Dr Robert Weatheritt with Sue and Russell Scrimshaw
11 December 2018
It’s in how we interpret our DNA
The cortex of the human brain is an immensely complex organ. Approximately 22,000 genes regulate over 16 billion neurons. The intricacy of our brain is evident when compared to other mammals, such as mice, who share around 90% of the DNA of a human, and also have around 22,000 genes, but only 17 million cortical neurons.
One of the questions that scientists face, which Dr Weatheritt is investigating, is how the DNA of an organism is first read, and then interpreted, to form the vast amount of complexity within the brain – and how this can contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders.
“Our brains are an incredibly complex network of interconnected neurons. When the basic mechanisms controlling how this complexity is produced goes wrong, it can lead to disorders like autism,” says Dr Weatheritt. “Something can go wrong in a very subtle way early on, but can have a large impact later in life. For example, if you were to do something even very minor to a young tree, this would be inherited to all the branches as it grows. It’s the same in people – we can be neurotypically similar but a change early on in brain development can lead to a neurological disorder.”
The winding road to Garvan
Dr Weatheritt’s road to Garvan has taken him across the world. Originally studying zoology in the UK which led to him living for six months in Kenya studying the migration patterns of elephants and local diversity of butterflies, his interests diverged and he chose to study neuroscience instead. His postgraduate work took him to Japan and then Germany where he did his PhD at EMBL in Heidelberg, while his postdoc studies were done in Toronto, Canada and Cambridge in the UK before he moved to Australia. “I’ve got two more continents and then I’m done,” he says jokingly.
Garvan was a natural fit for Dr Weatheritt, as he was able to head an EMBL Australia laboratory within the Institute, in the midst of other excellent researchers and facilities. “I find science absolutely fascinating – solving difficult problems in an environment with clear medical applications is exciting for me,” he says. “At the end of the day, why would you do something which you’re not passionate about? I want to do research which makes a difference to people and pushes forward the boundaries of science.”
The Scrimshaw Fellowship
Dr Weatheritt was named the inaugural Scrimshaw Fellow at an event held last Wednesday night at the Paspaley boutique in Sydney’s Martin Place, where guests were taken on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour. Paspaley have been long-time philanthropic supporters of the Garvan Institute through the sale of their exclusive Kimberley bracelet.
“I am delighted to be able to support a scientist as innovative and inquisitive as Dr Weatheritt as he continues his research at the Garvan Institute,” said Russell Scrimshaw, who along with his wife Sue, established the Scrimshaw Fellowship and is Chairman of the Garvan Research Foundation Board of Directors. “As the complexities of the human brain begin to be more fully understood, Dr Weatheritt’s research will be vital to help uncover the root of neurodevelopmental disorders.”