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Water flea helps pinpoint new genes

University scientists have decoded the DNA of a tiny water flea, in a discovery that helps open a new field of research.

Unravelling the animal’s genome has enabled scientists to pinpoint genes that help it cope with stresses in the natural environment, such as pollutants and global warming.

The water flea will become a crucial organism for scientists working in a new field, known as environmental genomics.

Research in this area aims to better understand how the environment and genes interact.

Immunity insights

Scientists at Edinburgh, who contributed to the international project, hope to use the new findings to identify genes linked to immunity.

Their findings could apply to people as well as animals.

Mystery DNA

Genomes often contain a fraction of genes with unknown functions, even among well-studied species.

The near-microscopic, freshwater crustacean Daphnia pulex, or water flea, is the first crustacean to have its genome sequenced.

Scientists have found that the animal has more than 31,000 genes, many of which might have evolved in response to environmental changes.

This compares with 23,000 genes in humans, which are 800 million times larger than water fleas.

It is enormously insightful to study animals in the context of their natural environment – this helps us understand so much more about how their genes enable them to react to the world around them. It also offers insights into how other species, including humans, cope with environmental challenges.

Dr Tom LittleSchool of Biological Sciences

Global undertaking

Scientists have studied water fleas for centuries because of their importance in aquatic food chains and for its responses to environmental stress.

Over the course of the project, the Daphnia Genomics Consortium has grown from a handful of founding members to more than 450 investigators around the globe.

Results of the study are published in the journal Science.

Partners in the collaboration include the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University Bloomington and the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.

This work received financial and material support from the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.

It was also supported by Roche NimbleGen, the National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and Indiana University.

Picture credit: Dr Tom Little