Why are cells different?

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.

Ryan Lister’s work transcends plants, animals and humans. Credit: The University of Western Australia
Ryan Lister’s work transcends plants, animals and humans. Credit: The University of Western Australia

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 has 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 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.

For his broad contributions to life science Ryan Lister of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at The University of Western Australia received the 2014 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

For complete profiles, photos and videos, and more information on the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, visit www.industry.gov.au/scienceprizes

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