2017: Dr Erica Todd, University of Otago, has been awarded Rutherford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship for research entitled: “Epigenetic regulation of sex change”
Most plants and animals remain the same sex throughout life. Some, however, can change their sex as a normal part of their lifecycle. Natural sex change is very common in highly social species of reef fish, caused by changes in the group’s social structure and resulting in gonad restructuring and alternations in appearance and behaviour. The molecular underpinnings of this amazing transformation are not yet well understood. Recent research has linked environmental cues to DNA modifications that shape how genes are expressed, without changing their underlying genetic code – known as epigenetic modifications. This process is relevant to understanding how sex is determined at a molecular level as well as how the external environment can influence gene expression.
In this project, Dr Erica Todd will use fish such as the spotty (Notolabrus celiodotus) and bluehead (Thalassoma bifasciatum) wrasse to study the genetic and environmental bases of sex change. These species are excellent models as manipulating captive social groups readily induces female to male sex change. Dr Todd will combine cutting edge, genome wide analysis of epigenetic DNA modifications and with measures of gene expression in the wrasses to explore how natural sex change is initiated and controlled. She will also examine how manipulating DNA modifications affects the sex change process. This research will advance our understanding of vertebrate sexual development and plasticity, and may also provide insights into human disorders of sexual development.