Posted 31 July 2023

We are all a product of those who came before us. You may know you inherited your blue eyes from your grandmother or your oddly shaped thumb from your father but what about the more fundamental things? The very things that make us prone to this disease or immune to that virus? Some of those things that make us “us” came from ancestors that were not quite the same species and the impacts of these genetic artifacts are profound.

Dr Irene Gallego Romero, the head of SVI’s new Human Genomics and Evolution Lab, is delving deeply into the secrets hidden in our DNA in order to provide a clearer picture of the human genome.

“The human genome was mapped in 2003 but it still isn’t completely understood,” Irene said. “We still don’t really understand how a cell knows to become a liver cell or a heart cell.”

“One of the foundational aims of human genomics is understanding the genetic causes of human traits, with a particular focus on disease,” she says. “I look at it through an evolutionary lens.”

Creating a Rosetta Stone for the human genome can’t be done, however, until there is more diversity in the data.

“The lack of diversity in human genomic datasets limits even the questions we can ask about genetic diseases,” she said. “It’s only when we start to explore a greater breadth of human populations can we even begin to understand the ways natural selection and evolutionary change have shaped us as a species.”

An internationally recognised leader in the field of human genomics, Irene has published papers in influential peer-reviewed journals, as well as being featured in the Australian Broadcasting Commission documentary, “The Human Revolution”.

When asked what made her choose to shift her lab to SVI, Irene says she has long been interested in exploring the medical side of her work.

“My work has been in what we call ‘fundamental science’ and the move to SVI gives me the opportunity to explore how it can inform and intersect with research occurring at the Institute into a wide range of different diseases.”