How do we identify genes that control the identity of a cell?

22 February 2019
Dr Nathan Palpant has devised a new tool for understanding a cell's function and purpose.
Advances in technology have enabled a growing capacity to study the molecular state of cells with extraordinary resolution. Researchers now routinely generate millions of new data points to study processes underlying development and disease at single cell resolution. However, with big data comes equally big questions: how to find the genes controlling a cell from thousands of expressed genes? Can we understand this cohesive process across tens to hundreds of thousands of individual cells? 

This week Dr Nathan Palpant from the University of Queensland (UQ) was awarded the 2019 Lorne Genome Millennium Science Mid-Career Award, which acknowledges outstanding contributions to Australian genomic research, including novel analytical concepts. 

The award was granted in recognition of Dr Palpant’s recent work devising a novel computational analysis strategy that facilitates identification of genes controlling a cell’s identity from global RNA-seq data.

In a recent study, his team, in collaboration with A/ Prof Joseph Powell's group from the Garvan Institute, unraveled the basis of cardiac cell differentiation at single cell resolution revealing more than 750 million data points of RNA expression. Data sets like this are now routinely generated and require the development of techniques to move from describing the diversity of cells to understanding what controls each cell’s function and purpose. The new approach developed by Dr Palpant’s group in close collaboration with Dr Mikael Boden (UQ), called TRIAGE (Transcriptional Regulatory Inference Analysis from Gene Expression), enables researchers to more efficiently identify key genes controlling development and disease from large-scale genomic data.

Dr Palpant is a Group Leader at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience where he heads the Stem Cell and Cardiovascular Development Laboratory. His research focusses on cardiovascular development and disease using human pluripotent stem cells.

The Millennium Science Mid-Careers Award is granted to one male and one female researcher. This year, Dr Nathan Palpant received the award with Dr Emily Wong, also from the University of Queensland. Dr Wong uses computation and quantitative methods to decipher the regulatory links between genotype and phenotype.

Dr Nathan Palpant joins other members of Stem Cells Australia who have won this award including Dr Alicia Oshlack (Murdoch Children’s Research Institute) and Professor Alistair Forrest (Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research).

Congratulations Nathan.

Dr Nathan Palpant is a Chief Investigator at Stem Cells Australia.