Environmental impacts on reproduction, development, and immune function

Animals must successfully deal with a number of environmental challenges in order to survive and reproduce the next generation. Humans are no different, and our medical industry exists to help us meet these same kinds of challenges. In comparison to us, animals’ abilities to deal with environmental challenges without the medical industry is remarkable, and explains why many of our medical advancements come from novel molecular discoveries in animals. Animal venoms, hormones, and immune factors have all been developed into human medical therapies.

Our research aims to discover the novel mechanisms animals use to deal with environmental impacts on reproduction, development, and immune function. We are particularly interested in nutritional and pollution impacts. The nutrients animals eat provide both the energy and chemical building blocks animals need to produce new molecules, cells, and tissues. Pollutants, including heavy metals, interact with molecular processes and cause breakdowns in reproduction, development, and immunity.

Two examples of our research focus on freshwater turtles, which have remarkable immune systems. Adults use a powerful innate immune response to prevent systemic bacterial infections after injuries. Eggs resist fungal infections despite not having an immune system aside from the immune factors provided by their mother during egg production. We use molecular and physiological approaches to determine how these functions work, and how they are maintained despite food restrictions and pollution. We collaborate with A/Prof Ricky Spencer (Western Sydney University) to link this research to conservation of endangered turtles.