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Five-year study by undergraduates identifies saltwater crocodile genes

How many undergraduate students does it take to publish original research in an academic journal?

Exactly 100 in the case of faculty of veterinary science students at the University of Sydney, whose study on saltwater crocodile genetics was published in the Australian Journal of Zoology last week.

In a rare feat, the students, all undergraduates in their fourth year of a bachelor of animal and veterinary bioscience, are authors of the study based on five years of research undertaken in a wildlife and evolutionary genetics class.

Their work looks at the relationships and genetic structure of wild saltwater crocodiles from the Northern Territory by studying the maternal line.

Five separate class groups of 15 students worked on the research from 2007-11, contributing a total of 1,875 hours of research and analysing genetic material on the crocodiles from nine different river basins in the region, provided by a research affiliate Dr Sally Isberg.

“The result of the students’ accumulated research is a better understanding of the saltwater crocodiles’ DNA profiles and how they are distributed in different river basin populations,” said Dr Jaime Gongora from the faculty, who with other academic staff taught all of the students involved.

“It will help us understand the genetic diversity of populations on crocodile ranches in the Northern Territory and will also help in identifying crocodiles of unknown origin. In what is known as DNA forensics, this data could help identify a specimen from a museum or whether a crocodile had been illegally smuggled into the country.”

The results of the study have already been presented at an International Congress of Genetics in Germany, a specialist workshop in Bolivia and an international workshop in Australia, which means all of the students involved have conference publications in their name.

“The experience gave me a taste of how research happens; that everyone has different perspectives and roles, which become part of the collaborative effort to produce a result. I was surprised that such a diverse group succeeded in coming together to achieve an outcome,” said Jessica Fletcher, who took part in the research and has gone on to study for a PhD in the faculty.

“Research is not for everyone, but for me this experience confirmed that I enjoy the process of starting with an idea and building on it.”

Gongora said the students not only learned to apply scientific rigour in designing their experiment, analysing the statistics and coping with the technical limitations, but also a larger lesson that research was often time-consuming, painstaking and a team effort.
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