Summer School in Zoology 2013

An integrated approach to marine invertebrate biodiversity: evolutionary and functional adaptations

Chioggia, June 17-22 2013


Invertebrates represent the largest organism biodiversity and the widest phylogenetic radiation on earth, with more than 2,000,000 morpho-species formally described (95% of the overall animal biodiversity). They include relatively simple organisms such as sponges and cnidarians, up to the more complex molluscs, echinoderms and protochordates. They serve as excellent models, simple versions of more complex organisms. Studying life processes in marine invertebrates, scientists learn how the same events occur in the more complex  vertebrates and, particularly, in mammals, humans included.

Research on simple marine invertebrates has led to some of our greatest medical advances. For example, studies of squids led to the comprehension of the molecular basis of synapsis transmission, whereas investigations in sea urchin led to the comprehension of many aspects of reproduction and laid the scientific foundation for advanced reproductive technologies. In addition, marine invertebrates are considered an unique source of bioactive compounds, such as antimicrobial peptides, of great interest in the sanitary field.

In addition, an in-depth knowledge of the various aspects of the biology of marine invertebrates is required for a better understanding of the adaptive strategies of organisms to their environments, the dynamics of ecosystems and the management of resources in conservation programs. The latter is a point of great debate as there is diffuse concern for the reduction of marine biodiversity due to global climate changes and local anthropic activities. In line and in strong connection with the Horizon 2020 priorities, recent EU initiatives, such as the FP7 “Ocean of tomorrow” call, aim to improve our understanding of the marine environment and to promote a sustainable use of marine resources. 

This first edition of the summer school “An integrated approach to marine invertebrate biodiversity” will be devoted to the study of some evolutionary relevant organisms such as: platyhelminthes, cnidarians, echinoderms and tunicates which occupy key phylogenetic positions.

Cnidarians are radiate diblastic eumetazoa with true tissues deriving from the embryonic ectoderm and endoderm (a mesoderm is still lacking). They also are reliable model organisms for the study of cell differentiation, asexual reproduction and cell-cell interactions, immune responses included.

Platyhelminthes are basal bilateria, acoelomate and triblastic, i.e., with tissues derived from the embryonic mesoderm. They still have pluripotent cells or neoblasts in their parenchyma which can differentiate in a variety of tissue cells and are directly involved in regeneration processes.

Echinoderms are deuterostome coelomates representing the sister group of chordates. According to the calcichordate hypothesis, chordates originated from ancient irregular echinoderms. Sea urchins and sea stars are good model organisms for the study of stress and immune responses which are mainly mediated by coelomocytes.

Tunicates occupy the key phylogenetic position of invertebrate chordates and, according to the most recent analysis, they represent the sister group of vertebrates. They have been and are studied by many researchers as they can help to solve some basic evolutionary questions in vertebrate origin and evolution related to developmental biology, sexual and asexual reproduction, stress responses, allorecognition. 


The school, which consists of lectures, laboratory activities and tutorials, aims to present the biology and ecology of marine invertebrate species in relationship to their habitat, for a better understanding of the marine environment and for an efficient use of it. Marine biodiversity will be studied in term of evolutionary developmental biology in order to highlight the phylogenetic relationships among invertebrate taxa; in addition the adaptive strategies of selected invertebrate phyla to various environments, will be discussed with particular reference to stress responses and immunobiology.

Active participation in the school will be essential as, throughout the school, students will make observations on living invertebrates, do experimental bench work, analyse results, and discuss recent bibliography. In addition, communication skills will be developed, including informal interactions with instructors, collaborative work with other participants, oral presentation of their interests, written report describing the experiments and analysing their own results.

The school will include

  • Lessons and seminars on the features of the main phyla in terms of morphology, anatomy, ecology, classification (including molecular phylogeny), developmental biology and immunobiology, hold by teachers from various Italian and European Universities (see list below)
  • Fieldwork: One field trip to observe lagoon habitats. Samples from pelagic and subtidal environments will be collected during the outing.
  • Practical coursework: in vivo observation of sampled species under the dissecting microscope or optical microscope to study the biological and taxonomic criteria presented during lectures. Each student will have access to microscopes and a dissecting microscopes during the whole course. The observation of organisms both in the field and in the laboratory encourages a deductive approach to understanding organism lifestyles and their adaptations to their environment.

From the lectures combined with field and lab work, students will build up a knowledge on:

  • systematics and the recognition of phyla and families of the most typical marine invertebrate species found on the lagoon environment, and methods for determining marine animals to the species level;
  • morphological and functional adaptations related to the lifestyles of coastal and nearshore organisms;

The scientific themes will cover comparative analysis of basic developmental processes in a variety of animal phyla. The organizers expect that the course will raise interest in invertebrate developmental biology and evolution.

Finally, this international school will provide the opportunity for exchanges between students of different European universities and can be credited as a Master Course Program, provided with ECTS (CFU).


Topics addressed in the course:

  • Introduction to systematics: phylogeny and taxonomy
  • Features of the main groups of marine metazoans (cnidarians, platyhelminthes, echinoderms, tunicates), including anatomical body plan of the phylum and/or the main taxa
  • Morphological and functional adaptations of species, with regard to their natural environment and their vertical zonation
  • Lifestyles and their adapted major functions (respiration, nutrition, locomotion and reproduction)
  • Stress responses and Immunobiology

Practical fieldwork:

  • Exploration of the lagoon environments and observation of living organisms and habitats.

Practical laboratories:

  • Observations of live material and main characteristic coastal taxa, with particular reference to body plans, life cycles.
  • Simple assays to demonstrate the role of circulating cells and humoral factors in stress and immune responses.


Students of the master courses and PhD students are encouraged to apply. Knowledge of the fundamentals of molecular, cell and developmental biology is required for the participation to the school. A maximum number of 20 persons will be selected.

The registration fee of 150 euros will contribute to cover course fees and full board accommodation.

Send applications as single pdf file to

Loriano Ballarin (

Applications should include full department address, phone, fax, e-mail together with a short curriculum vitae, description of the applicant’s current research interest, and a letter of presentation written by a tutor from applicant’s home institution. 

All applicants will be notified by e-mail

Registration deadline: June, 5, 2013

All the participants will receive a certificate of attendance in which the total amount of class and laboratory hours will be indicated. Students can stand a final examination for the acknowledgement of credits by their universities.


  • Stefano Piraino
    Dipartimento di Scienze e Tecnologie Biologiche ed Ambientali, Università del Salento, 73100 Lecce, Italy
  • Matteo Cammarata
    Dipartimento di Biologia Ambientale e Biodiversita', Università di Palermo, via Archirafi 18, 90123 Palermo
  • Loriano Ballarin
    Dipartimento di Biologia, Università di Padova, via Ugo Bassi 58/B, 35131 Padova
  • Maria Daniela Candia Carnevali
    Dipartimento di Bioscienze, Università di Milano, Via Celoria 26, Milano