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College of Science News

Betran wins grant to improve reproductive knowledge


The National Institutes of Health has awarded a UT Arlington researcher nearly $670,000 to continue examining the genomic structure of male fruit flies for clues about the way reproductive functions evolve.

Esther Betrán, an associate professor in the UT Arlington Biology Department, has proposed a scientific model in which gene duplication rapidly changes the function and characteristics of the testes tissue of the Drosophila, or fruit fly, while leaving the genomic structure of other tissues unchanged.

The new grant will help Betrán test her theory that duplicate genes become fixed in the genome as long as they perform new and beneficial functions for male reproduction. She'll also explore how quickly these changes occur and how the genes manage to express only in testes by examining the evidence left behind in the genome of current species.

"With previous research we've proven that these duplicate genes can develop new functions that are not the same as the parent gene that they came from," said Betrán, who previously received $750,000 in NIH funding for her work. "We now think that in some cases this new function may be only good for sperm tissue and we want to study that. It may tell us about how male fertility is built and keeps changing at a fast pace and with high gene turnover and about how differences between species develop."

The Drosophila genome contains about 14,000 genes. By comparison, the human genome contains 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Researchers believe the way genome architecture evolves may be similar in many species. Gene duplications that occur in the germline are believed to be a significant driver in evolution. Germline cells contain genetic material that passes to the next generation.

"The work going on in Dr. Betrán's lab could reveal a new role for gene duplications," said Pamela Jansma, dean of the College of Science. "Her continued funding Betrán reaffirms the importance of expanding understanding about how basic genetic functions develop over time."

If proven correct, Betrán's model could bring about a paradigm shift in how scientists believe "sexually antagonistic conflicts" are resolved in the genome. Sexually antagonistic conflict occurs when a gene's expression is good for one sex but not for another.

Betrán's laboratory is part of UT Arlington's Genome Biology Group. She studies the origin of new genes, new functions and their role in genome evolution, adaptation and species differences. Her work has been published and cited in numerous scientific journals, such as Nature and Science.