Dr Ryan Taft
Dr Ryan Taft

23 July 2010

A University of Queensland researcher who sees treasure in ‘junk’ DNA has been nominated for an Australian Museum Eureka Prize People’s Choice Award.

Dr Ryan Taft, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, studies the 98 percent of our DNA that isn’t genes. Until recently this DNA was badged as ‘junk’ by genetic researchers, but Dr Taft is part of a team turning this thinking on its head.

“Humans are much more complex than animals such as sea sponges, but we have roughly the same number of genes,” Dr Taft said. “This doesn’t make sense unless we include junk DNA in our comparisons.”

“The amount of junk DNA increases as animals become more complex, suggesting this genetic material, previously thought to be hitching a ride at the expense of genes, is actually playing an important role.”

Dr Taft has discovered tiny chemical keys among this ‘junk’ DNA that may switch genes on and off. Controlling the function of genes is vital for human health, so these keys may play an important role in understanding and treating diseases.

“In diseases such as cancer, genes are turned on when they should be off or vice versa. Using these keys may allow us to control gene expression and reverse the effect of such diseases.”

Although a treatment like this is still many years away, the era of diseases being treated by examining a patient’s genetic code is drawing closer every day.

“It took over a decade and billions of dollars to map the first human genome,” Dr Taft said. “Now, we have machines at IMB that can map a genome in a couple of weeks for several thousand dollars.”

“The technology is improving all the time, so we face the very real prospect that, in the not-too-distant future, you will go to the doctor and have your DNA sequenced in order to have your disease diagnosed and the right treatment prescribed.”

“Personalised medicine based on your DNA will lead to improved treatments and better outcomes for patients.

“There’s never been a better time to be a biologist.”

Dr Taft’s profile and video can be viewed at: http://eureka.australianmuseum.net.au/vote Voting for the Eureka Prize People’s Choice Award has now closed.

 

Contact: Dr Ryan Taft – 07 3346 2075 

IMB Communications – 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247

Australian Museum Eureka Prizes – 02 9320 6483 or eureka@austmus.gov.au

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