Maxwell Shafer

Maxwell Shafer

Assistant Professor

BSc, University of Western Ontario, 2005-2009
MSc, University of Western Ontario, 2009-2011
PhD, McGill University, 2011-2017
Postdoc, Harvard/University of Basel, 2017-2023

Address Ramsay Wright Laboratories,
25 Harbord St
Toronto, ON M5S 3G5
Lab Sleep Evolution Group

Max received both his M.Sc. and H.B.Sc. in Cell and Developmental Biology from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, where he worked with Dr. Sashko Damjanovski as a Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholar. He completed his PhD in Biochemistry in the laboratory of Dr. Maxime Bouchard at the Goodman Cancer Research Centre where he studied the developmental morphogenesis of prostate epithelia and the origins of prostate cancer as a Prostate Cancer Canada Graduate Scholar. Max then undertook post-doctoral work in the laboratory of Dr. Alex Schier, first at Harvard University, then at the Biozentrum at the University of Basel as a CIHR Postdoctoral Fellow. Starting Summer 2023 Max will become an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto (departments of Cell & Systems Biology and Biochemistry).

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Research Lab

Our research group aims to decode the genomic and cellular mechanisms of sleep using comparative approaches across vertebrate species. Our approaches and research questions are interdisciplinary, and intersect the research areas of functional genomics, bioinformatics, cell & molecular biology, neurobiology, and evolution. We are interested in all species, with a particular emphasis on highly diverse groups of fish, including cichlids from the African Rift Lakes (Lake Tanganyika).

Learn more: Sleep Evolution Group

Research Description

Decoding the genomics and evolution of sleep

Many of the biological mechanisms that regulate the circadian phase, duration, and structure of sleep are conserved across vertebrates. Given this extensive conservation, it is remarkable that sleep patterns display widespread variation both across and within species. Animals can have different chronotypes (‘early-birds’ and ‘night-owls’) or spend variable amounts of time asleep (from as little as 2hrs to 18hrs a day). Species can shift the phase of their circadian activity (nocturnal or diurnal), restrict activity to specific periods of the day (dawn or dusk), or lose rhythmicity entirely. However, we do not know the genes responsible for shifts in circadian activity or sleep structure, or comprehend the evolutionary causes or consequences for such changes.

In our group we use a combination of bioinformatic and computational genomic comparisons across species, ancestral reconstructions of sleep across hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and behavioural, neurobiological, and molecular comparisons between focal species (diurnal and nocturnal species of fish).


View all publications on PubMed

Expanded olfactory system in fishes capable of terrestrial exploration
Burguera, D., Dionigi, F., Kverková, K., Winkler, S., Brown, T., Pippel M., Zhang, Y., Shafer, M.E.R., Nichols, A.L.A, Myers, E., Němec, P., Musilova, Z.*
bioRxiv 2022  Read

Gene family evolution underlies cell type diversification in the hypothalamus of teleosts.
Shafer, M.E.R.*, Sawh, A.N., Schier, A.F*
Nature Ecology & Evolution 2022  Read

Cross-species analysis of single-cell transcriptomic data
Shafer, M.E.R.*
Frontiers in cell and developmental biology 2019  Read