UQ looks to the future with smart fellows

5 Jun 2009

Six scientists from The University of Queensland have received Smart Future Fellowships to help further their research into areas such as disease detection and clean energy. 

The Queensland Government sponsored Fellowships provide funding for early or mid-career researchers to undertake innovative research in Queensland and receive up to $300,000 from the Government over three years. 

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Max Lu congratulated the Fellows and thanked the Queensland Government for continuing to back talented young researchers. 

“This is a wise investment by the Government in researchers whose work could lead to advances in health, the environment and sustainable energy, and also generate economic returns for Queensland. 

“UQ has received half of all the Fellowships in this category, which is a great endorsement of the quality of our researchers and their records of delivering productive research outcomes.”

IMB researcher Dr Marcel Dinger received a $150,000 fellowship to screen so-called 'junk DNA' to discover its functions.

Dr Marcel Dinger will use his three-year Queensland Government Smart Futures Fellowship to examine stretches of the genome that don’t contain genes.

“For a long time, scientists thought that the only parts of DNA that mattered were genes. These are stretches of DNA that are transcribed into another molecule called RNA, which are used as blueprints to construct proteins,” Dr Dinger said.

“RNA that isn’t used to construct proteins is called non-coding RNA, and the DNA that it came from was referred to as ‘junk DNA’, because scientists thought that it didn’t do anything. We have only recently realised that this ‘junk’ DNA and non-coding RNA may have significant functions after all.”

Dr Dinger will use his fellowship funding to screen sections of non-coding RNA to determine their function. He is part of a team of researchers led by Professor John Mattick, who believe that non-coding RNA plays a role in directing development in complex organisms such as humans.

“Humans have around 20,000 to 25,000 genes, which is the same amount as simple organisms such as worms,” Dr Dinger said.

“Our extra complexity clearly isn’t due to genes alone, and we think much of it may be explained by the presence of non-coding RNA, as the amount of this molecule increases with increasing complexity.”

The research has the potential to greatly improve our knowledge about the molecular basis of development and disease. This information will in turn provide targets for drugs to treat genetic diseases and cancer.

“Finding a target is the first step in developing a drug and I am hopeful that this research will result in new and improved drugs for a range of diseases.”