Bendigo man discovers world's oldest sperm

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BENDIGO'S John Neil is the man behind the discovery of  the world's oldest, best preserved and biggest sperm specimen which has made global headlines this week.

Mr Neil found the sperm specimen in an ancient species of freshwater shrimp while looking at 17-million year-old fossils in his Bendigo home and later at the La Trobe University Bendigo campus where he works as a research associate.

The shrimp's sperm was very large relative to its body size.

Fellow fossil expert, Professor Michael Archer from University of New South Wales said relatively speaking, the size of the sperm coiled tightly in the tiny shrimp, equated to a human sperm the length of a cricket pitch.

To most it's a quirky science story but to the 82-year-old Kennington man it's the happy result of a lifetime hobby.

Ever since he took a geology subject during his 20s, the former Bendigo Senior Secondary College principal has been fascinated by fossils.

Despite pursuing a career in secondary teaching, he still found time to go fossil hunting on weekends.

The hobby became more serious when, at age 60, after his retirement in education, Mr Neil completed a masters degree in science.

"I've had a very happy retirement because I turned to something totally different which had been a hobby and now I could focus on it," he said.

At his wife Ailsa's request he decided to focus on micro-fossils so as not to clutter their home with large rocks.

Mr Neil became a research associate at La Trobe University and busied himself with his passion for ostracods - tiny non-marine crustaceans that, to the naked eye, appear little more than specks of dust.

The headlines of this week have been seven years in the making.

Seven years ago Mr Neil requested rock material be sent to him from the Riversleigh region of Queensland.

He spent the next several months analysing it at home and then brought some into the laboratory at La Trobe University in Bendigo. 

Realising that one particular fossil still contained well-preserved soft matter inside, Mr Neil put out a request to ostracod experts worldwide to see if someone could analyse it further.

German scientist Renate Matzke-Karasz was excited by the rare opportunity to study a well-preserved shrimp, so the speck of dust was flown across the world to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, for further analysis.

Ms Matzke-Karasz's research and findings were made public on Wednesday in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and have captured the interest of amateurs and experts across the world.

Contrary to Darwinian evolution theory that organisms adapt and change over time, the shrimp fossil matches closely with modern-day shrimp.

"It shows that evolution-wise, ostracods have stood still, shall we say, for 17 million years," Mr Neil said.

The process of analysing such a tiny organism with a synchrotron (in Grenoble, France) without damaging it has shown off the capability of modern technology.

"That's a new approach for palaeontology and it's only just blooming," Mr Neil said.

Mr Neil said the synchrotron allowed scientists to take pictures with resolution of one millionth of a metre and that the presence of sperm was confirmed with a resolution of one billionth of a metre.

"It means a great deal to me, of course, but it also means that I have an obligation to acknowledge what a tremendous team effort this has been."

As a lay preacher in the Uniting Church for much of his life, Mr Neil said he was one of few Christians in his field.

"There's an interesting combination there because many people studying palaeontology and evolution don't have very much in the way of religious affiliations," he said.

"I have a full appreciation and understanding of geological time and all the things that go with pursuing the science that do not conflict with my beliefs and there are an increasing number of scientists who find themselves in that position. We're not all Richard Dawkins." 

Mr Neil clearly enjoys his work and has framed pictures of fossilised shrimp around his home.

Age is no barrier to his research. There are up to 50,000 different species of shrimp, so Mr Neil has plenty to keep him busy.

"You've got to have a sense of humour if you feel you've been spending your life doing this," he said.

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