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

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 Canberra on Wednesday 18 October 2017. Fedpol. Under embargo until 1700hrs Wednesday 18 October 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares
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 Canberra on Wednesday 18 October 2017. Fedpol. Under embargo until 1700hrs Wednesday 18 October 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares
SPECIALX KANGA SMH , NEWS , Kangaroo ,
 Prof Jenny Graves with on of her subjects a pouched young Tammer Wallaby.  Prof Graves is studing the kangaroo genome.
 Photograph taken on the 22nd of August 2002 by Andrew Taylor / jat

SPECIALX KANGA SMH , NEWS , Kangaroo , Prof Jenny Graves with on of her subjects a pouched young Tammer Wallaby. Prof Graves is studing the kangaroo genome. Photograph taken on the 22nd of August 2002 by Andrew Taylor / jat

Professor Jenny Graves may not be a mother of dragons, but she is the master of their genetic code.

She analyses bearded dragons' genetic blueprint, or genome, and studies how, at higher temperatures, male eggs, with male genes, develop into females.

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?

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.

Previous recipients include Wi-Fi inventor Dr John O'Sullivan, bionic ear creator Professor Graeme Clark and cervical cancer vaccine developer Professor Ian Frazer.

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 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."

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".

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."

This story Master of dragons' genetic code scoops nation's top science prize first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.