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The fabled Platypus Genome Project was one of the greatest scientific projects of modern time.
For many of the researchers involved, discovering what to do after the project ended with its flurry of global publicity has also proved a challenge, such that last year they have even held a conference on the subject: Beyond the Genome Project.
For Professor Kevin Nicholas, a key player in the project through his research on the lactation of the Australian monotreme, the next move was logical enough. His work with the platypus, and also on tammar wallabies, was of enormous interest to the dairy industry.
Deakin’s Geelong Campus at Waurn Ponds is right on the edge of one of Australia’s most famous dairying areas, the Western District.
And through ITRI, the new Institute for Technology Innovation and Research, Deakin University is taking a very active, even bioactive, interest in dairy research.
"I guess I chose to come to Deakin because there are really great opportunities here to continue my research in a very supportive environment," Professor Nicholas said.
"There is a real desire here at Deakin to take a cross-disciplinary approach which I believe is a very fertile way to do research.
"While for a lot of people, the barriers to doing cross-disciplinary research are more mental than physical, for it to be truly effective there has to be a real commitment to it within the institution."
Professor Nicholas has been warmly welcomed at Deakin where he is seen as a key part of widening and deepening the University’s research profile.
"Without doubt, Kevin is a world leader in his areas of research," said Professor Andrew Parratt, ITRI’s Director.
"His participation in the Platypus Genome Project is just part of a large body of leading edge research work built up over what is already an impressive career.
"We look forward to him building on that even more here at Deakin.
"His decision to join us, the bank of knowledge he has, the team of people with whom he works around the world, the work he will be doing on bioactives in the dairy industry, takes us a big step towards achieving the critical mass in research that Deakin aspires to."
Originally from Western Australia, Profess Nicholas gained his PhD from The University of Western Australia (UWA) in 1979.
He then undertook post-doctoral studies at the prestigious National Institutes of Health at Bethesda in the United States, the largest biomedical research institute of its type in the world.
There he developed in vitro models to study the hormonal regulation of milk protein gene expression.
On his return to Australia, he joined the CSIRO's Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Canberra as first a senior, then a principal research scientist.
His interests continued to be in lactation but changed focus to the tammar wallaby. The research was directed at understanding how the tammar wallaby regulated milk composition, and in particular how the genes coding for milk proteins was controlled by hormones in the peripheral circulation and factors intrinsic to the mammary gland.
Professor Nicholas then moved to the Melbourne-based Victorian Institute of Animal Science before joining the CRC for Innovative Dairy Products at the University of Melbourne.
There he continued his research work on the functional genomics of mammary gland development in the marsupial and seal.
"We should never under-estimate the value of comparative genomics, and what it allows us to see," he says.
"By studying the platypus, wallabies and seals this way, it allows us to see things that are in other animals, like dairy cows, but which are not readily apparent.
"The comparative genomics of the platypus, the tammar wallaby and of seals, all mammals with an extreme adaptation to lactation, has provided new opportunities to identify genes regulating milk composition and bioactives in milk that potentially regulate growth and development of the suckled young.
"If we can translate these discoveries to the dairy industry, than we can unlock even further the opportunities of making milk a more beneficial product to humans.
"We already know that milk has benefits in the treatment of problems like hypertension, inflammation, immune disorders and also in dental care.
"If we can identify other bioactives, well that provides a better commercial outcome for the dairy industry in Australia, as well as better community health outcomes."
Work being done in conjunction with one of Professor Nicholas' colleagues, Dr Julie Sharp, even has the potential to provide a new way to kill cancer cells.
"You have to be careful when you talk about this kind of discovery," Professor Nicholas said.
“That sort of outcome is a long way off, but we have found that there is in the way seals go about lactation a way to turn off and on the function of particular cells, and an interesting mechanism for the way this animal programs death in some cells. This underpins new strategies for cancer therapies."
Like the platypus and the tammar wallaby, the Cape sure seal has a unique lactation cycle.
"This allows fur seal mothers to turn off lactation while they return to sea to forage for as long as three weeks," said Professor Nicholas.
"Once back on shore the mother reinitiates lactation to feed the pup. Only some species of fur seals can do this. Julie is setting up models to look at how these seals do this to see how we can translate this to other animals. For example, we think it has direct application to the dairy industry to provide new ways of extending lactation in dairy cattle.
"Once again, it is showing the value of comparative genomics in allowing us to see things that aren’t readily apparent."
And it builds an exciting world of research Beyond the Platypus Genome Project.
For further information on ITRI, visit: www.deakin.edu.au/itri
To find out more about the Platypus Genome Project visit: www.nature.com