Dr Kathy Belov wins prestigious Eureka People's Choice Award

19 August 2009

Dr Kathy Belov has been voted Australia's Favourite Scientist in this year's Eureka Prizes
Dr Kathy Belov has been voted Australia's Favourite Scientist in this year's Eureka Prizes

University of Sydney geneticist Dr Kathy Belov has been voted Australia's favourite scientist in the Australian Museum Eureka People's Choice Award for her work on identifying the link between the genetic make-up of tasmanian devils and contagious facial tumours threatening the species' survival.

Often dubbed "the Oscars of Australian Science," the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the nation's premier awards scheme for outstanding scientific research, leadership, innovation, communication, journalism and school science.

While all other prize winners are selected by panels of specially selected judges, the People's Choice Award is voted on by the Australian public. This year tens of thousands of Australians voted Dr Kathy Belov as their favourite scientist.

Dr Belov was awarded for her work on identifying the cause of the proliferation of cancerous facial tumours among tasmanian devils. After years of research, and with the help of her fellow researchers in the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group at the University of Sydney, she was able to conclude that the tasmanian devil's lack of genetic diversity was the major cause of the spread of the disease, and the subsequent decline of the devil population.

More specifically, the tasmanian devil's Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes (immunity genes) also lacked diversity. This, coupled with the devil population's dwindling numbers and the inbreeding that ensued, meant that more devil's were being born with no defence mechanism against the contagious facial cancer. "One of the main reasons the devils are so likely to get this disease is that their numbers have dropped to very low levels in the past and they have lost their genetic diversity," Kathy said. "Devils have been through at least three population crashes which were followed by inbreeding - where they have to breed but are quite closely related. So you can end up with more devils, but they all come from a very small gene pool."

Dr Belov has been on a mission ever since, to save the tasmanian devil population from diminishing further. Recently, she and her team found devils in northwestern Tasmania with different MHC genes and placed them in a captive breeding program to try and increase the genetic diversity of these captive animals. One of her goals is to find out whether some of these animals with different MHC genes can fight the tumour and improve their chances of survival.

In July this year Kathy teamed up with veteran rockers Jon English and Peter Garrett (Federal Minister for the Environment Heritage and the Arts), to launch Devil Rock, a number of rock concerts planned over the coming months to raise funds for Tasmanian devil conservation and research, culminating in a Devil Rock concert, which will be held at the University of Sydney on 6 March 2010.

The Faculty of Science congratulates Kathy on her wonderful achievement.

Contact: Faculty of Science

Phone: 02 9351 3021

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