Diving Into Evolution

Assistant Professor Daphne Soares (right) with Uma Thurman at the Women of Discovery Awards ceremony.

Scientist and explorer, NJIT Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Daphne Soares recently returned from caving in Iran. Soares investigates how certain fish have adapted to extreme environments, especially caves. This research, which has implications for understanding the evolution of all vertebrates’ nervous systems — including humans — has earned Soares recognition for the intrepid pursuit of science in distant parts of the world, and for meeting unique challenges encountered as a woman embarked on scientific exploration.

Soares, who joined NJIT in the fall of 2014 from the University of Maryland, traveled to Iran to study Iranocypris typhlops, an eyeless cavefish that lives in a subterranean water system that is part of the Zagros Mountains, in the western part of the country near the border with Iraq. Several inches in length as an adult, this fish is typical of cave dwellers in that it has no eyes. What is unique, however, is how it has evolved and adapted to find food, mate and orient itself in total darkness.

Tasting Their Environment

In addition to Iran, Soares studies cavefishes in Asia and South America. All cavefishes have ancestors from the surface, Soares explains, that were either trapped or migrated to live exclusively without light underground.

Most cavefishes use tactile information, having long fins and barbs to sense their world. Their brains also create hydrodynamic images of the water flow that surrounds them, thanks to a highly sensitive lateral line. Iranocypris typhlops, however, is different, and Soares thinks that it has a keen ability to process chemical cues in the water to sense its environment.

“The most interesting thing about the cavefish in Iran is that they seem not to have any of the usual tactile adaptations,” Soares says. “Instead, they have taste buds all over their bodies and are likely tasting their way through the cave. This is probably what they’re doing, although it’s difficult to confirm at this point.”

Welcomed to Iran

Soares received an invitation to confront this scientific question in person from a faculty member at Iran’s Mashhad University, with whom she had been corresponding for about two years. Along with taking a close look at Iranocypris typhlops, or Mahi-ye Kur-e ghar in Farsi, she lectured and gave seminars at the university, which contributed to funding her work in the country.

While Soares did have to make some accommodations in dress to respect local cultural norms, she says that the time spent in Iran was in all ways positive. “Overall, it was an amazing experience. I found the people to be incredibly welcoming and incredibly curious about the West and the U.S. I can’t say enough good things about my experiences there. I would love to go back.”

And she wants to return to the lightless world of Iranocypris typhlops to continue her study of environmental factors that may have influenced its singular evolutionary adaptation — perhaps some physical characteristics of its underground home found nowhere else in the world.

In asking probing questions about the evolution of blind cavefish, Soares is researching issues with much greater scientific scope. Her work is at the leading edge of gaining new knowledge about how environments have compelled the evolution of the nervous system in all vertebrates, how novel sensory organs have emerged, and how they may continue to do so. It’s research that Soares plans to pursue in the field as well as in a new lab in the Central King Building, investigation that could yield insights into how human neurobiology has been shaped by environmental factors over the course of our evolution.

Woman of Discovery

In 2014, Soares received a Women of Discovery Award from WINGS WorldQuest, an organization that celebrates and supports the achievements of women explorers whose efforts also advance scientific discovery. The award was presented by Uma Thurman at an October ceremony held in New York City. Shortly afterward, Soares gave an invited talk at the Explorers Club in New York.

Established in 2003 by Milbry Polk and Leila Hadley Luce, the award came as a surprise, Soares says candidly. But with her research having been published in widely circulated journals such as Nature and BioScience, Soares was told that she had been “on the organization’s radar for a while.”

This recognition is also significant in that WINGS WorldQuest connects her to a supportive network of women who spend time in various, often remote, areas where engaging in scientific investigation can present gender challenges. “Women often do not have the same status as men in some parts of the world,” Soares says. “It’s very helpful to discuss the issues that can arise with women who are out there in the world doing science and exploration, and dealing positively with the cultural challenges that we might face.”

In the near future, Soares plans to pursue examination of cave-dwelling fish in Thailand and Brazil. The fish she will examine in Thailand is able to crawl onto land. The blind Brazilian species may be weakly electric, and the first cavefish discovered that depends on electric fields to navigate and survive.

Delving Deeper

While a prime focus of her current research, cavefish without eyes are not the only inhabitants of extreme environments that interest Soares. She also is delving into the deep-ocean environment, where evolution has given rise to survival adaptations such as bioluminescence, something totally absent in cave dwellers.

In association with groups that include the Smithsonian Institution, Soares hopes to investigate how invertebrates have adapted to life throughout the water column above the deepest part of the world’s oceans — the Marianas Trench, nearly seven miles down in the western Pacific Ocean at the point known as the Challenger Deep. Collecting organisms to assess adaptation at various levels of diminishing light and temperature, and pressure ultimately more than a thousand times greater than at the surface, will require deployment of a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV for short.

Soares’ engagement with science and exploration is not limited to teaching college-level courses and hands-on research in the lab and at locations far from campus. She intends to become involved with outreach programs that share the excitement of discovery with pre-college students. She often gives public lectures, and was a speaker featured by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the U.S. Science and Engineering festival held last year in Washington, D.C.

Soares feels strongly that learning about the strange creatures that inhabit the water in dark caves and the deep ocean can spark a life-long interest in science for many young people, and perhaps put them on the same career path she and other scientists have followed. It’s a discussion that even encompasses how life may have developed and persists in extreme environments beyond our home planet.

“Learning about animals that have no eyes yet can thrive in total darkness, or organisms that are not crushed by the pressure at the very bottom of the ocean — how cool is that,” Soares says enthusiastically about capturing the imagination of future scientists.

By Dean Maskevich

dean.l.maskevich@njit.edu