Scientists at the University of Nottingham are appealing for the public to help unlock the genetic secrets of a rare, left-coiling snail as part of a major project to sequence new genomes from 25 different species.
The project is being led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to mark its 25th anniversary in 2018. Twenty of the species have already been decided but the remaining five will be voted for by the public and school children as part of ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here’.
Dr Angus Davison, in the University’s School of Life Sciences, has nominated Tomeu, a sinistral brown garden snail, or Cornu aspersum, with an anti-clockwise coiling shell, to be among the final ‘big five’ in the hope that the project could help us to develop a better understanding of the genetics behind this unusual mutation in these hermaphrodite creatures.
Tomeu was among the first of these rare snails who were uncovered as part of a huge international public appeal to find a mate for Nottingham’s original ‘shellebrity’ lefty snail, Jeremy. Tomeu became Jeremy’s eventual partner.
Dr Davison said: “Jeremy had developed quite a following among people who were inspired, moved and fascinated by the story and we had hoped that a scientific legacy could be secured by involving Jeremy in this project. Unfortunately, he/she died last month - before we were able to preserve the DNA required by Sanger to sequence the genome - but fortunately, just after he fathered offspring with Tomeu, a Spanish garden snail of the same species.
“This project represents an unmissable opportunity to unravel the genetic code for the garden snail, and may ultimately help us to understand why reversed body asymmetry sometimes occurs in many species, including humans.”
“And that’s why we are asking for the public’s help once again – by voting for Tomeu to take part in this important and iconic initiative.”
The public’s fascination with ‘lefty’ snails began in October last year when Dr Davison appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme appealing for help in finding another of these rare creatures to mate with Jeremy.
Dr Davison – who had never before seen a sinistral brown garden snail in 20 years of working with the creatures – was keen to discover whether the mutation was the result of genetic inheritance or a quirk in development.
Offspring from Jeremy were needed for the study, which may offer valuable insights into a common understanding of body asymmetry in other animals, including humans.
Sadly, however, Jeremy’s unique traits were not confined to the shell – the condition features the reversal of other major organs – including the genitals – meaning that the hermaphrodite snail was unable to successfully mate with the more common variety of ‘dextral’ garden snails with shells that coil in a clockwise direction.
Tomeu was one of two mates initially discovered – a Spaniard rescued from the pot at a snail farm in Majorca. Since arriving at Nottingham, Tomeu produced offspring with another sinistral snail, Lefty, and with Jeremy shortly before he died.
Dr Davison added: “Following Jeremy’s death, we have taken the decision to nominate the ‘naturalised Brit’ Tomeu for this important initiative. However, in order to obtain the amount of DNA necessary for the DNA decoding, we will need to preserve Tomeu. In the same way that the humane way to deal with crabs and lobsters is to place them in a freezer, we will have to do the same for Tomeu.”
“Tomeu’s important contribution to science will continue from the knowledge that we gain about the genetics of these sinistral snails as a result of the genome sequencing and the further studies that we are conducting with the offspring and future generations.”
A genome is an organism’s complete set of genetic instructions written in DNA. Each genome contains all of the information needed to build that organism and allow it to grow and develop.
Since the landmark completion of the human genome, the Sanger Institute has become a globally recognised leader in the field of genomics. Many more important reference genomes have already been sequenced – from the mouse and zebra fish genomes to the pig, gorilla, mosquito and many others. Beyond animal species, infectious diseases and bacteria also feature prominently on the list of reference genomes, from salmonella and MRSA to chlamydia and malaria. All of these have offered up important insights about these species in health and disease.
This latest project is a small contribution to a much larger undertaking, where scientists from around the world are coming together to form a plan to decode the DNA of all life on Earth.
The high-quality genomes will open the door for scientists to use this information, and researchers could discover how UK species are responding to environmental pressures, and what secrets they hold in their genetics that enables them to flourish, or flounder.
Dr Julia Wilson, Associate Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said: “We are delighted that the rare, left-coiling brown garden snail is in the running to have its genome sequenced as part of our 25 Genomes Project. By decoding its genome, there is the potential to reveal hidden truths behind the unusual physiology of Tomeu the snail, which could also shed light on human anatomy. We look forward to discovering what genetics can tell us about all of the 25 species, and I am excited to see how the 25 Genomes Project unfolds.”
So far, twenty of the 25 species have been decided, and the remaining ‘big five’ will be voted for by school children and the public as part of ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here’ from 6th November to 8th December 2017. Scientists and teams from the Sanger Institute, wider Wellcome Genome Campus, Natural History Museum and other institutions will champion a species and go head to head to face the public vote. The final five standing will complete the set of species to send to the sequencers.
The public can decide which final five species go forward to have their genome sequenced by visiting the ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here’ website and registering to vote at https://25genomes.imascientist.org.uk/
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The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world's leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. To celebrate its 25th year in 2018, the Institute is sequencing 25 new genomes of species in the UK. Find out more atwww.sanger.ac.uk or follow @sangerinstitute