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Genetic archaeology offers clues to backstory of male pregnancy

EAST LANSING, Mich. A bit of genetic archaeology is giving clues to one of the greatest gender bending mysteries in the world of fish: How did a family of fish come to embrace male pregnancy"

A new gene discovered in the gulf pipefish hints that an old gene busy with kidney and liver function may have learned new tricks in the male womb, said April Harlin-Cognato, assistant professor of zoology and fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, in Monday's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We're interested in the evolution of novelty and how novel traits evolve," Harlin-Cognato said. "Why is this the only group of fish that exhibits male pregnancy" It's one of the more difficult phenomena to explain in evolutionary biology, and we're wondering if it's a matter of old genes gaining new tricks."

Gulf pipefish are a member of the same fish family as seahorses in fact they look like sea horses without the curved tails. Like seahorses, it is the male fish that accepts eggs from female pipefish, fertilizes them and carries them in a pouch. The brood pouch has evolved into a complex organ able to nurture and protect the eggs. One of its functions is to regulate the saline content in the womb of these saltwater fish, according to Harlin-Cognato.

Harlin-Cognato conducted the National Science Foundation-funded research at Texas A&M University in collaboration with Eric Hoffman of the University of Central Florida and Adam Jones of Texas A&M University. They found a new type of gene that codes for a protein called an astacin a family of proteins which perform a variety of functions in bony fish. Through the course of evolution, some genes are copied. The new copies can take on different functions while the original copy continues to perform the original functions.

The hypothesis is that this new gene, which Harlin-Cognato and colleagues dubbed "patristacin" in deference to its suspected
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Contact: April Harlin-Cognato
cognatoa@msu.edu
517-432-5157
Michigan State University
4-Dec-2006


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