Sex changes in fish study earns funding

University of Otago's Prof Neil Gemmell is pleased after receiving $826,087 of funding through...
University of Otago's Prof Neil Gemmell is pleased after receiving $826,087 of funding through this year's Marsden Fund for research into how three different species of fish change sex from female to male. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
After holding top spot for eight years, the University of Otago did not receive the largest proportion of grant money from this year's $59 million Marsden Fund round.

The recipients of the fund, which is aimed at enhancing the quality of research in New Zealand, were announced yesterday, with Otago University projects receiving just over $13 million (all figures not including GST), or 22.1% of the total pool, behind the University of Auckland on $17.77 million (30.1%).

The university received the largest proportion of funding in the eight previous Marsden Fund rounds.

Research and enterprise deputy vice-chancellor Prof Richard Blaikie said given the size of this year's total funding round had increased by more than $12 million, it was disappointing Otago had not been more successful this year.

''The highly competitive nature of the funding means that the awarding of two or three extra grants for projects close to the border-line can make the difference between a good year and a great year for funding from this source,'' Prof Blaikie said.

However, he congratulated the successful Otago researchers.

''They are outstanding in their fields, continuing the proud tradition at Otago for excellence in research that contributes to both national and world knowledge across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

''They have done extremely well to successfully attract the funding in a round that is so highly competitive,'' he said.

Among the 22 Otago projects to receive funding was one for research on the triggers which led to three different fish species changing sex, which received $826,087.

The research, led by Prof Neil Gemmell, would look at the molecular basis behind the transformation, using three species, including the New Zealand spotty.

Prof Gemmell said he was ''very pleased'' to be awarded the funding for research on a topic that was ''fundamentally unknown''.

''It's something that has fascinated me since I was a boy. I was fascinated when I learned that fish actually change sex, so they start out female and change to male in some circumstances,'' Prof Gemmell.

While the evolutionary reason for this was known, the molecular basis of the ''stunning transformation'' was not, and this was something he hoped to find out.

Sex reversal was common among fish, he said.

Other Otago projects to receive funding included $847,826 for a study which could help lead to drug discovery or vaccine design in the fight against tuberculosis, and $300,000 for research on a squid off the coast of Japan which uses crystals to emit a blue light.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the fund rewarded New Zealand's ''brightest and best researchers''.

''Their research will help strengthen New Zealand society and increase innovation, which is key to building stronger economic growth and prosperity for New Zealanders and their families,'' he said.

The 109 successful Marsden Fund projects were selected from a pool of 1157 proposals.

A full list of the 22 Otago recipients can be viewed on here

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