Ecological Genomics

Lab Head

Professor Bill Ballard

Head of Department & Professor of Evolutionary Genomics

View profile, publications and contact details

Our Laboratory has state-of-the-art facilities to study genes through to genomes of vertebrates and invertebrates. Our highly collaborative research involves local, national and international partners. We use first, second and third generation sequencing techniques to decipher the genome and determine how it has changed over time due to selection and demographic effects. We link RNA expression with the epigenome to recognise and link genomics with fundamental features of basic ecology and behaviour. Our ability to detect and recognise these cues is critical to each species’ health and survival – including our own. We use model species to understand and unravel basic processes that influence an organisms' ability to survive and reproduce in a fluctuating environment.

Current Research

Evolutionary history of Australian native animals

Australian scientists have an obligation to learn more about our native species. Focused research projects can help us understand how they fit into the ecological landscape. Evolutionary history studies can resolve and quantify the genomic variations of animals enabling a precise genomic definition of species and buttress future conservation efforts. We are eager to collaborate on genomic studies of all native animals. Over the past decade we have worked on the Australian dingo. After winning the International “World’s Most Interesting Genome Competition” in 2017, we determined the genome of “Sandy” the Desert dingo. Deciphering her genome is our first step to understanding the evolutionary history of the four dingo ecotypes' and determining when and how they came to Australia.

Landscape genomics of apex predators

The first step towards adaptation to future climate change is diminishing vulnerability to present climate variability. One component of conferring resilience against globally threatening processes is to develop our understanding of apex predator responses to change because they are drivers of ecosystem dynamics and biodiversity conservation. We are developing our genomic understanding of all apex predators. In Australia, dingoes are the terrestrial vertebrate apex predator, and influence the behaviour, spatial distribution and abundance of prey populations. Dingoes are a part of Australian culture's fabric, and are considered a “lightning- rod" of the land, generating heartfelt and often polarised opinions from Aboriginal people, tourism operators, pastoralists, ecologists, and conservationists. The unclear distinction of dingoes from feral dogs is the main controversy leading to differing opinions of conservation efforts' value. We conduct behavioural, metabolomics, microbiome, and nutrigenomic studies on Sanctuary dingoes.

Domestic animal genomics: One genome at a time

There are over 100 horse, cattle, pig and chicken breeds. In Australia, there are 195 dog breeds, 22 sheep breeds, 21 cat breeds and two alpaca types. A reference genome should be developed for each and every domestic breed and type to help maximise productivity and enable targeted identification of breed specific genetic diseases. It will also help to group genomic regions that are similar between breeds and allow future proofing the genome. We have sequenced the entire genomes of a German Shepherd Dog and a Basenji dog. Next, we will determine an optimal protocol for assembling three dog breeds' genomes: Chow Chow, Australian Cattle Dog (ACD), and Bernese Mountain dog (BMD). We selected these three morphologically distinct breeds as they span the currently proposed dog breed phylogeny. These canine genomes will enable hypothyroidism studies in Chow Chow, deafness in the Australian Cattle Dog and histiocytic sarcoma in the Basenji Mountain Dog.

Nutrigenomics: it's all in the genes

When we look online for foods that help to make us healthy or fit, they are the same for females and males, all ages, races, and body types. Yet, the suggestion that our genomes are the same is simply untrue. Science has determined that our genomes are not identical, and the expression of many genes changes as a person ages. Soon, elite athletes' genomes will be unraveled to construct diets that maximise energy production and reduce disease risk. The same will occur for primary production animals to determine how diet can be optimised for each genome, energetic requirement, and age. We have studied the influence of diet on energy production in Drosophila flies and have shown that a single mutation in the mitochondrial genome can influence developmental time. We are researching whether this metabolomic difference will then determine the frequencies of flies in the population when specific foods are available.

Lab Members

Dr Sonu Yadav