Australia's Chief Scientist

All blood and bones

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

1Dr Kate Trinajstic studied nursing after being discouraged from pursuing a career in science because her teachers thought it wasn’t appropriate for young women.  But science was clearly in her bones, returning to university at the persuasion of her husband to complete a science degree and going on to study fossils as a PhD student.

It may be surprising to learn that there is another Barrier Reef in Australia and even more surprising to find out it’s on land.  About 380 million years ago in what is now the Kimberley Ranges in Western Australia, the Gogo Reef became the resting place for a large number of fish that died en masse for unknown reasons.

Protected by limestone balls that formed around them, these Gogo fish have become something of a buried treasure trove for Dr Trinajstic.  After studying hundreds of these fish, she began to make observations that led her to question the long practiced technique of using acetic acid (humble vinegar) to clear away the rock and leave the fossilised bone intact for study.

While her colleagues remained sceptical, she investigated other ways to examine the fossil-containing rocks and turned to X-ray and other medical imaging technology including CT scanning to undertake virtual dissections.

Perhaps the biggest discovery made so far was the ‘mother-fish’, a fossil which had an umbilical cord still attached to its embryonic offspring.  This evidence of a vertebrate animal giving birth to live offspring put the previous estimation of this phenomenon back by a staggering two hundred million years.

She has now turned her attention to a search for biomolecules – traces of ancient muscle and bone to compare to modern fish.

The Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

2After tossing up between a career in science or law, Dr Benjamin Kile got hooked on science after an honours project gave him a taste of what it really means to work as a scientist.

Dr Kile has undertaken extensive investigations into platelets – the small cells in our blood that help to form clots.  Platelets can be used for transfusions for chemotherapy patients when their own platelets are depleted by the treatment.

But platelets are fussy when taken out of the comfort of our veins and arteries. They have to be stored at room temperature and only last for a few days on the blood bank shelf.  Dr Kile has made a discovery that may go a long way to addressing this problem.

“Platelets don’t just wear out” he said. “We showed that there is a molecular clock counting down.”  In studies of mice, he’s shown that the clock can be sped up or slowed down.  In order to translate these findings to human platelets, more needs to be discovered about why their survival is so tightly regulated and how they are made in the first place.

Like all blood cells, platelets come from blood stem cells – basic precursors that can develop into cells with a specific purpose like red and white blood cells.  Dr Kile was part of a team that discovered a gene called ERG that plays a vital role in the development of blood stem cells.

While this was an important discovery in its own right, things got more interesting when Dr Kile turned to the literature and found that the gene he was working on was already well known as a gene associated with numerous types of cancer.  Essentially the team has uncovered the ‘day job’ of ERG.

This link between the normal function of stem cells to keep dividing and produce normal blood cells and the abnormal division of cancer cells may help scientists to understand why good cells go bad.