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Australia's big hop into genomics

Map milestone for kangaroo genome project.

Scientists hope that KanGO will raise the profile of genomics in Australia. Credit: CORBIS

Researchers in Australia, which has largely been a spectator in the genomics race, have produced a map of the kangaroo genome to help guide the assembly of the complete sequence.

It is too early to tell whether the achievement will spark a turnaround in federal government support for genomics, which attracts little of the Aus$7 billion (US$4.4 billion) a year of research and development expenditure from the Australian government. But scientists are cautiously optimistic that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor government, which came to power a year ago, will improve on the previous administration's record.

The work by scientists at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Kangaroo Genomics (KanGO), based in Canberra, is a part of the first big genomics project to be undertaken in Australia. They have now produced a map of the genome of the tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii), the kangaroo species being sequenced in the project.

A separate team, based in Melbourne and at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, last year completed sequencing the kangaroo's DNA, producing the sequences of overlapping fragments covering the whole genome. Now KanGO scientists will use their map, which was unveiled on 18 November, to assemble these fragments to get the complete sequence of the marsupial's chromosomes early next year.

Different development

Scientists from around the world have been racing to sequence the genomes of Australia's marsupials and monotremes. Marsupials give birth to undeveloped young, with joeys undergoing much of their growth in a pouch rather than in the uterus. And monotremes — the platypus and echidna — lay eggs. By comparing marsupial and monotreme DNA with human DNA, scientists hope to pinpoint key genes involved in human reproduction and development.

Australia's investment in the Human Genome Project was small, and funding for human-genomics research through the National Health and Medical Research Council has totalled just Aus$43 million over the past nine years.

Funding of Australia's genomics infrastructure is also low by international standards. The Australian Genome Research Facility gets just Aus$3 million a year from the Australian Government, generating most of its operating funds from user fees. The Australian Government is, however, contributing Aus$27.5 million to the International Cancer Genome Consortium.

Data on the level of ARC funding of genomics projects are not immediately available. However, 11 of the 38 centres funded or co-funded by the ARC are dedicated to, or heavily focused on, genomics research, the funding agency says.

Missing the bus

The Kangaroo Genome Project is giving Australia "visibility and respectability in the international genomic community", says KanGO director Jenny Graves. But she says it is "disappointing that Australia really missed the genomics bus".

Without substantial funds to push forward genome work in Australia, the first marsupial to be sequenced was the American opossum. And the sequencing of the platypus genome, a draft of which was published in Nature in May, was done with US money. Even the tammar wallaby sequencing was paid for by the US National Institutes of Health and the Victorian state government — not by the federal government.

"We failed to capitalise on the valuable information we can get from the genomes of our unique fauna," says Graves "I hope now that the much cheaper next-generation sequencing is here, Australia can get back on the bus."

KanGO has received Aus$5.35 million in ARC funding, but the allocation has been exceeded three-fold by money from international collaborators. Fifteen staff and students worked on the mapping project.

Graves hopes the Kangaroo Genome Project will trigger funds for similar work in Australia. But, she adds, "it has proved difficult to get funding in Australia to sequence other marsupials — even the Tasmanian devil, which is very high profile because of the transmissible tumour that is threatening it with extinction".

According to a spokesman for the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research minister Kim Carr, the government is currently "considering options" as part of its response, due early next year, to a review of the national innovation system.

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Jones, C. Australia's big hop into genomics. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.1249

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