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UNSW PhD student explores genetic aging in rural populations

UNSW final year PhD candidate Yuling Zhou was lucky enough to be selected to attend an “invite only” excellence in the life science (EMBO) international conference in Singapore recently.

Held at Nanyang Technological University, the international conference investigated the exciting field of Telomeric chromatin and telomere fragility.

According to the University of Utah Health Sciences: “Telomeres have been compared with the plastic tips on shoelaces, because they keep chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would destroy or scramble an organism's genetic information.

“Yet, each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or "senescent" or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death. So telomeres also have been compared with a bomb fuse.”

At the conference, speakers discussed the latest advances in this medical research field, such as the structure, function and pathology of telomeres in the context of genome replication and cell differentiation.

“The conference also covered the practical application of telomere regulation in stem cell therapeutic field – which was interesting and relevant to my own studies,” says Ms Zhou, who is completing her PhD under the supervision of UNSW Rural Clinical School’s head of research Associate Professor Craig McLachlan.

“I’m very excited about the research Yuling is doing,” Associate Professor McLachlan says. “She is exploring genetic aging in rural populations and we’ve found some interesting outcomes, and we now plan to publish this work.”

“Also, Elizabeth H. Blackburn an Australian won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology/ Medicine for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase, so we are well-placed to make major advances in this research,” he added.

EMBO is an organization of more than 1700 leading researchers that promotes excellence in the life sciences. Its major goals are to support talented, young researchers at all stages of their careers, stimulate the exchange of scientific information, and help build a global research environment where scientists can achieve their best work.

"Singapore is very hot and humid, but the people there are nice and the food is delicious," Yuling says. "And what I learnt at the conference from world-class researchers is sure to help my research immensely.  

“I will remember the trip forever."