Dragons, Genetics and Degrading Males Y

http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/master-of-dragons-genetic-code-scoops-nations-top-science-prize-20171018-gz38ny.html

Master of dragons’ genetic code scoops nation’s top science prize

 
Carolyn Webb

  • Carolyn WebJenny Graves awarded PM’s Prize for Science

Professor Jenny Graves’ long career in genetics is being recognised with the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Having fewer males could decimate the species under climate change, but there is also a  human dimension.

If environment can affect how dragon sex genes work, how does a pregnant human mother’s diet, for example, affect the way her unborn baby’s genes work?     

Gene genie: Professor Jenny Graves with bearded dragons she named Malcolm and Bill for the announcement she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science at Parliament House on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

Professor Graves’ curious expertise was rewarded on Wednesday with the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

She is the first solo woman to receive the nation’s top science prize.

 

Her accomplishments include mapping the genome of kangaroos and the platypus, and studying chromosomes of emus and Tasmanian devils.

Insatiable curiosity: Professor Graves with an emu at La Trobe University wildlife sanctuary.

Insatiable curiosity: Professor Graves with an emu at La Trobe University wildlife sanctuary.  Photo: Joe Armao

The University of Melbourne’s Professor Eric Reynolds won the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for his discovery of a protein in dairy milk that repairs and strengthens teeth.

He commercialised the finding into Recaldent products, such as sugar free chewing gum and toothpaste, that are used in 50 countries. 

Professor Graves pictured in 2002 with a tammer wallaby, whose genome, or genetic blueprint, she helped to map.

Professor Graves pictured in 2002 with a tammer wallaby, whose genome, or genetic blueprint, she helped to map.  Photo: Andrew Taylor

Professor John Dewar, vice-chancellor of La Trobe University in Melbourne, where Professor Graves is based, said: “Her global contribution to the understanding of evolutionary genetics and sex determination in humans is extraordinary.” 

Professor Graves, who has been a geneticist for 46 years, is “thrilled to bits” with the prize. “It’s an endorsement of a lifetime working with Australian animals, and with a lot of very talented young people.”

On a field trip in the Brisbane Ranges, west of Melbourne, in 1986:

On a field trip in the Brisbane Ranges, west of Melbourne, in 1986:  Photo: Steve O’Brien

She says her comparisons with the human genome “enable us to figure out how genes work and how they evolved”, and can translate to medical breakthroughs. 

The genetics of kangaroo milk, for example, “could give us information about how to nurture premature babies”.

Learning from local wildlife: In 2005 with a wallaby joey.

Learning from local wildlife: In 2005 with a wallaby joey. Photo: Michelline Pelletier, GAMMA

Professor Graves’ research teams at La Trobe and at Australian National University in Canberra also identified 14 new human genes. 

She famously predicted that the human Y chromosome, which makes men male, is degrading and will disappear in a few million years.

Professor Graves wasn’t interested in science at Adelaide’s Presbyterian Girls’ College until a class on breeding budgerigars in 1959 showed how mating a blue with a yellow budgie resulted in a green one. Green budgies’ offspring were either blue, green or yellow. 

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is fabulous’, and that led me into doing science at uni.”

After she returned to La Trobe in 1971, after studying for her PhD in cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, a colleague persuaded her to study the genes of kangaroos. 

He had said Australian animals were so unlike those overseas “that it’s like an independent experiment in evolution”.

Professor Graves said that to succeed in science “you have to have a few brains, but, really, perseverance pays”. 

She hopes her prize inspires girls to pursue science. “It’s a really exciting career. Every day is different. Everything you do is ‘a world first’. It might be important or not important, but it’s always new and I love that.”

Mohandas Gandhi

“Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”

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