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Unravelling the mystery of the lobster gender switch

Unravelling the mystery of the lobster gender switch

Image courtesy: Dr Tomer Ventura, University of the Sunshine Coast.

Image courtesy: Dr Tomer Ventura, University of the Sunshine Coast.
The awarding of an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) is the latest episode in the remarkable career  of researcher Dr Tomer Ventura.

Originally from Israel, Dr Ventura was appointed by Prof Abigail Elizur, Director of the GeneCology Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), and awarded a CRN (Collaborative Research  Networks) Fellowship in August 2012.

Whilst awaiting approval for his family’s application for permanent residency, Dr Ventura developed and submitted an application  for an ARC DECRA.

Shortly after arriving in Australia with his wife, Dr Ventura was awarded the ARC DECRA. Twelve months later there is now a team of three with a significant project budget of $260 000 over three  years devoted to the exploration of androgenic glands of crustaceans.

“My DECRA is an opportunity to extend the innovative biotechnology which has been commercialised in Israel, into lobster aquaculture in Tasmania,” said Dr Ventura.

“But there is much more to be done—what is exciting about the DECRA is it gives me the opportunity to look deeply into the  molecular pathways which underlie masculinity in crustaceans.

“This area is poorly studied. I’m hoping that this grant and the collaborations it enables will play an active part in  deciphering this mystery.”

The commercial production of crustaceans has been steadily increasing in volume over the past 15 years, with the doubling and then tripling of commercial production in some species such as  crayfish. However, there are risks in the use of hormones in aquaculture, as  these chemicals can jump the species barrier, with unintended consequences for native ecosystems.

Dr Ventura is developing a natural, biodegradable compound which silences the activity of certain genes related to  the androgenic gland hormone. These compounds dissipate very quickly, and are species-specific. The isolation and subsequent manipulation of genes to create all-male populations has the potential to transform the aquaculture industry, as males grow faster and reach higher weights at harvest than females.

“In my view this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Ventura.

“Future activity—perhaps through this DECRA—will  enable detailed exploration of the different molecular pathways which govern processes fundamental to aquaculture. The temporary silencing of genes can lead  to many new innovative solutions in cell migration, reproduction and growth.

“In the next five to ten years I would like to further contribute to knowledge and capacity in this field and perhaps  identify the pathways necessary to extend this technology for lobsters and  other crustacean species—shrimps, prawns, yabbies and crabs.”

While the commercial application of Dr Ventura’s research is established, there are many environmental and biodiversity implications, including the opportunity to eradicate invasive species via the manipulation of their reproduction mechanisms.

With the help of the ARC DECRA award the USC has been able to leverage a Collaborative Research Network placement in marine biotechnology and turn that into a team of  three within the space of twelve months.

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at USC, Professor Roland De Marco, described Dr Ventura’s ARC DECRA proposal as one of the finest proposals by a young researcher that he had ever seen throughout his career.

“Dr Ventura’s appointment at USC is critical to its mission to build a significant research capacity in its research focus area of aquaculture, especially as he brings new and exciting fundamental scientific capabilities in the field, which are expected to bring innovation and high impact to the commercial farming of crustacean species,” said Professor De Marco.

For more information, contact the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Image courtesy: Dr Tomer Ventura, University of the Sunshine Coast.

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