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Centenary Institute - Medical Research
Centenary Institute - Medical Research

How the humble sea sponge helped scientists unravel a 700 million-year-old mystery of evolution

In a momentous breakthrough, Australian scientists have found that humans, and most likely the entire animal kingdom, share important genetic mechanisms with a jelly-like sea sponge that comes from the Great Barrier Reef.

Published in one of the most prestigious journals ‘Science’, the breakthrough reveals that some elements of the human genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA) are functioning in the same way as the prehistoric sea sponge. Incredibly this means it has been preserved across 700 million years of evolution. This mechanism drives gene expression, which is key to species diversity across the animal kingdom.

The findings are a fundamental discovery in evolution and the understanding of genetic diseases, and will help drive future biomedical research activities.

Read the full story here.

Pictured: Co-senior author on the paper, Associate Professor Mathias Francois from the Centenary Institute (left) and lead author, Dr Emily Wong from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (right).

Publication: Early origin and deep conservation of enhancers in animals.

New Centenary Institute laboratory launched

The Centenary Institute has officially launched its newest initiative, ‘The David Richmond Laboratory for Cardiovascular Development: Gene Regulation and Editing’ headed up by Associate Professor Mathias Francois (pictured).

A/Prof Francois and his team will be focused on identifying new and innovative therapeutic approaches targeting vascular disease (any abnormal condition relating to arteries, capillaries, veins and lymphatic vessels). Abnormalities in the growth and development of these vessels are associated with human disorders including cardiovascular illness, solid cancer metastasis and inflammatory diseases.

With many of these diseases and disorders having a genetic cause, the team will be looking to determine the molecular events that direct and influence the construction of the ‘vascular tree’ (the network of blood and lymph vessels throughout the body). The aim will be the identification of molecular targets to which novel therapeutics can be first assessed and then generated.

The main focus of the research program will revolve around the biology of a class of protein known as transcription factors (TFs). These proteins act as molecular switches or as the control panel of the genome to turn on and off genetic pathways which drive vascular development.

Until recently TFs were labelled as “undruggable” but recent technology advances have opened up new research directions to efficiently manipulate these targets pharmacologically. The long term goal is to design new treatments that fine-tune gene expression to improve the management of vascular disorders.

Undertaking a highly strategic methodology to this activity, the new laboratory’s research program will be multi-disciplinary in nature, encompassing developmental biology, disease model systems, complemented by biophysics and genomics approaches.

“I’m extremely excited to be joining such a well-regarded and thriving organisation as the Centenary Institute,” says A/Prof Francois. “The appeal of this institution is in the versatility of the research capabilities provided by such world-class scientists.”

“Working in a new research environment with new colleagues from complementary research fields will mean new ideas and more opportunities to think out of the box. This process is  critical to translate knowledge generated from discovery science to more applied vascular research, which hopefully will lead into meaningful treatments that have the potential to change lives,” he says.