Primary research interest

Molecular genetics and cell biology of the skin

About me

I completed my PhD in Biochemistry in 1985 at The University of Adelaide under the supervision of Professor George Rogers. From November 1985 - September 1988 I was a Visiting Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda) in Dr Peter Steinert’s lab (NCI - Dermatology Branch). In September 1988, I joined Dr Dennis Roop at Baylor College of Medicine (Houston) as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell Biology chaired by Professor Bert O’Malley. During this time at Baylor, I was also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology. I returned to Australia in June 1995 as a lecturer in Biochemistry at The University of Queensland and was awarded a Wellcome Senior Research Fellowship in 1996.

Research profiles

Research focus and collaborations

Characterisation of novel bioactive peptides

The difference between proteome complexity and gene number has confounded biologists. This difference can be accounted for in part by alternative transcription start sites, alternative splicing, mRNA editing and post-translational modifications. However, we propose that the proteome also contains peptides arising from the translation of short open reading frames (sORFs) present within transcribed regions of the genome. Most translatable sORFs occur in the 5' untranslated regions (5'UTRs) of eukaryotic mRNAs but recent work has shown that they can be found within the main ORF and 3'UTR of mRNAs as well as on non-coding and antisense transcripts. The short peptides (sPEPs) encoded by sORFs may form the basis of a hitherto unknown regulatory network. Current research projects include:

  • Discovery of sORFs and their encoded sPEPs using proteogenomic approaches (with Ross Smith & Amanda Nowens)
  • Characterisation of novel bioactive peptides encoded by sORFs in mammalian cells and tissues
  • Characterisation of novel bioactive peptides from plants and fungi (with Bernie Carroll & James Fraser)
  • Development of bioinformatic tools to discover and characterise sORFs (with Scott Beatson)

Paper: Green fluorescent protein as a reporter in translational assays

Development of the next generation of gene expression systems

A second focus of this laboratory is directed towards the development of new eukaryotic expression vectors. We are investigating the role of post-transcriptional mechanisms in gene expression. This work has led to the development of short cis-acting sequences based on small upstream open reading frames (uORFs) that can be used to modulate gene expression; known as GeneDimmerTM and GeneBooster respectively. Both GeneDimmerTM and GeneBooster expression vectors will ultimately be used in cell biology, gene therapy and agriculture. Current research projects include:

  • Development of second generation GeneDimmerTM vectors and their characterisation in mammalian cell lines
  • Development of plant-specific GeneDimmerTM vectors and their characterisation in transgenic plants (with Bernie Carroll)

Paper: 5′-Untranslated regions with multiple upstream AUG codons can support low-level translation via leaky scanning and reinitiation

Molecular genetics and cellular biology of the integument

We maintain an interest in cutaneous biology and are studying the contribution of individual genes and proteins to skin development, differentiation and maintenance. Our research into the molecular mechanisms that regulate these processes is ultimately aimed at improving the treatment of inherited and acquired skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, cancer and accidental trauma such as burns, using gene and stem cell therapies. The skin also serves as an important model for other epithelia such as the gut, oral cavity, breast and prostate. Current research projects include:

  • Analysis of polymorphisms in key skin and hair genes and their contribution to phenotype
  • The characterisation of RNA-binding proteins (with Ross Smith)

Paper: The mouse keratin 6 isoforms are differentially expressed in the hair follicle, footpad, tongue and activated epidermis

Funded projects

  • UWA-UQ Bilateral Research Collaboration Award 2013, Development of a nucleolus-homing peptide for targeting RNA-therapeutics in gene therapy, Total value of grant: $19,300
  • NHMRC Project Grant 2010-2012, The contribution of upstream open reading frames to the eukaryotic proteome, Total value of grant: $192,500
  • National Rosacea Society 2009-2010, The role of tissue kallikreins in Rosacea, Total value of grant: $21,934

Teaching interests

Cell biology, developmental biology, medical genetics and molecular biology.

Achievements and awards 

  • Dermatology Foundation Career Development Award (1994)
  • NIH R29 ‘FIRST’ Award (1994)
  • Wellcome Senior Research Fellowship in Medical Science (1996)
  • Board member of The Australasian Society of Dermatological Research (from 2003)
  • Board member of Australasian Wound and Tissue Repair Society (2007 - 2014)
  • Member of the Scientific Research Committee of the Australasian College of Dermatologists (from 2010)
  • Convenor and Co-chair of the Straddie Cutaneous Biology meetings (2002, 2006 & 2014)
  • ComBio2016 Conference Chair
  • President-elect (2017 - 2019) The Australasian Society of Dermatological Research

sORF & sPEP resources

Featured publications

Researcher biography

Molecular genetics and cellular biology of the skin.

Keratinocytes are the major cell type of the epidermis and have evolved to make terrestrial life possible. In laying down their lives, they provide a barrier protecting the organism from harmful UV radiation, viral, fungal and bacterial invasion as well as preventing desiccation. Keratinocytes express a unique subset of proteins depending on their state of development. Of interest to this laboratory are the keratins, which form the intermediate filament cytoskeleton of these cells, and the proteins with which they interact.

The laboratory has two key areas of investigation:

  1. characterising the molecular processes involved in normal skin and hair development and identifying the aberrations in these processes that result in skin cancers.
  2. characterising the process of epidermal differentiation and the roles of individual proteins in the maintenance of a functional epidermis. Related to this aim is the identification of disease-causing mutations.