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INDIANAPOLIS–A scientist at Marian University is studying the reproductive habits of an all-female species of salamander to help better determine what is normal and not normal in the natural world. Dr. Rob Denton says students will benefit from being researchers, as well as students.

“Basic research is often the foundation for the discoveries that influence our lives,” said Denton, in explaining why people should be concerned about the scientific venture.

LISTEN: Dr. Robe Denton explains the all-female species and why it’s important.

“One of the reasons we do this is just to understand the natural world better,” he said, “because some of those understandings can snowball together and influence the medicine and healthcare and modern things that we enjoy learning from biology.”

He said the mole salamander species they will be studying exist only as females, who steal sperm from males of other species to fertilize their eggs.

“They’re sort of somewhere in the gray zone between sexual and asexual reproduction. They have this genomic scenario that is very different from other animals and sometimes it’s really interesting to learn from these things that push our understanding of what’s normal in biology.”

The females essentially are able to clone themselves, and retain only the genetic material from the females, despite using male genetic material.

Denton has been awarded a $1.1 million research grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the research, collection and care of the animals and to fund the lab for five years. He said students at Marian are able to do research along with their learning, because it is a small, private university.

“These animals aren’t that different from us. They also have chromosomes. They also have to reproduce. They also have genetic incompatibilities like we do that are related to diseases and infertility and so understanding how they can efficiently handle all these things can transition into understanding how other animals can’t.