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Key to sex determination found in simple life forms - fungi

Genetic diversity is the key to the survival of any species. In humans, due to the untold numbers of possible DNA combinations, sexual reproduction has yielded a diverse 7 billion progeny inhabiting all corners of the globe.

Dr. Alex Idnurm, Assistant Professor at UMKC’s School of Biological Sciences, is researching how one of our lowly relatives – fungi – diversify just as successfully. His research, highlighted as the cover story of Nature magazine [Jan. 10, 2008], has the potential not only to help agribusiness but to fill some gaps in the evolutionary chain leading to sex in both fungi and animals.

Because of the parallels between fungal and human genetics, understanding how fungi reproduce can lead to a more complete understanding of basic biology and genetic behaviors in man. DNA is the same no matter what organism it inhabits. Fungi provide a living fossil record for events that shape DNA and chromosomes. Master regulators of gender, similar to the male-determining gene SRY, are present within the DNA of fungi. Understanding how these regulators work and are formed can help understand the evolution of the human X and Y sex chromosomes.

Fungi can be of great benefit, such as helping dispose of decaying matter; but in agriculture they can also be destructive and costly. Powerful, successful strains of fungi are able to emerge from a diverse population. These dominant strains mate in the wild and yield plant pathogens that are immune to pesticides normally effective in controlling them. And wind-borne sexual spores from some fungi can spread over vast acreage and produce enough offspring to destroy an entire field crop.

Solving the mystery of fungal mating may result in the ability to block the reproductive process and save a farmer’s harvest from certain ruin. Further, it may advance our understanding of the evolutionary path to sex.






Take a look at the article highlighting Dr. Idnurm's research in Nature magazine.