Michael Emmerson - postdoctoral researcher and brain/molecular pillar of the lab

I am a biological psychologist interested in identifying the long-term effects of early-life experiences on an individual’s psychological characteristics and the physiological mechanisms that underly such outcomes. My research principally uses songbirds (e.g. zebra finches) and poultry species (e.g. chickens) to identify the consequences of adverse social experiences during early-life on later-life social interactions and stress responses. I hold an undergraduate degree in psychology (BSc 1st Class) from Newcastle University (2010-2013), a PhD in psychology from University of St Andrews (2013-2017), and have worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech (2018-2020) and Queen Mary University of London (2021-2022).

My current research projects explore the long-term consequences of alternative embryonic acoustic experiences on later-life physiology. Birds, including poultry species and some songbirds, are able to hear and respond to sounds during the last third of their embryonic development when they are still in the egg. A particularly important source of such sounds comes from the parents, but the functions of such calls are not clear. In zebra finches, for example, parents have been observed to produce ‘heat calls’ when they are incubating their eggs at ambient temperatures above 26°C. Upon hatching, the nestlings exposed to ‘heat calls’ during embryonic development appear to be better suited at living in hotter climates (e.g. slower growth rates with increasing temperatures, improved mitochondrial efficiency in mild heat). Elucidating the consequences of embryonic ‘heat call’ exposure are of clear importance to understanding the sophisticated cognitive abilities of embryos and the shaping of later-life phenotypes in response to embryonic acoustic experience, but are of particular importance in the context of identifying how animals are responding and adapting to rising global temperatures resulting from global warming. My current research aims to identify the possible epigenetic consequences of exposure to ‘heat calls’ during embryonic development on the nestling hypothalamus (a brain region that regulates temperature, feeding, and social interaction) and several other tissues (muscle, heart, and liver) by combining histological (immunohistochemistry) and bioinformatic (RNAseq) approaches to identify possible novel sources of heat adaptation in response to embryonic acoustic experiences.

Email: m.emmerson@qmul.ac.uk