab focussing on prostaglandin regulation of calcium signalling in the uterus and it’s implications for implantation. I had the opportunity to present this research at the Society for the Study of Reproduction annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2018, along with the British Conference for Undergraduate Research. I completed my MSc in Clinical Embryology and Assisted Reproductive Technology also at Leeds. During this time and due to my enjoyment of my undergraduate final year project, conferences I had attended and the research section of my master’s degree, I realised my interest was more in the research element of reproduction as oppose to the clinical application. I therefore applied for a PhD studying early pregnancy events in Niamh’s lab.

My project

MicroRNAs are small, regulatory molecules that function by regulating gene expression – ie. switching genes on and off. Often, when new microRNAs arise it is at a time of increased developmental complexity. My lab has identified 14 microRNAs that emerged at the same time in evolution as placental mammals and have never been lost in any species since.
Pregnancy is established when an appropriately aged blastocyst comes into contact with a primed endometrium (inner lining of the uterus), allowing for implantation to take place. A combination of maternal and fetal cells proliferate and differentiate producing a structure known as the placenta. The placenta is a vital organ during pregnancy, forming the interface between maternal and fetal blood. It is responsible for providing the fetus with oxygen and nutrients required for growth and removal of waste products. It also protects the fetus from potentially harmful molecules and physically anchors it to the uterus. Successful, healthy pregnancy can only occur with correct development and function of the placenta. Abnormal placental function can have many serious adverse effects on the fetus from fetal growth restriction to miscarriage. However, it is not only whilst the fetus is in utero that the placenta can affect its health. Studies show that developmental origins of health and disease stem from the maternal environment during gestation, increasing risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Many deviations of expression of the 14 microRNAs are linked to abnormal placental phenotypes in humans. This shows the important relevance of a deeper understanding of the regulatory mechanisms behind development of the placenta.
My project involves analysis of microRNA function, expression and emergence in the placenta and endometrium of various placental mammal species, with computational molecular evolutionary biology.
Specifically, I want to know:
1) Where the microRNAs that arose at the root of placental mammals are expressed and which genes they regulate in species with different placental morphologies.
2) Whether the microRNAs regulate the genes in a species specific manner, or whether their functions are conserved.
3) Whether the gene expression due to microRNAs is regulated in a tissue specific manner within a single species (ie. in the placenta vs the uterus)
My project hopes to identify novel targets for intervention, beneficial to many industries from medicine to sustainable food production.



Twitter: @jessicaedgejce