Winner: Associate Professor Simon Ho, University of Sydney 

Tuning the clock of evolution

For those who work with ‘molecular clocks’, evolutionary biologist Simon Ho is the ultimate clockmaster.

By using fossils to calibrate the molecular clock, comparing evolutionary rates in different species, and crunching huge genome data sets, Simon Ho from the University of Sydney has shown that modern humans separated from Neanderthals about 200,000 years later than we once thought. He’s also shown that the Irish Potato Famine fungus is still alive in the Americas, and has become potentially even more dangerous.

For these and other contributions to evolutionary science, Simon has been awarded the Macquarie University Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher.

Molecular clocks are how biologists explain how quickly different organisms evolve. By knowing the rate at which DNA mutates we can understand the ancient evolution of humans, predict how fast species will adapt to changing environments, and estimate the speed at which viruses and other pathogens could change and become dangerous.

“Simon’s work has had a colossal impact on researchers’ understanding of the variation in evolutionary rates at the genetic level” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said.

Simon has had an extremely productive scientific career for such a young researcher, receiving two research fellowships from the Australian Research Council (2008-10 and 2011-15), as well as receiving Australian Research Council Discovery Project funding (2013-15).

His scientific rigour and excellence was recognised with the Alan Wilton Award from the Genetics Society of Australasia (2011), rewarding outstanding contributions to the field of genetics research by early career scientists.

Over the past five years, Simon’s work has produced 73 peer-reviewed journal articles and five encyclopaedia articles. His research also informs and enables many others in the field, reflected by the number of times that his work has been cited—over 7000 citations.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards. The Eureka Prizes have been rewarding science since 1990—celebrating 25 years in 2014.

The other finalists were:

  • The Extremes Team, Drs Lisa Alexander, Sarah Perkins and Markus Donat of the University of New South Wales, who quantified what temperature extremes Australia can expect if we do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
  • University of Sydney’s Associate Professor Richard Payne, who has developed synthetic vaccines to turn our own immune systems into cancer-destroying machines

Watch Simon's YouTube video

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