A ‘one in a million’ mutant garden snail, who achieved international notoriety after a public appeal was launched to help find him a mate, has died.
Jeremy, the brown garden snail with a rare left-coiling shell, was found dead on Wednesday, his scientist Dr Angus Davison in the University’s School of Life Sciences confirmed.
However, the sad news comes with a bittersweet twist to the tale – shortly before his death, Jeremy was finally able to produce offspring after mating three times with another ‘lefty’ snail, ensuring that his legacy will live on through continuing genetic studies into his rare mutation.
Dr Davison has also received another four sinistrals from another snail farm in Spain – the high concentration of ‘lefties’ found in one location firing his belief that the condition may be inherited.
Dr Davison said: “Although it is unfortunate that Jeremy has gone, the help that we have received from the public has been amazing. Because of the rarity of lefty garden snails, we have never before been able to get two lefty snails together to study the inheritance of the condition. Through the appeal that on BBC Radio 4, which then went out worldwide, we ended up finding six other lefty snails. This would not have been possible without the public’s help.”
He went on to say: “This may be the end for Jeremy, but now that the snail has finally produced offspring, this is a way point in our long term research goal to understand the genetics of body asymmetry. Ultimately, we would like to know why these snails are so rare, but also how the left and right sides of the body are signalled at the molecular level, and whether a similar process is taking place during human development.”
Jeremy was discovered around a compost heap in South West London by a retired scientist from the Natural History Museum, who contacted Dr Davison after hearing about his interest in snail genetics.
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 his shell – the condition features the reversal of other major organs – including the genitals – meaning that he was unable to successfully mate with the more common variety of ‘dextral’ garden snails with shells that coil in a clockwise direction.
The lonely snail’s story fired the public’s imagination when Dr Davison appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in October last year appealing for help in finding another of these rare creatures to mate with Jeremy.
And following the appeal via the national media and a #snaillove hashtag on Twitter, Jeremy became an overnight international media sensation, with his story featuring on primetime BBC current affairs and comedy programmes including Have I Got News For You and No Such Thing as the News.
He had a burgeoning following on his Twitter account (@leftysnail) and his story even inspired one fan to have a tattoo of the ‘shellebrity’ snail and another on YouTube to pen a tragic love ballad about his plight.
Two potential beaus were uncovered for Jeremy – Lefty from Ipswich in the UK and Spaniard Tomeu rescued from the pot at a snail farm in Majorca.
They were brought to Nottingham but in a tragic twist, Jeremy was left ‘shell-shocked’ after being given the cold shoulder by both of his suitors who initially seemed to prefer each other, and produced more than 300 tiny snail babies between them.
Happily, shortly before Jeremy’s death was discovered on Wednesday, Tomeu produced a batch of 56 babies – about one-third of which are likely to be ‘fathered’ by Jeremy. The remainder will be the result of an earlier liaison with Lefty before its return to Ipswich.
Just like their half-siblings before them, Jeremy’s offspring have all been born with right coiling shells, proving that in the case of these mutant snails, two lefts make a right - at least in the second generation.
The fact that the babies developed right-coiling shells may be because the mother carries both the dominant and recessive versions of the genes that determine shell-coiling direction. Body asymmetry in snails is inherited in a similar way to bird shell colour – just as only the mother’s genes determine the colour of a bird egg, only the mother’s genes determine the direction of the twist of a snail shell. It is far more likely that left-coiling babies will be produced in the next generation or even the generation after that.
Last year, in research published in the journal Current Biology, Dr Davison and colleagues at universities in Edinburgh, Germany and the US, revealed they had discovered a gene that determines whether a snail’s shell twists in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.
The same gene also affects body asymmetry in other animals – including humans - and research using these snails could offer the chance to develop our understanding of how organs are placed in the body and why this process can sometimes go wrong when some or all of the major internal organs are reversed from their normal placement.
Jeremy’s shell has been preserved for the University’s natural history collection and will be used to teach students about this rare genetic variant.
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