Sex in dragons

A renowned La Trobe University researcher is collaborating with the University of Canberra on a project to explore how genes and the environment determine sex of an animal.

The Australian Research Council has today announced $1 million in funding to support the Sex determination in dragons – genetics, epigenetics and environment project.

The bearded dragon lizard gives researchers the unique opportunity to discover how the environment influences sex genes.  This lizard has sex chromosomes but the male signal is overridden by incubation of eggs at high temperatures.

La Trobe University Distinguished Professor Jennifer Graves said the first step in this ambitious project is to discover the sex gene in the bearded dragon.

“This will be important for two reasons, it will be the first sex gene discovered in any reptile and will tell us more about human sex determination. Secondly, it will allow us to work out how temperature influences gene action,” Professor Graves said.

“This is the burgeoning field of epigenetics that has a lot of relevance for human health, for instance the effect of maternal diet on babies.

“It has been important to understand why babies are born male or female to understand how genes direct the development of organs and tissues. The genes involved in sex are almost the same in all animals including humans.”

Professor Graves was a key member of research conducted last year, which discovered that the whole system for determining sex in dragons can be flipped from genes to temperature.

“We discovered that this is already happening in the wild in Queensland. This is a worry because global warming may produce all female populations.”

The $1 million in funding over four years will be spread across eight researchers with complementary skills in molecular and chromosome biology, genomics and ecology.

“This will enormously advance the sex determination field not only in reptiles but right across the animal kingdom.”

Media contact: Briena Barrett 0432 566 014

Photo: Marcin, Flickr