A number of nature's little eccentricities, ranging from the unusual characteristics of the platypus genome to the ability of female salmon to select sperm, could provide valuable clues for a new University of Otago research centre focusing on both human and livestock reproduction.

Professor Neil Gemmell is the first director of the Centre for Reproduction and Genomics, set up to bring together the expertise of AgResearch and University scientists. The AgResearch Chair in Reproduction and Genomics was established under the University's Leading Thinkers Initiative.

Considering the chair comes under the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, you might expect it to be filled by someone with a background in medical research. Not in this case.

Gemmell's research has seen him work with more unusual animal systems and models such as salmon, fur seals and even platypus, rather than the usual laboratory mice or fruit flies.

While this may seem esoteric, his research in areas such as analysis of mating systems, sperm function, spermegg interactions, sex determination, sex allocation and inter-sexual genomic conflict fits well with the new centre.

Gemmell hopes that this breadth of research interest will allow him to link together AgResearch's expertise in the biology of productive sector animals to the University of Otago's strengths in biomedical research.

"How individuals choose mates and when they choose to breed with them are the product of a complex interplay between genes and environment that hopefully enables individuals ... to optimise their reproductive chances."

"For whatever reason, I managed to convince the selection committee that someone who sat a little outside those spheres could use fresh eyes to see ways in which the two might connect, and find links between pieces of research that otherwise might not be obvious."

A good example of following such links is recently-published research by Gemmell and PhD student Patrice Rosengrave, showing that the ovarian fluid female salmon release with their eggs can help or hinder the swimming speed of sperm.

More than that, a male's sperm may swim well in the ovarian fluid of one, but poorly in that of another, yet for a different male's sperm the reverse may apply. This suggests that female ovarian fluid composition may effectively select which males get to fertilise a female's eggs, even when female salmon apparently have no physical control over who fertilises their eggs once released.

This so-called "cryptic female choice" may be an innate way of females avoiding inbreeding or ensuring the male's immune system genes are complementary to their own.

Finding out what it is in salmon ovarian fluid that improves or suppresses sperm function could be useful in other species to help improve reproduction, or even develop new forms of contraception.

Gemmell says his laboratory will continue with this sort of research, although it will be important to find those connections between his expertise and what is going on at the University of Otago and AgResearch.

For example, other researchers in the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology are interested in the neuroendocrine system and how the brain governs ovulation. Likewise, AgResearch is interested in areas such as the genetic control of ovulation, which has already led to the discovery of "twinning" genes that act by increasing ovulation rates.

"All these things - genetics, physiology, endocrinology and behaviour - are interlinked. How individuals choose mates and when they choose to breed with them are the product of a complex interplay between genes and environment that hopefully enables individuals, both females and males, to optimise their reproductive chances."

Gemmell says the strong focus in reproductive circles at Otago and AgResearch to date has been on female reproduction. This makes sense because the productive sector doesn't need many good males to develop a good herd structure.

"But perhaps we can go back through the data on those males that have been discarded due to poor reproductive performance and look to answer questions about male fertility and infertility."

This is increasingly important for human health, with about one in seven couples affected by infertility problems. Roughly a third of those couples, about five per cent overall, involve male fertility problems, he says.

"Here we may have the opportunity to link knowledge from animal systems to help better understand the human clinical situation."

Gemmell also hopes to extend his work on microsatellite DNA - short repetitive sequences on the genome previously thought to be insignificant. When working on the platypus genome he realised that large amounts of microsatellite DNA had been conserved over 160 million years of evolution.

"It makes us wonder if these microsatellite sequences have some function, or if these tracts of the genome in which the microsatellites are found, which seemed to have no particular role, are more important than we thought."

Gemmell also sees scope for reproductive technology to help endangered species, for example, increasing the ovulation rate for kakapo - a species struggling, in part, because it breeds so infrequently.

"It is clear some species will not be sustainable without intensive management."

He says a key overall aim of the centre is to do excellent research to produce new knowledge that, in turn, brings economic benefits.

That can range from helping people with reproductive issues to improving the productive sector, controlling pest species, such as possums, and extending our reproductive and genomic knowledge of critically-endangered native animals.

"We can use the new reproductive and genomic knowledge and approaches now in our hands to produce huge economic gains for New Zealand."

Funding