Christophe gives Deakin top billing

Moving to Deakin University has taken internationally renowned researcher Christophe Lefevre to the cusp of fulfilling a major ambition - seeing a platypus in the wild.

Christophe Lefevre
Christophe Lefevre

Moving to Deakin University has taken internationally renowned researcher Christophe Lefevre to the cusp of fulfilling a major ambition - seeing a platypus in the wild.

"I am told you can see them in the Barwon River near Inverleigh which is not far from here," he says between sips of his coffee at the Lake House on the Geelong Campus at Waurn Ponds. "I really hope so.

"Some colleagues have promised to take me out there and I am really looking forward to it. But I might have to get up really early!"

Christophe's fascination with the fabled duck-billed creature from Down Under is a longstanding one. He first heard about the unique creature as a schoolboy growing up in the Loire Valley in France.

More recently, he was a part of the ground-breaking platypus genome project that garnered international acclaim for a body of researchers from around the world.

Their findings, featured in Nature magazine and also five concurrently published papers in Genome Research, show that the platypus' mix of reptilian and mammalian characteristics is reflected at the genome level.

The genome sequencing presents a marvellous insight into the evolution of mammals. It seems it was about more than 160 to 210 million years ago that the genetic changes took place that created the first mammals, which are generally defined by their mammary glands that in females produce milk.

The platypus doesn't have nipples, but it produces true milk containing fats, sugars and proteins that the young suck via a glandular patch on the skin.

"The platypus is a living representative of the oldest animals in the mammalian evolution," Christophe said. "It is a mixture of mammalian and reptilian genomes.

"My speciality is bioinformatics. I have been doing comparative studies on milk that is produced in wallabies, seals, cattle, echidnas, humans and the platypus to see if there were any genes responsible for driving the lactation process.

"I originally worked with wallabies, which are also interesting animals. It seems that the milk plays an important part in the development of baby marsupials.

"If we can find the evidence of that, this might have some sort of positive impact on the way we treat premature human babies.

"The genome project was a great opportunity to look at origins of the lactation process in mammals.

"It was also fantastic to work with people all over the world. There were lots of big arguments and it got a lot of exposure in the media."

So much so that Christophe, who was at Monash and the University of Melbourne until recently, had received job offers from Portugal, India, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.

Duck-billed platypus and babies
Duck-billed platypus and babies

He has a number of reasons for accepting the offer from Professor Andrew Parratt, the head of BioDeakin to set up office in the Geelong Technology Precinct.

"I said yes to Andrew because I would like to live in the Victorian countryside," he says. "I am a country boy, growing up in the Loire Valley in France.

"Also, I like all the plans that Deakin has for expansion at the GTP and for implementing cross-disciplinary research."

Professor Parratt is thrilled that Christophe chose Deakin.

"Simply, he is a world-class researcher," he said.

"Christophe had genuine offers from around the world, but he chose to come to us which is a real vote of confidence for the way our research at Deakin is developing."

Now there's just that small matter of the fine sighting of a platypus in the wild.

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