[ASC-media] As complex as a worm...

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Thu Apr 17 02:49:07 CEST 2008

Why are we so complicated?

Genetics of climate change; new vaccines; how plants flower; the personal genome and other stories from the gene revolution

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Fifty five years after Watson and Crick discovered DNA's double helix and ten years after Australia's national genome facility opened, how are genetics and genomics changing our lives? What will the next decade bring? 

Australia's leading genome scientists are meeting in Melbourne today to discuss the first ten years of the Australian Genome Research Facility (AGRF), and to speculate on what the next ten years of genome science will bring.

Ten years ago a small worm had its genome sequenced. The human genome was still billions of dollars away. Today's gene sequencing robots can map three human genomes a week. The next generation will be ten times faster. The thousand dollar human genome is on the horizon. 

And now over four hundred animals, plants and fungi have had their genome mapped. 

 'We have about as many genes as a worm. It turns out that conventional genes aren't everything,' says John Mattick, founding director of the AGRF. 

'That was the biggest surprise of the human genome project. We only have about 20,000 genes coding for proteins, the building blocks of life. That's not much more than that of a simple nematode worm. But the human genome project also found that most of our DNA-about 98.5%-doesn't make proteins. It was originally described as junk.'

Recent evidence suggests that so-called 'junk DNA' guides our development. It interacts with RNA and proteins to turn genes on and off. This 'epigenetic' information can even respond to the environment and influence future generations. 

'Our understanding of how genomes work is rapidly changing. This new knowledge, and the dramatic drop in the cost of gene sequencing give Australia unique opportunities,' says current AGRF director Sue Forrest.

Amongst the Australian projects to be presented at the conference:

§         Genomics is revealing the secrets of wine yeasts and how they contribute to the flavour and complexity of a wine according to the Australian Wine Research Institute's managing director Sakkie Pretorius.

§         Genome analysis has confirmed that vaccines don't cause a certain form of epilepsy. It is also helping in the search for the genes underlying many complex and rare genetic diseases says Melbourne epilepsy specialist Sam Berkovic.  

§         An animal or plant genome may reveal how well it can adapt to climate change, according to Ary Hoffmann of the University of Melbourne. 

§         It could be possible to identify the unique signature of a cancer cell using epigenetics - the complex mix of proteins that control how a gene is expressed. Susan Clark from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research hopes to create a new generation of cancer tests. 

§         Australia's Chief Scientist Jim Peacock says that what makes plants flower isn't in the genes. He and his colleagues say that understanding the control of flowering may lead to agricultural innovations, such as precise control of flowering in a variety of crops. 

§         Genomics is helping Monash University's Ben Adler to fast track a vaccine to protect farmers and cattle against leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that causes production losses in many domestic animal species

§         ANU's Jenny Graves, is using the almost complete wallaby genome map to pinpoint important human genes. 

More information on each of these stories is available online at www.scienceinpublic.com <http://www.scienceinpublic.com/>  or contact Niall Byrne 0417 131 977, Melissa Trudinger 0438 046 642, niall at scienceinpublic.com.

Niall Byrne
Science in Public
365 Esplanade Altona VIC 3018 Australia
phone: +613 9398 1416
home: +613 9398 1561
mobile: +61 417 131 977
niall at scienceinpublic.com.au <mailto:sniall at scienceinpublic.com.au> 
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