Prime Minister’s Science Prizes awarded

By Marina Kamenev 17 November 2010
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The top accolades for Aussie science are awarded for work on a fossil fish giving birth, cloned insulin and blood clotting.

A GENETICIST, A PALAEONTOLOGIST AND A molecular biologist have picked up the nation’s top awards in science today, at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science ceremony, held at Parliament House in Canberra.

Professor John Shine, the executive director of the Garvan Institute for Medical Research, won the top honour, for his discovery of a gene sequence that led to cloned insulin and other cloned medicines. He was given a $300,000 grant as part of his award.

Life scientist winner Dr Benjamin Kile was awarded for discovering why platelets – the blood cells fundamental to clotting – degrade rapidly when they are at the blood bank.

Palaeontologist Dr Kate Trinajstic, was recognised for discovering the world’s oldest known pregnant vertebrate fossil. A senior research fellow from Curtin University in Perth, Kate won the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year for changing the way that scientists look at the evolution of certain types of fish.

Kate was surprised to find out about  winning the award.  “I was away on a dig and was completely uncontactable. So I heard the news two weeks later than I should have. Obviously, I was very happy” she says.

Mother of a fish

In 2005, her team discovered a 380-million-year-old fossil of a mother fish with its embryo and umbilical cord still intact. The fish, which has the Latin name, Materpiscis attenboroughi, is an ode to British naturalist David Attenborough. It was shown to be the oldest example of a vertebrate that gave birth to live young. The International Institute for Species Exploration in Arizona (IISE) named it one of the top 10 most notable new species of 2009.

“It was completely out of the blue,” says Kate. “We never imagined that the fish gave birth to live young. We just assumed that such an old fish would have a very simple system of reproduction, such as egg-laying.”

The species was excavated at the Gogo Formation, a fossilised reef system which is now part of the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The fossil provided evidence that vertebrates gave birth to live young two hundred million years earlier than previously thought. The fact that the fish carried their young internally also suggests that fertilisation occurred internally – and that sex in vertebrates took place much earlier than previously assumed.

Innovative approach

Trinajstic’s methods were integral to her findings. “Her approach was significant,” said Professor Graham Durant, director of Questacon – the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, which coordinates the Prime Minister Prizes for Science. “The general practice was to use stone tools and acid etching to study the fossil bones, but doing this destroys the tissue.”

Instead she used a CT-scanner, a high-powered version of a medical X-ray machine, developed especially for her research by the Australian National University in Canberra. This way she could virtually dissect the fossil without damaging it.

Kate says she will use the $50,000 grant awarded as her prize to continue her research.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were established in 2000 by former prime minister John Howard to replace the Australia Prize for Science. Unlike its predecessor, the annual event exclusively celebrates Australian accomplishments.

There are five categories of prizes: The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist, the Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

Previous winners of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science include Graeme Clark in 2004 for his contribution to the creation of a multiple-channel cochlear Implant, and Ian Frazer in 2008 for inventing the cervical cancer vaccine.

VIDEO: Dr Kate Trinajstic talks about her award-winning research.