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Gender Bending Shrimps Help Researchers To Find Sex Genes; 'Completely New Territory For Scientists'

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PORTSMOUTH, U.K. -- A scientist at the University of Portsmouth has won a half a million pound grant to further his research on the mysterious ability of some shrimp to change sex.

Dr Alex Ford from the Institute of Marine Sciences will lead the three year study which will find out which genes are involved in sex determination by comparing the DNA of male, female and androgynous shrimps.

He said: “Shrimps might sound insignificant but they actually have a huge affect on bigger organisms in the ecosystem.

“Scientists know a great deal about oestrogenic substances in the water causing sex changing fish and reproductively challenged alligators but very little research has been conducted lower down the food chain. This is completely new territory for scientists.”

The grant has been awarded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the study will be conducted in partnership with Cardiff University.

Alex first found that shrimps were developing both male and female characteristics while conducting research off the east coast of Scotland over five years ago.

“The high rate of mutation was quite worrying – the gender of shrimps was obviously being affected by either pollution or parasites. With this funding we aim to investigate what factors cause a crustacean to change sex by examining what genes are being ‘switched on or off,” he said.

Shrimps, officially known as Echinogammarus marinus, live on the shore underneath seaweed so are easily collected when the tide goes out. Male shrimp can grow to 2.5cm in length, about the size of a fifty pence piece.

Alex will use new genome sequencing technology that has only become available in the last few years to read the shrimp’s DNA. The 454 sequencer machine chops the DNA into tiny pieces and then uses software to re-assemble the pieces by looking for overlaps in the DNA sequence in order to map their genetic make-up.

Head of the School of Biological Sciences, Professor Matt Guille, said: “This is a significant project for understanding what’s happening to marine life. Crustaceans are crucial to the food chain and they have the ability to severely affect it. By mapping their genetic make-up we will be able to better understand the cause of their puzzling potential to change sex. To receive this funding is fantastic news for the research team and for the university.”

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