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Source: University of Otago

Friday 13 November 2020 11:23am
For research described as having fundamentally changed our understanding of animal ecology, evolution and conservation, University of Otago evolutionary and reproductive biologist Distinguished Professor Neil Gemmell has been awarded the 2020 Hutton Medal by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.
Distinguished Professor Neil Gemmell with his 2020 Hutton Medal.
The Hutton Medal is awarded annually to a researcher for significantly advancing understanding in animal, plant or earth sciences.
In a statement announcing the award, the Royal Society says Professor Gemmell has “consistently devised, adapted, and applied the latest molecular genetic and analytical approaches to address questions relating to the ecology and evolution of a variety of species, including the platypus, New Zealand native and Amazonian frogs, birds, sea mammals, marine invertebrates and most recently, the tuatara. His work has influenced species conservation and management plans of some of the world’s rarest species”.
Professor Gemmell, who accepted the 2020 Hutton Medal at a ceremony in Christchurch last night, says the recognition is humbling.
“I thank The Royal Society Te Apārangi for this award. Being able to pursue my scientific interests and curiosities in Aotearoa New Zealand is a privilege that I have never taken for granted. The pursuit of new knowledge and understanding remains a driving passion, but it is not a solo pursuit and I thank my family, friends and many colleagues who have supported that ongoing push for new discovery,” Professor Gemmell says.
Announcing the award, the Royal Society Te Apārangi highlighted Professor Gemmell’s work investigating the “mother’s curse” phenomenon where mitochondrial DNA mutations that affect only males are not subject to natural selection, which helps explain the strong male bias of many diseases, the almost universally shorter lives males lead when compared to females, and could lead to practical applications in pest control, an idea termed the “Trojan Female Technique”.
His work has also revealed how some fish can completely reverse sex due to a simple social cue, the absence of a socially dominant male, through the re-wiring of genetic pathways in the brain and the gonad.
In 2020, Gemmell led the first sequencing of the tuatara genome. The research, published in Nature, showed the unique attributes that have helped this ancient evolutionary anomaly survive the 250 million years since they diverged from their nearest relatives, lizards and snakes. This work, partnered with Ngātiwai iwi, has opened new doors in conservation of this living taonga/treasure.If Gemmell looks familiar, it is because through 2017 to 2019 he made global headlines as he planned, undertook and reported on his novel study on the biodiversity of Loch Ness using the latest environmental DNA (eDNA) approaches. The project captured the attention of billions of people worldwide, in large part because of the monster that is claimed to reside in the Loch, but has sparked global interest in the ability of eDNA as a tool to monitor what organisms are present in an environment.
University of Otago Vice-Chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne, congratulates Professor Gemmell on his latest achievement.
“Professor Gemmell has lived and breathed Otago’s motto ‘sapere aude – dare to be wise’. His ability to investigate scientific problems, questions and possibilities in nature is world renowned, and the 2020 Hutton Medal is fitting recognition for his passion and dedication to science, and motivation for aspiring researchers across all academic disciplines,” Professor Hayne says.
For more information, contact:
Distinguished Professor Neil GemmellSchool of Biomedical SciencesUniversity of OtagoTel +64 3 479 6824Email
Mark HathawaySenior Communications AdviserUniversity of OtagoMob +64 21 279 5016Email
Nancy de BeugerSenior Communications and Digital Engagement AdviserRoyal Society Te ApārangiTel +64 4 470 5807Email