One of Australia's biotechnology pioneers, whose work has been instrumental in cloning insulin and growth hormone, has taken out this year's Prime Minister's Prize for Science.
At a ceremony in Canberra, Dr John Shine, director of the Garvan Institute in Sydney, received the award for his research in gene technology, including the discovery of key gene sequences that enabled cloned medicines.
Human insulin and many other cloned drugs that we take for granted today are made with the help of a brief gene sequence that tells bacteria when to start making protein.
Shine discovered the now well-known GGAGG sequence, named the Shine-Dalgarno sequence, while working on his PhD at the Australian National University in the 1970s under the supervision of Lynn Dalgarno.
He says they had no idea how important the discovery would become.
"None whatsoever," says Shine. "Obviously in the context of my PhD studies it was very important ... so I was pretty excited about it.
"[But] I had absolutely no concept of the practical implications that the sequence would turn out having in the development of biotechnology and the production of human pharmaceuticals from cloned genes."
The thrill of discovery
The potential became clear while Shine pursued his studies in the United Sates.
"In San Francisco we developed a whole range of gene cloning techniques, you know the ability to isolate a single human gene, grow it so that we would have unlimited amounts of this cloned gene to study to determine its primary sequence and to figure out how it worked.
"It was only after that that in a sense those two things came together."
Shine says the two discoveries became important because it meant that the GGAGG sequence could be used as a kind of signal to the bacteria to "turn on" and start producing the proteins of the human insulin gene, or growth hormone gene.
He says the thrill of discovery is what has always driven him.
"It's about the excitement of finding out something that nobody else knows and it gives you great insights into the fundamentals of life's processes."
Shine says that the science prize is more important than just recognition of an individual's work.
"Obviously it's a great recognition and I feel very humbled by it," he says. "The important thing about the Prime Minister's Science Prize is that it demonstrates that the government, and hence our community recognises the importance of science for our social and economic wellbeing."
Mother fish hauls in award
This year's Malcolm McIntosh prize for Physical Scientist has been awarded to Dr Katherine Trinajstic of Curtin University in Perth, for her work on the so-called 'mother fish' of the Gogo reef in Western Australia's Kimberley region.
The fossilised fish lived on a tropical limestone reef 380 million years ago. Through a fortuitous accident of preservation that left signs of soft tissue structure, the fossils are yielding secrets of how Materpiscis attenboroughi mated and bore live young.
In 2008, researchers identified a fossilised female and offspring, still joined by an umbilical cord. That discovery pushed the earliest known example of a vertebrate giving birth to live young back in time some 200 million years.
Trinajstic says the award is not just for one discovery, but for a body of research.
"We're only just starting to unravel how these fish, and the whole reef system, actually became preserved," she says.
"We're also starting to use the fish in biostratigraphy, to date the rocks, mapping for the oil and gas industry."
She says she was surprised by the news she had won the award, but that it was very exciting.
"At first I just couldn't believe it. I'm incredibly honoured that they should consider my research in that light."
A brace of bloody secrets
Benjamin Kile has been awarded the Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the year, for unravelling the secrets of blood, in his work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne.
Kile discovered why platelets, the cells which make blood clot, have such a short life on the blood bank shelf: They are actually programmed to die.
"We showed that there is a molecular clock counting down. And we've shown that in mice we can slow it down or speed it up," he says.
Kile's second major discovery was that a gene which was previously well known as a cancer gene is also crucial for making blood stem cells in our bone marrow. He says without it, blood could not be produced.
The Prime Minister's Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching were awarded to Matthew McCloskey of Sydney Grammar's Edgecliff Preparatory School and Debra Smith of Centenary High School in Brisbane.