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Surviving the elements

Scots biologists have been awarded over £1 million to explain how plants, animals and microbes respond to changing environments, whether they have been introduced by accident or intentionally.

The University of St Andrews researchers have secured the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funding as part of the £5.4 million Environmental Genomics Programme package allocated UK-wide.

Based on four projects across the School of Biology, the research will play a key role in conservation, sustainability and prediction of consequences of changing environments.

The School’s Professor Thomas Meagher, a founding member of the NERC Environmental Genomics Programme Steering Committee said, “The findings will have implications for a number of environmental issues. For example, invasive species resulting from accidental or intentional introductions into new areas, such as from mainland Europe or elsewhere into the UK, have generated new species resulting from hybridisation. The ability of some fish, such as salmon, to move back and forth between fresh and salt water is of clear economic importance, and we need to know how they are able to do this at a genetic level. Finding specific genes involved in adaptation can be daunting but use of model species, such as the Puffer fish, which has a genome an eighth of the size of the human genome, can greatly facilitate this task.

“Finally, environmental challenges resulting from human disturbance can require rapid short-term evolutionary change for a species to survive which may in turn involve genomic processes that are as yet only understood in very general terms. Given the rate of human impact on local environments, to say nothing of medium-term climatic consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels, such information will be ever more important as we move into the future.”

The four projects include a study led by Dr Richard Abbott who, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Bristol, will be investigating genome reorganisation and gene function as new types of plants evolve from crosses between species.

Meanwhile, Dr Gordon Cramb and Dr Neil Hazon, in collaboration with colleagues at Manchester and Liverpool, will be exploring new techniques to simultaneously investigate the function of thousands of genes that may underlie fish adaptation to variable salinity in the natural environment.

Professor Ian Johnston and Dr James Kinghorn, in collaboration with colleagues at the MRC Human Genome Mapping Project Resource Centre, Hinxton, Cambridge and the University of Tokyo, Japan, will be investigating genes within the Puffer fish genome, the first fish genome to be completely sequenced, to investigate impacts of changing temperature on muscle growth.

Finally, Professor Thomas Meagher will be exploring how genome-wide repetitive DNA elements influence characters that are relevant at the ecological level, placing so- called ‘junk’ DNA into a broader evolutionary and environmental context.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS: For further information, please contact Professor Thomas Meagher on 01334 463364 or email trm3@st-and.ac.uk.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: genomics/standrews/chg/7may2002

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