Clifton Ragsdale

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Who Am I?

I am a Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Chicago. I also have appointments in the Committees on Neurobiology, on Development, Regeneration and Stem Cell Biology and on Evolutionary Biology. I received my S.B. and Ph.D. from MIT. My doctoral research concerned the systems circuitry of the mammalian basal ganglia, but I switched to the molecular biology of amphibian limb regeneration for my postdoctoral studies in London. My laboratory at Chicago has for many years studied the development of the chick midbrain with in vivo gene manipulation. Recently its research focus has shifted to important but understudied topics in evolutionary neurobiology.

What do I do?

As a Chicago faculty member, I teach the introductory course for the new undergraduate major in Neuroscience (with Peggy Mason) and the graduate course in Vertebrate Developmental Biology (with Vicky Prince). In my research, I am interested in the circuit organization and evolutionary biology of large nervous systems. This has led us to focus on two areas of study, the evolution of the neocortex and the neurobiology of coleoid cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish).

The neocortex is the largest structure in the mammalian brain and yet it has no obvious homolog in the brain tissues of other vertebrates. My laboratory has found molecular support for one classic hypothesis: the input and output cell types of the neocortex are conserved in the dorsal telencephalon of birds and other reptiles. This finding in turn leads to many exciting questions in evolutionary, developmental and systems neurobiology. One key question, which we hope to pursue at the MBL, is whether this cell type homology can be extended to the brains of marine fishes, including teleosts and cartilaginous fishes.

Coleoid cephalopods have far and away the largest nervous systems among invertebrates. Most of the neurobiological research on these animals was done in the middle of last century with the then available techniques, such as electrical stimulation and Golgi neuroanatomy. The goal of my laboratory is to bring modern cellular and molecular techniques to the study of cephalopod neural organization and its development. Our focus to date has been on the octopus, specifically the California two-spot octopus O. bimaculoides, for which we have developed genomic and transcriptome resources with our collaborators Daniel Rokhsar and Oleg Simakov. An exciting prospect at the MBL is the opportunity to extend these studies beyond octopus to cuttlefish and squid.

Why do I come to the MBL?

The MBL is the US center for the study of cephalopods. The resources of the MRC for local and exotic cephalopod culturing is outstanding. But even more important are the MBL scientists. Senior Scientist Roger Hanlon is the leader of the field of cephalopod behavior. His resident group, and the cephalopod researchers who visit each summer, make the MBL a “must” destination for the study of these fantastic creatures. The recent addition of Senior Scientist Joshua Rosenthal and the upcoming release of the genome of the “MBL squid”, Doryteuthis pealeii, now adds cephalopod molecular biology to the many strengths of the MBL.

What do I plan to work on at the MBL?

I am excited by the prospect of deepening our research links with the strong and still growing MBL cephalopod community. I am also deeply interested in the development at the MBL of the little skate, Leucoraia erinacea, as a key model system in evolutionary developmental biology. Being a cartilaginous fish, L. erinacea has a large telencephalon. Molecular and cellular studies of skate dorsal telencephalon may give insight into the evolutionary origins of neocortical cell types and circuitry within basally branching vertebrates.

More information:

See Clifton’s website:

Other related links:
Octopus Genome Reveals Sea Creature’s Secrets
The Ragsdale Lab – Octopus Intelligence & Genome Research at UChicago