Recognition for an evolutionary master clockmaker: 2014 Eureka Prize for Early Career Researcher

11 September 2014

Eureka Prize winner Associate Professor Simon Ho.
Eureka Prize winner Associate Professor Simon Ho.

Showing that the strain of fungus responsible for the Irish potato famine still exists is only one of the insights the University of Sydney's Associate Professor Simon Ho has achieved through his ground-breaking work with 'molecular clocks'.

Understanding the evolutionary timescale of life is one of the fundamental goals of biological science.

For his major contributions to this area, Associate Professor Ho, from the School of Biological Sciences, has been awarded the 2014 Eureka Prize for outstanding early career researcher.

Molecular clocks are the 'timepieces' biologists use to explain how quickly different organisms evolve.

Biologists apply their knowledge of the rate at which DNA mutates to analyse ancient biological samples. In doing so they can understand the ancient evolution of humans, work out how species have responded to changing environments and human impacts, and estimate when viruses and other pathogens emerged. This includes the discoveries made about the potato blight fungus, which started to diversify in Europe 75 years before the Irish potato famine.

Associate Professor Ho has also shown that modern humans separated from Neanderthals about 200,000 years later than once thought. This has changed the way that we view ancient human fossils and how they are related to modern humans.

One of Associate Professor Ho's most important findings is that estimates of evolutionary rates appear to depend on the timescale over which they are made. This has wide-ranging and important implications for our understanding of human migration, animal domestication, conservation genetics and the rate of virus evolution.

With his findings in this area, Associate Professor Ho has made an impact across a broad range of disciplines and inspired research programs throughout the world. He has also found evidence of a number of factors that drive rate variation among organisms, shown that diverse groups of birds tend to evolve more quickly than other groups, and discovered that taller plants tend to evolve more slowly than shorter plants.

Associate Professor Ho's innovations have become standard practice in the field of DNA research, for example in new approaches to addressing uncertainty in the ages of ancient samples, and the impact of DNA damage after death. His work now focuses on tackling evolutionary questions by using data from whole genomes.

Associate Professor Richard Payne from the School of Chemistry was a finalist for the Eureka Prize for outstanding early career research in recognition of his pioneering work in the development of much-needed therapies for tuberculosis, malaria and cancer. He has developed and used highly innovative synthetic chemistry methods and drug-screening technologies to develop new molecules for treating these diseases.

Professor Dietmar Muller and his Earthbyte group in the School of Geosciences were finalists for the Eureka prize for outstanding scientific research for their development of GPlates, an Experimental Virtual Planet for exploring earth's geological evolution. Used in 143 countries, this free software is revolutionising earth process modelling and frontier deep earth resource exploration by combining innovative data-mining and fusion, computer simulation and visualisation features.

Last night's announcements at the Sydney Town Hall included the winners of the University's Sleek Geek awards for compelling videos explaining science, made by primary and high school students. Harry Driessen from Croydon Public School won for his exploration of music and science and Jackson Huang from Queensland Academy for Science, Mathematics and Technology won for his description of phantom limb syndrome.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country's most comprehensive national science awards, and this year celebrates 25 years since their foundation.

See Simon Ho, Richard Payne and Dietmar Muller explain their work.

See Harry Driessen and Jackson Huang's Sleek Geek science videos.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

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