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The winners of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are:

  • Sam Berkovic and Ingrid Scheffer, the genetics of epilepsy: bringing hope to families, Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
  • Ryan Lister, regulating genes to treat illness, grow food, and understand the brain, Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
  • Matthew Hill, Australian crystals set to take over industry, Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
  • Geoff McNamara, a taste of real-world science to take to the real world, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
  • Brian Schiller, combining play, science and language, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

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The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were presented by the Prime Minister and The Minister for Industry at the prize dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament House on Wednesday 29 October. Adam Spencer, mathematician and broadcaster, was the m/c for the dinner.

The official website for the prizes is www.industry.gov.au/scienceprizes. Please use this address in publications. Read the full article →

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Radio National Breakfast – Gene researcher Ryan Lister wins PM’s prize for life science

 The Sydney Morning Herald – Epilepsy pioneers Ingrid Scheffer and Sam Berkovic awarded PM’s Prize for Science

SMH

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Ingrid Scheffer and Sam Berkovic (Photo credit: WildBear)

Ingrid Scheffer and Sam Berkovic (Photo credit: WildBear)

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The genetics of epilepsy: bringing hope to families

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Ingrid Scheffer (Photo credit: WildBear)

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Sam Berkovic (Photo credit: WildBear)

Sam Berkovic and Ingrid Scheffer have changed the way the world thinks about epilepsy, the debilitating condition that affects about 50 million people.

Twenty years ago doctors tended to regard most forms of epilepsy as acquired rather than inherited. In other words, they believed epilepsy was mostly due to injury: the result of things like a crack on the head in a car accident, a bad fall in the playground, a tumour, or something having gone wrong in labour. Parents felt responsible, and the resulting guilt was enormous.

The two clinician-researchers from the University of Melbourne have led the way in finding a genetic basis for many epilepsies, building on their discovery of the first ever link between a specific gene and a form of epilepsy. Finding that answer has been of profound importance for families.

Along the way, Sam and Ingrid discovered that a particularly severe form of epilepsy, thought to result from vaccination, was actually caused by a gene mutation. This finding dispelled significant concerns about immunisation.

Their discoveries of the connections between epilepsy and genes have opened the way to better targeted research, diagnosis and treatment for epilepsy. Together with collaborators, they have shown that genes can lead to seizures in different ways in different forms of epilepsy. An important cause, for instance, is interference with the movement of nutrients across nerve cell membranes. In one of these cases, treatment using a diet that avoids glucose is effective.

For their contribution to the study of epilepsy, its diagnosis, management and treatment, Laureate Professor Sam Berkovic of the University of Melbourne and Austin Health and Professor Ingrid Scheffer of the University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and Austin Health have been awarded the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

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Regulating genes to treat illness, grow food, and understand the brain

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Ryan Lister (Photo credit: WildBear)

Genes are not enough to explain the difference between a skin cell and a stem cell, a leaf cell and a root cell, or the complexity of the human brain. Genes don’t explain the subtle ways in which your parents’ environment before you were conceived might affect your offspring.

Another layer of complexity—the epigenome—is at work determining when and where genes are turned on and off.

Ryan Lister is unravelling this complexity. He’s created ways of mapping the millions of molecular markers of where genes have been switched on or off, has made the first maps of these markers in plants and humans, and revealed key differences between the markers in cells with different fates.

He’s created maps of the epigenome in plants, which could enable plant breeders to modify crops to increase yields without changing the underlying DNA.

He’s explained a challenge for stem cell medicine—showing how, when we persuade, for example, skin cells to turn into stem cells, these cells retain a memory of their past. Their epigenome is different to that of natural embryonic stem cells. He believes this molecular memory could be reversed.

He has also recently explored the most complex system we know—the human brain—discovering that its epigenome is extensively reconfigured in childhood during critical stages when the neural circuits are forming and maturing. These epigenome patterns may even underpin learning and memory. All of this in just 15 years since the beginning of his PhD.

For his contribution to the understanding of gene regulation and its potential ability to change agriculture and the treatment of disease and mental health, Professor Ryan Lister of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia has been awarded the 2014 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

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Australian crystals set to take over industry

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Matthew Hill (Photo credit: WildBear)

Forty per cent of the energy consumed by industry is used to separate things—in natural gas production, mineral processing, food production, pollution control. The list is endless. Each offers an application for Matthew Hill’s crystals. He has demonstrated that the space inside metal–organic frameworks (MOFs)—the world’s most porous materials—can be used as an efficient and long-lasting filter.

By choosing different combinations of metals and plastics, Matthew’s CSIRO team can make a wide range of customised crystals. Then, using antimatter and synchrotron light, they map the internal pores, determine what each crystal can do, and explore potential applications.

First cab off the rank is natural gas separation. His team has developed a membrane embedded with crystals that efficiently separates natural gas from contaminants and lasts much longer than traditional membranes. He’s working with gas companies to develop the patented technology that could replace the multistorey processing plants found on gas fields with smaller truck-sized systems.

Patented applications for the food industry are also in the works. And further down the track are: carbon dioxide scrubbers; safe compact storage systems for gas and hydrogen; and even crystals that could deliver drugs or fertilisers on demand.

For his work on the development of metal–organic frameworks for practical industrial application, Dr Matthew Hill, Australian Research Council Future Fellow and leader of the Integrated Nanoporous Materials team at CSIRO, has been awarded the 2014 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

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