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Featured News New JCU research centre to answer the big questions

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Mon, 29 Oct 2018

New JCU research centre to answer the big questions

Image: Louis Reed

A new research centre at James Cook University will analyse the massive amounts of data now being generated in biological science to help develop revolutionary techniques that could improve almost all aspects of modern life.

JCU’s Dr Ira Cooke, one of the Centre’s three co-directors, says the Centre for Tropical Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology (CTBMB) will turn the torrents of data now provided by breakthrough technologies into useable science.

“With the new ability we have to generate extraordinary amounts of data, scientists now have unprecedented opportunities to make discoveries which will improve clinical care, food production and environmental management,” he said.

The Centre will gather data generated by molecular techniques and then apply a process known as bioinformatics.

Dr Cooke said bioinformatics is the analysing, visualising and interpreting of datasets involving many thousands of genes, genomic variants or micro-organisms.

“Technology is increasing data generation rates across all the biological sciences and the analysis of the complex, interconnected data we get requires bioinformatics expertise across a variety of research areas.”

He said the research will be firmly focused on the tropics.

“With 50% of the world’s population predicted to live in the tropics by 2050, there are many untapped opportunities to use bioinformatics research to improve the health and security of what will soon be a majority of the world’s population.”

Dr Cooke said the centre will be completely funded by JCU.

“This area of science is relatively new and an emerging discipline. It’s under-represented internationally and for JCU to be supporting growth of cutting-edge disciplines that align with and are actually essential for Australia’s national priorities, is a great thing.”


Researchers from the Centre for Tropical Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology work in three campuses all located in the tropics; Cairns, Townsville, and Singapore.

This positioning gives unprecedented access to samples from the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s oldest rainforest (Daintree), and hospitals throughout Northern Australia and South East Asia.

The research has four distinct themes, with each theme having a separate theme leader.

Theme 1: Health and Disease in the Tropics (Ash Waardenberg)

Researchers will work to better understand both infectious and chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, dengue, and diabetes, and will incorporate high throughput molecular data to better understand diseases pathogenesis.

Theme 2: Tropical Biodiversity (Natalie Dillon)

This platform aims to use the latest molecular techniques and analyses to obtain a better understanding of tropical biodiversity. Such research is leading to the wise management of tropical terrestrial and coastal ecosystems, in Australia and across the tropics.

Theme 3: Methods/Pipeline Development (Roger Huerlimann)

Organisms unique to the tropics are increasingly being genetically sequenced due to the decreasing cost and increased throughput of sequencing technologies. However, many of these resources are not developed to their full potential due to the lack of suitable bioinformatics tools for their analysis. The centre aims to remedy this.

Theme 4: Tropical Food Production (Jan Strugnell)

Research into tropical food production focuses not only on aquaculture and agriculture, but also the industries and communities that utilise them. Collaborations between researchers at the Centre will ensure appropriate molecular data generation and bioinformatic analyses are being utilised to intelligently guide projects aiming at increasing production.


Dr Ira Cooke