Women in Genetics – from Genomes to Zebrafish “Discusstation”

Five of New Zealand’s leading genetic scientists

October 29, 2014.

A capacity crowd of 120 – with many more turned away – spent two hours listening to and asking about the latest research being undertaken by five of the more than 260 genetics researchers who are part of Genetics Otago, based at the University of Otago.
Dr Julia Horsfield spoke about understanding human disease processes through researching zebrafish, which share many of the same genes as humans and whose transparent eggs allow her to observe the very beginnings of life and changes over time. Studying malfunctions and manipulating small changes in zebrafish RNA can lead to not only finding the causes of disease, but also possible therapies.

Associate Professor Lynette Sadleir said that 70% of epilepsy was now thought to have a likely genetic cause. Finding the genes that cause epilepsy allows the development of targeted treatments and may in future stop epilepsy developing altogether. Collaborating closely with the University of Melbourne’s Epilepsy Research Centre, Sadleir discovered many individuals of large families who had epilepsy had the sodium channel gene, SCN1A. Subsequent study of children with a severe type of epilepsy, known as Dravet Syndrome, found this gene was the cause in 80% of cases. In addition, research has shown that most children who develop severe epilepsy following vacination actually also have a mutation in this gene. This means that the claim that the whooping cough vaccine causes epilepsy is not correct – it is purely a trigger for the fever, which then induces the child’s first seizures.

Dr Elizabeth Duncan, despite not liking honey herself, is studying bees to see what lessons their genes might offer for understanding how what a mother eats while pregnant affects her offspring’s later health. The Queen bee puts out pheromones that suppress reproduction and alters the behaviour of worker bees. Removing her lets worker bees develop ovaries and lay virgin eggs. Dr Duncan used a drug developed to treat Alzheimers to clear the signalling pathway in a similar manner. She is also working with pea aphids to see if the same works in rats, mice and sheep – and if so, it could provide an important clue for human fertility also.

Dr Anita Dunbier revealed that a study of nuns showed that lots of reproductive activity was perhaps the best prevention technique for breast cancer, the most common cancer in women. Cancer cells are “like teenagers out of control,” doing things, going places and growing faster than they ought. Her research in personalised medicine helps identify therapeutic drugs and tests for cancer genomes. This can, for example, identify people who are more likely to suffer recurrence, and therefore need more aggressive treatment.

Dr Christine Jasoni told the audience that each brain has as many connections as 1 million Milky Ways worth of stars – which is why each of us is unique. So, while genetics provides us each with a blueprint, it is how we interact with our environment that helps determine how we develop. Our mother’s health during pregnancy help determine fetus’s brain and later health across the spectrum. Biopics of fetal mice brains show that axons are not created at nearly the same rate in foetuses of sick mums, because genetic changes mean they cannot produce the proteins. This suggests guidelines for at risk mums and early detection of at risk children to get them treatment early can help give them neurologically more normal lives. “Genetics loads the gun, the environment pulls the trigger.”


Click here to see the presentations from our Women in Genetics Speakers

Darwin’s Regret: What Maths Tells Us about the Evolution of Life

October 22, 2014

DarwinAllan Wilson Centre’s Professor Mike Steel explained the sophisticated ways that biologists have developed to uncover and study the hidden shared ancestry of all life from genetic data since Darwin first developed his Origin of Species ideas 155 years ago.

Mathematics has become an essential tool that allows biologists to tease apart evolutionary signal from noise and bias in data, and to build reliable trees and networks of species.

Prof Steel told his 80 strong audience – half of whom were senior maths and science students at Wakatipu High School – that biologists use these trees widely, for example, to classify new species, trace human migrations, and to help predict next year’s influenza strain.

A main goal for biologists is to reconstruct and study what are called ‘phylogenetic trees’ (or more generally networks) which reveal how species today are related to each other and how they trace back to a common ancestor.

The picture of the `tree of life’ today looks very different from the first sketches by Darwin and his contemporaries in the 19th century, and this is mainly due to the huge amount of genetic data from which large trees can now be built. Biologists are starting to build trees on thousands of species – such as the tree of the (approximately) 10,000 known species of birds, published earlier this year.

The maths that is most useful for these tasks includes topics students will be familiar with like calculus and probability theory as well as areas of `discrete mathematics’, such as graph theory, combinatorics, and algorithms.

Mike concentrated mostly on probability theory, which is essential for building reliable trees, as well as for studying what the `shape’ of these trees tell us about biological processes like speciation and extinction. Using a simple random model that involves drawing coloured balls from a bowl, he showed how it’s easy to predict how balanced large trees should be under uniform speciation rates, and without having to use a calculator.

Click here for a PDF of Mike’s talk

Queenstown’s Inaugural StartUp Weekend

Startup Weekend participants in Queenstown
Startup Weekend 2014
Fifty entrepreneurs and aspirants, creatives, technical and business people took part in Queenstown’s first ever Startup Weekend, October 17 to 19, one of 32 Startup Weekends occurring throughout the world at that time.

Described as a 54 hour Boot Camp to kick-start business ideas, participants got to pitch their ideas, then gather teams to develop them for presentation to the Devils Den judges and the public on Sunday night.
Of the 30 or so business proposals, the 50 participants chose 7 to develop through research, validation, design, programming, costing and sales pitch with the help of top business mentors.
They ranged from a digital farm diary and wild food challenge through to “What’s on Queenstown” app and “Prompt Me” app to help actors rehearse their lines. Participants ranged from Wakatipu High School students through to middle-aged local business people. Huge thanks to organisers José Ganga, Nathan Donaldson and Darren Craig – all local IT entrepreneurs. They are already planning next year’s event…