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Jennifer Graves & Pat Miethke
an outstanding partnership
Professor, Comparative Genomics, Research
School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University,
Canberra Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Kangaroo Genomics,
Professorial Fellow, Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne
Jenny was born and educated in Adelaide. She won a scholarship to a private girl's school, where she was no science star, but topped the state in Geography and won a University scholarship. She didn't much like biology but, after undergraduate studies at Adelaide University, a fascination with genetics led her rather accidentally to a PhD in molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley, thanks to a Fulbright award. Jenny then spent nearly 30 years at La Trobe University in Melbourne before moving to the Australian National University in 2001. Her group's move to ANU was smoothed by Pat's energy and expertise, and experience at ANU.
In the 1970s, Jenny stumbled on the potential of Australia's unique fauna (mammals, birds, and reptiles) to study genetic structures and regulation systems conserved from the earliest vertebrates through to humans. By exploiting the genetic diversity of Australia's unique mammals, her group have gained insights into mammalian sex, development, genetic disease, defence mechanisms, and species survival and have had major impacts on current thinking in the field. Jenny is an enthusiastic advocate for comparative genomics. She set up and directs the ARC Centre of Excellence for Kangaroo Genomics, which has secured a key role for Australia in the sequencing and analysis of the kangaroo genome. Her contributions to science have been recognized by election to the Australian Academy of Science in 1999, a Centenary Medal in 2002 and the Macfarlane Burnet Medal in 2005. She is a 2006 Laureate of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science.
Senior Technical Officer, Comparative Genomics,
Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian
National University, Canberra
Pat was also born and educated in Adelaide. She won a scholarship to a private girl's school, topped the state examinations in Latin, and won a bursary to university. Best subjects: Latin, maths and physics. At university Pat drifted into zoology, genetics and microbiology, and on completion of a B.Sc. chose not to pursue a higher degree, but to work instead as a research assistant to the Professor of Zoology (Professor Andrewartha was, coincidentally, Jenny's Dad's best friend).
Pat spent the next 40 years working as a senior technician in a variety of fields and places. Work on insect diapause at Adelaide University was followed by a stint with plant hormones at Canterbury University in NZ, and then a fascinating few years in human cytogenetics laboratories around New Zealand.
A move to the Australian National University led to research projects as diverse as mosquito speciation, plant viruses, and the biochemistry of the mammalian retina. Finally Pat was appointed to set up and run Jenny's lab when it moved to the ANU, and was introduced to the marvellous world of gene mapping across a range of marsupial and monotreme species.
Our group (Comparative Genomics) is famous for studying genes and chromosomes of Australian animals. Every project depends ultimately on samples from a variety of Australian animals such as kangaroos and platypus, but also exotics like devils (Tasmanian) and dragons (lizards). Pat is a wiz at organizing legalities and technicalities, as well as animal handling and sampling; Jenny would really prefer to work on tomatoes or fruit flies. We culture tiny samples of skin cells in the laboratory. Jenny's training in cell culture at Berkeley was used to establish methods for growing just about anything, and Pat now runs our unique cell culture lab with exacting standards. Our stock in-trade is physical mapping of genes onto chromosomes, and getting brilliant chromosome preparations is crucial; here Pat's training in human cytogenetics complements Jenny's training in molecular cytology.
We use these basic techniques more and more for large-scale projects on the genomes of Australian mammals. Basic work had to be done to characterize the chromosomes of the kangaroo and the platypus before the complete sequence of their genomes (costing many millions of dollars) could be interpreted. Platypus chromosomes caused major headaches because they have weird multiple sex chromosomes: Jenny had been trying to sort them out for 20 years. Now an onslaught using new molecular techniques allowed Jenny and Pat, with a postdoc and research assistant, to sort out which chromosome is which and the definitive tammar and platypus karyotypes have now been published.
Two major projects last year that Pat and Jenny collaborated on were to construct physical maps of the platypus and the opossum; these required painstaking isolation and characterisation of large DNA fragments, tagging them with a fluorescent dye, then attaching them to chromosomes where they home in on the DNA containing this sequence and reveal their presence by a bright spot on one of the chromosomes. Pat's expertise has ensured the quality of the chromosomes, the probes and the images, and Jenny has made sure the locations make sense and put the map together with other genomic data. These maps were crucial for deciphering the complete DNA sequence of the first marsupial and the first monotreme genomes. These projects culminated in major papers (cover stories in Nature) on which Pat and Jenny are both authors.
Jenny provides the academic and scientific leadership to attract researchers and funding and she directs the research projects. Pat does the physical work of ordering supplies, maintaining the equipment, and complying with the legislative and paperwork requirements to keep a group of 30 people functioning on a day to day basis. It is a busy, vibrant, multicultural and very successful group.
Issue 77 Contents