Jenny Graves, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia has been awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her contribution to sex chromosome research. This announcement marks the first time that the prize, worth $250,000, has been awarded to a solo female researcher.

Professor Grave’s research primarily centres around sex chromosomes, in particular the Y chromosome. She became known to the international media in 2002, when one of her papers theorised that the Y chromosome would disappear completely in the next 4.5M years, based on the idea that, 166M years ago, our non-human ancestors had Y chromosomes with 1,600 genes. Current Y chromosomes only possess around 50 genes; following the same rate of decay, those 50 genes would be degraded in the time frame she predicted.

(Subsequent work implies that the chromosome has become stabilised and is no longer degrading. Professor Graves herself has stated that the line was a ‘throwaway comment’, and that she had no idea that the media would focus on it so intently.)

Professor Jenny Graves with a bearded dragon. Source: The Guardian

For the most part, Professor Graves has studied pouched mammals or egg-laying creatures, such as marsupials, monotremes, birds, and lizards. She is currently a part of a collaboration between La Trobe University and the University of Canberra, studying how temperature affects the gender of bearded dragons during gestation. At high temperatures, the embryos develop into female dragons, raising concerns at how climate change will impact the gender balance of the species.

“Marsupials are just far enough distant from the mouse and man to be interesting and to provide us with variation, but they’re close enough to share the same control systems. Virtually everything I’ve done has used comparisons between different groups of mammals, and most of it has turned out to be wonderfully interesting,” Professor Graves said.

“So, we last shared a common ancestor about 145 million years ago. And you can keep on playing this game, getting further and further out; birds and reptiles we last shared a common ancestor with 310 million years ago. So, I’m looking back further and further in history. And that can give us a very, very broad picture of how sex chromosomes turn over and how new sex determining genes arise. That gives us a lot more chance to find really fundamental differences in critical processes like sex determination.”

Her research has also offered insight into immune systems and prion diseases, as well as the health factors that appear to be driving the Tasmanian devil, a marsupial with cultural importance in Australia, to extinction.

“Her global contribution to the understanding of evolutionary genetics and sex determination in humans is extraordinary,” John Dewar, Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

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