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Bizarre Rodent Genetics Research Solves a Mystery Then Even Stranger

When you open up Scott Roy’s Twitter bio, and you will notice a simple but revealing sentence: “The more & more I learn the more I am confused.” Now the rest of our scientific world can share in the confusion. The San Francisco State University associate professor of biology’s recent research, published ahead this month in one of the scientific world’s most prestigious journals, catalogs a strange and confounding system of genes in a tiny rodent that scientists have ignored for decades.
“This is the weirdest sex chromosome system known to science,” Roy stated. “Nobody ordered this.” But he is serving it anyway.

The owner of those chromosomes is the creeping vole, a burrowing rodent belonging to the Pacific Northwest. Scientists have known since the ’60s that the species had some abnormal genes: Their number of X and Y chromosomes (bundles of DNA that play a vital role in determining sex) is off from what’s expected in male and female mammals. That finding caught Roy’s eye when given by a guest speaker at a San Francisco State seminar, and he recognized that modern technology might be able to shed new light on the mysteries hiding in the voles’ DNA. After working with collaborators to untangle the voles’ genetic history — resulting in one of the most wholly sequenced mammal genomes that exist, according to Roy, the story only got away more stranger.

The research could not have happened, Roy states, without collaborations with Oregon fish and wildlife biologists who had a staggering vole sample sitting in a lab freezer. He also teamed up with a group from Oklahoma State University when the two clubs began chatting about creeping vole DNA sequences posted on the internet. Both realized they were working on the same question.

Another key was working at a teaching-focused institution. Roy states he can develop ideas with friends and students at SF State, and he can do research where he does not know what he will find. “This is a great example of non-hypothesis-based biology,” Roy said. “The hypothesis was, ‘This system is quite interesting. I bet if you looked into it some more, you would find some other interesting things.'”

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