Jenny Graves: What can kangaroos and platypus tell us about sex and humanity?

18 Oct 2017

Author: Prime Minister's Prizes for Science

Photography: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear


Professor Jenny Graves AO has transformed our understanding of how humans and all vertebrate animals evolved and function.
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Professor Jenny Graves AO has transformed our understanding of how humans and all vertebrate animals evolved and function. In the course of her work, she has kick-started genomic and epigenetic research in Australia, and predicted the disappearance of the male chromosome.

Australia’s pouched and egg-laying mammals are a fantastic source of genetic variation because they last shared a common ancestor with placental mammals so long ago. They are truly independent experiments in mammalian evolution. Jenny Graves’ life’s work has used marsupials and monotremes, birds and lizards, to understand the complexity of the human genome and to reveal new human genes.

She has transformed our understanding of how sex chromosomes work and how they evolved, predicting the decline of the Y chromosome.

Her research has contributed to a deeper understanding of the immune system; prion diseases, blood proteins, and helped understand the tumour driving the Tasmanian devil to extinction.

In a collaboration between La Trobe University and The University of Canberra, she’s studying how bearded dragons change sex in response to temperature, a critical issue as the climate warms.

For her pioneering investigations of the genetics of sex, Professor Jenny Graves AO receives the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Graves wasn’t excited by science until her last year of school. For years she’d told people she was going to be an architect. Then her biology teacher told the class about genetics, genes, and breeding budgerigars. “I was hooked from that time on, and decided I’d do science at university,” she says. That led to a Master’s degree in genetics at the University of Adelaide, then a PhD in cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a return to Australia, establishing her research at La Trobe University.

Her first paper, from Honours work in 1967, reported the inactivation of the X chromosome in the tammar wallaby and it is still quoted today. It was an early indication that there were to be three grand themes to her career: genes, epigenetics, and sex, and that Australian animals would be her focus.

“Marsupials are just far enough distant from the mouse and man to be interesting and to provide us with variation, but they’re close enough to share the same control systems. Virtually everything I’ve done has used comparisons between different groups of mammals, and most of it has turned out to be wonderfully interesting,” she says.

“So, we last shared a common ancestor about 145 million years ago. And you can keep on playing this game, getting further and further out; birds and reptiles we last shared a common ancestor with 310 million years ago. So, I’m looking back further and further in history. And that can give us a very, very broad picture of how sex chromosomes turn over and how new sex-determining genes arise. That gives us a lot more chance to find really fundamental differences in critical processes like sex determination.”

Grave’s research achievements are extensive. They include:

  • determining the relatively recent origin of the human XY sex chromosome system;
  • discovering the origin and evolution of the Y chromosome and sex determining gene in mammals, leading to suggestions that the Y will eventually disappear
  • demonstrating how one X chromosomes in female mammals is silenced by a mechanism now shown to be a key to regulating gene activity generally; and
  • building a collaboration to showing how temperature and genes can determine the sex of Australian dragon lizards.

Among the wider scientific impacts of her work are:

  • deepening the understanding of animal chromosome and genome evolution and its relationship with speciation;
  • finding the chromosome changes involved in the fatal transmissible facial tumour of the Tasmanian devil; and,
  • discovering 14 novel human genes, including one which is critical for brain development.

Along the way, she has:

  • pioneered the fields of comparative genomics and epigenetics globally;
  • been the driving force behind sequencing the first marsupial and monotreme genomes;
  • published more than 440 scholarly works which have been cited more than 17,000 times;
  • and won many international awards including the 2006 L’Oréal-UNESCO Laureate Fellowship for Women in Science.

She has also trained 56 PhDs, 25 Postdocs and hundreds of honours students and research assistants, including more than 50 genome scientists. Many of them now occupy senior positions in science, medicine, industry and academia.

Knowing that engagement with science starts early, Jenny Graves used her position as Secretary of Education at the Australian Academy of Science to advance inquiry-based school science programs in Australia. As the Academy’s Foreign Secretary and a member of international boards, she advocated progressive approaches in Asia.

She has been a role model for girls and women in science in Australia. She was first to introduce measures into the Academy to remove gender bias from election to Fellowship. This was the forerunner of several highly effective equity programs spearheaded by the Academy. Her Academy positions also allowed her to agitate for gender equity internationally.