Environmental Genomics

Listen to a podcast of Professor Alan Cooper presenting one of the Science Seminar Series.

The accurate and rapid assessment of biodiversity is a critical aspect for modern science, and ranges from the measurement of environmental and climate change, to microbes in water systems or at the point of care in medical centres. Similarly, the need for the rapid and responsible economic development of primary resources, and the monitoring of invasive species and biosecurity, also place a premium on the ability to quickly assess and quantify biodiversity across a range of diverse habitats. In contrast to this pressing demand, current biodiversity assessment methods are generally laborious and expensive, and do not provide particularly detailed estimates of small, cryptic, or unknown species.


ACAD have combined methods developed to detect trace amounts of ancient DNA with 2nd Generation Sequencing technology to design a vertical barcoding system capable of rapidly screening the genetic and taxonomic diversity of modern, complex biological samples. In parallel with studies of taxonomically identified museum and herbaria material, this approach promises to provide the first genetic audits of diverse Australian environments. In combination with preserved biological signals (such as from marine sediments), there is now an opportunity to perform comprehensive analyses of the impacts of climate change on ecosystems. We are also working with IPAS to develop miniaturised and portable DNA detection systems, which will eventually allow field-based genetic analysis – and the ultimate aim of a Star Trek Tricorder.

Professor Alan Cooper, Director, Australian Centre for Ancient DNA

Prof. Cooper was awarded a Federation Fellowship in 2004 to relocate from Oxford University, where he was the Director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre, and develop an advanced ancient DNA facility for Australia at the University of Adelaide. The purpose-built, positive air-pressure, Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) is located in the State Herbarium building and opened in 2006, and provides an internationally-leading research and development centre for studies of preserved genetic information across Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere. ACAD is a University Research centre, and forms one of the founding groups in both the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute (TEI) and the Institute of Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS). In 2009, Prof. Cooper was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship in the first round of this scheme, with the project title ‘From biodiversity to health: Performing the first genetic audits of Australia’.


Current research projects focus on the impacts of climate and environmental change over time, and the role this plays in extinction events and the evolutionary history and distribution of modern species and populations. Other key areas include molecular clocks, advanced forensics, and agricultural genetics. ACAD’s current strategic interests include environmental genomics, forensic applications for military/police and humanitarian organisations, climate and environmental change in Australia and Antarctica, and ancient DNA studies of megafauna and humans in South America.

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