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UC Distinguished Professor Arthur Georges elected as Australian Academy of Science Fellow

Suzanne Lazaroo

23 May 2024: The University of Canberra’s Distinguished Professor Arthur Georges FAA was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) today, joining 23 of his peers recognised this year for their exceptional contributions to science.

Professor Georges is the second AAS Fellow elected from the University; former Chancellor Professor Tom Calma AO was elected in 2022, becoming the AAS’ first Aboriginal Fellow.

An internationally recognised evolutionary ecologist and herpetologist with the Institute for Applied Ecology under the Faculty of Science and Technology, Professor Georges has been at the University since 1983. He now joins a small number of ecologists within the Academy’s Fellowship of 616 scientists.

“I’m really honoured to be named a Fellow – it is recognition of the research that my team and I have done, and of both the efforts and the intellect of my post-docs, students and collaborators,” he said.

“I’m only as good as the people around me – my post-docs and students are the bright ones!"

The meaning of this Fellowship goes beyond the professional for Professor Georges, who first visited the Academy's Shine Dome as a teenager.

"I got interested in science when I was 14, having devoured the factual books of Isaac Asimov on physics and chemistry. My father noticed my interest, so he took me to what is now the Shine Dome when I was just 15," he said.

“I also think this is a great reflection of the work we are doing here at UC. It shines a light on the fact that our teaching is supported by research on the cutting edge of the sector – applied ecology is one of our greatest strengths.”

Interim Vice-Chancellor of the University Professor Lucy Johnston echoed Professor Georges’ sentiments.

“I’d like to extend warm congratulations to Arthur on this recognition of his extraordinary work and its wide-ranging impact,” Professor Johnston said.

“Research at UC has a strong focus on impact, whether it is leading to positive change for local and regional communities, or contributing to solving global challenges. Arthur’s work within the Centre for Conservation Ecology and Genomics on sex determination in reptiles, for instance, has influenced global scientific understanding of how temperature dictates sex.”

Professor Georges has shown that genetic and environmental sex determination in reptiles lie on two ends of a continuum – and his insights have revolutionised understanding of how the complex thermal environment in nests determines sex in reptiles. This work has helped shed light on how reptiles have survived past climate changes – and how they might (or might not) respond to future challenges.

“The important thing to realise is that these reptiles are on the precipice of reversal in the wild because of climate change – if the temperature goes up a bit higher, we’re going to see a large reversal event, of males turning into females,” he said.

“So, it is not just species extinction through mortality that we must be concerned about – we need to take into account more subtle effects like this, in which higher temperatures cause a species to lose its sex chromosomes, and therefore contribute to a loss of biodiversity.”

His election as a Fellow was nominated by Distinguished Professor Jenny Marshall Graves AC FAA, a long-time collaborator and geneticist with La Trobe University.

“I’m delighted that Arthur’s innovative research and leadership have been recognised by election to the Australian Academy of Science,” Professor Marshall Graves said.

“He has effectively combined traditional ecological observations with high-powered genomics to look at how gene action is modified by the environment, using a model temperature-induced sex determination in lizards. He also leads DNA sequencing of Australia’s unique reptile fauna as part of international projects to sequence all complex life.”

Professor Georges’ work has wide potential for both furthering understanding and application across sectors.

“What we are doing is actually looking across the body of life itself, to understand how genes interact in organisms,” he said. “Genotypes determine whether you’re a lizard or a human, but modifiers along the way can change outcomes and alter those genetic trajectories – the environment can program development.

“When we study how these genes interact, we are also dealing with the very same genes and pathways that regulate sexual development in humans. People don’t realise how similar living organisms are, that we share 30 per cent of our genes with a carrot – and a much higher percentage with lizards.”

Professor Georges is a champion of the approach that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and knowledge is both cross-applicable and transferable.

“The world is waking up to the fact that studying animals often leads to scientific breakthroughs for humans, because you are studying the systems that govern life,” he said.

“For instance, Ozempic, one of the best Type 2 diabetes drugs on the market, came out of a study of the saliva of the Gila monster, a venomous lizard native to the southwest United States and northwest Mexico – who would have thought?!”

Joining the ranks of the Academy Fellowship is the latest milestone in an illustrious, decades-long career for Professor Georges.

His work with reptiles grew out of his study of the ecology of sex determination in the endangered Pig-nosed Turtle in Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG), during which he found palpable differences in ecological outcomes in the wild and compared with simpler scenarios in the lab.

“It opened the door to looking at the more complex variables in the wild, and subsequently, in the impact of natural fluctuations in those variables,” he said.

Professor Georges founded the Piku Project in 2006 to promote conservation and study of the turtles in the context of building capacity through community-led conservation in PNG, uniting government, scientists, corporations and community.

Out of this emerged the Piku Biodiversity Network Incorporated (PBN), an NGO which aims to promote and enable biodiversity conservation in PNG through environmental education, community-led conservation and knowledge generation. While the NGO has now transitioned to energetic and capable national leadership, Professor Georges still sits on its board.

Closer to home, Professor Georges has been the Chair of the Scientific Committee in the ACT for 17 years, a role in which he has assisted the ACT government in building and maintaining one of the best records for nature conservation of any jurisdiction in Australia. He will be retiring from the role next month.

His former roles include the Foundation Director of the University’s Institute for Applied Ecology and Board Member of the Invasive Animals CRC. Professor Georges was also the former President of both the Australasian Wildlife Management Society and the Australian Society for Herpetologists.

In 2015, Professor Georges and his team sequenced, assembled and annotated the genome of the Central Bearded Dragon, one of the first Australian reptiles to have its blueprint of life fully documented. This work accelerated the progress of the research of his team and others, and opened up new avenues for discovery.

His current work, funded by a $1.25 million Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant is concerned with drilling down into how a cell captures environmental temperature, via a balance between calcium and redox channels which mediate cellular processes.

This leads to changes in ancient and ubiquitous mechanisms for modification of the chromatin in chromosomes, leading to the selective release of genes for expression under the influence of temperature.

“We start out with simple ideas to test. However, the more you investigate, the more you realise the complexity of genetics, and how much more there is to learn,” Professor Georges said.

“As such, I’m really looking forward to interacting with the Academy at the Fellowship level, contributing in what way I can to their important work, and to the increased visibility and collaboration that will bring.”

The new Fellows will be formally admitted to the Australian Academy of Science on 9 September, and will present their Science on 11 September at Science at the Shine Dome; registrations for this event open in June.