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DNA technique can help estimate the age of lobsters

It is notoriously difficult to determine the age of a lobster. In a new study, researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have managed to identify a way of accurately determining age based on modifications in the lobster’s DNA.

For decades, experts have pondered how old lobsters can get, with some estimates rising even to a century or more. However, scientists could not find reliable methods to determine their exact age. This has been a problem, since knowing how many individuals of particular ages are present in a given area is important in order for them to be sustainably harvested.

“Until now, a lobster’s age has usually been estimated using its size – but this is inaccurate as individual lobsters grow at different rates,” explained Dr. Martin Taylor from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences.

“For a long time, it appeared that there was no accurate way to quantify a lobster’s age. Some research suggested that you could tell a lobsters age by counting the rings in parts of their eyestalks and stomach – a little like counting tree rings. But you can’t do that for a living lobster.”

Recently, UEA scientists, in collaboration with the National Lobster Hatchery and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), have developed a new DNA technique that could solve this problem. By quantifying DNA changes that accumulate within lobsters as they age, accurate indications of their ages have been found.

“We identified a very strong relationship between age and DNA modifications, which allowed us to accurately estimate the ages of individual lobsters,” said Dr. Taylor.

“Applying this method to wild lobsters predicted ages that generally aligned with minimum estimates of age based on size. Our method shows great promise as a tool for improved management of the European lobster where information regarding the age-structure of stocks is currently missing.”

According to Dr. Carly Daniels, head of production science and development at the National Lobster Hatchery, knowing lobsters’ precise ages will help fisheries, scientists and conservationists alike to understand, manage and conserve our vulnerable lobster stocks.

The study is published in the journal Evolutionary Applications. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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