Professor John Mattick wins prestigious HUGO Chen Award

Professor John Mattick AO FAA FRCPA, Garvan's Executive Director, will be presented with the Chen Award 2012 for Distinguished Academic Achievement in Human Genetic and Genomic Research, by the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) on Wednesday evening - after he has delivered the President's Oration.
Media Release: 12 March 2012

It has been announced that Professor John Mattick AO FAA FRCPA, Executive Director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, will be awarded the Chen Award 2012 for Distinguished Academic Achievement in Human Genetic and Genomic Research, by the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO).

The award will be presented on Wednesday evening in Sydney at the 2012 Human Genome Meeting, one of the world's most influential and important scientific conferences, at the conclusion of the President’s Oration delivered by Professor Mattick entitled The central role of RNA in human evolution, development and cognition.

The Award Reviewing Committee commented that Professor Mattick’s “work on long non-coding RNA has dramatically changed our concept of 95% of our genome”, and that he has been a “true visionary in his field; he has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of perseverance and ingenuity in gradually proving his hypothesis over the course of 18 years.”

Mattick divided the scientific establishment in the mid-1990s with his then-radical theories about the vast stretches of DNA that do not code for proteins, but which are copied into RNA.

“Genetics has been misunderstood for the past 50 years because of a fundamental assumption that turned out to be wrong – that most genetic information is transacted by proteins,” he explained. “The so-called central dogma of molecular biology was that ‘DNA makes RNA makes protein’ and therefore that genes specified proteins through the intermediate of RNA”.

“While that assumption is largely true for simple organisms like bacteria, it also reflects a mechanical view of the world. Proteins are the functional components of cells, and without components, you don’t have a functioning object.”

“But the mechanical mindset of the 1950s and 1960s was extended to humans. The famous Twentieth Century biologist Jacques Monod reflected the consensual view when he said “What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant,” meaning that the genetic programming of all living things, including humans, would be based on the same principles.”

“Now at one level, that’s correct, because some genes make proteins in all organisms, but what is not correct, at least in the higher organisms, is that most genes make proteins.”

“It turns out that only a tiny fraction – around 1.5% - of the human genome encodes proteins. Put simply, the rest of it was condemned as junk – because people knew, or thought they knew, that genes only made proteins, and so these vast tracts of non-coding DNA that didn’t make proteins made no sense.”

“My breakthrough came when I realised that not only did these non-protein-coding sections produce RNA, but if those RNAs were functional, it would mean that the system was much more sophisticated than we expected.”

“The obvious and very exciting possibility was that there is another layer of information being expressed by the genome - that the non-coding RNAs form a massive and previously unrecognized regulatory network that controls human development. This is turning out to be correct, and is probably also the basis of brain plasticity and learning, although it is still early days.”

“We now realise that the genome is extraordinarily complex, and the deeper we drill down, the more surprises we find. Indeed, what was dismissed as junk because it was not understood almost certainly holds the secret to understanding human development and cognition. It is also likely to hold the secret to understanding many complex diseases.”

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