Dr Kelly Smith is a developmental biologist. She studies how the heart forms in embryo from a few cells of undetermined identity to a 3-dimensional beating organ. During her PhD, she was in the place where surgeons performed Australia’s first split liver transplant, trying to get more out of the organs that they had, and she thought ‘we should be making these.' Given the vital role the heart plays in supporting life, she has focussed her research to try and understand this particular organ.

Dr Smith was involved in the largest forward genetic screen in Australia. Using Zebrafish, the study screened over 400 families of fish and found 30 different genes, nine of which were new. Through this study, she identified a gene responsible for heart arrhythmia and a protein called Tmem2 that degrades the extracellular matrix. Dr Smith had discovered the gene in her post-doctoral research, but the large-scale forward screen helped to describe its role in our body.

During her post-doctoral research, Dr Smith also found a mutation responsible for a congenital condition called ‘atrial septal defect’ where blood flows between the chambers.

Dr Smith conducts her research using Zebrafish. She creates a fish version of a patient (an avatar) with a particular gene mutation and monitors what is happening within the embryo.


Researcher biography

Dr Kelly Smith is a developmental biologist studying morphogenesis of the heart. She completed her PhD in 2005 under the guidance of Arthur Shulkes and Graham Baldwin (University of Melbourne) studying gastrin-associated peptides and their role in gastric and colonic growth.

For her postdoctoral studies, Kelly moved to the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, where she investigated early cardiac morphogenesis in the lab of Jeroen Bakkers. Here, Kelly used the zebrafish model to study cardiac cell behaviours in development and to uncover the genetic pathways regulating left-right asymmetry, heart tube assembly and cardiac valve development (the latter of which was translated into the clinical setting, with the discovery of genetic mutations in patients with cardiac valve defects).

Kelly moved to UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience in 2010 where she continues her research into cardiac development.

Primarily using the zebrafish model, Kelly's group has recently performed a large forward genetic screen to identify novel genes in cardiac development. They are also generating a range of new tools to study the cell biology of heart development, and are branching out, using other models (such as mouse and cell culture) to enhance their research into specific processes of interest.