Understanding cell communication

Professor Alistair Forrest

Senior Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Medical Research

Alistair Forrest is a bright star in the world of genomics. 

After 20 years away, the internationally-renowned researcher has returned to his home town of Perth.

Alistair now heads up the Systems Biology and Genomics laboratory at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth, working with next generation DNA sequencing and bioinformatics in an effort to understand cancer and genetic diseases.

“Moving to UWA and the Perkins Institute allows me to collaborate with clinicians at the new Queen Elizabeth II Medical Campus. We are studying how cell communication goes wrong in cancer and identifying new genes involved in genetic diseases.”

Professor Alistair Forrest

During his time away, Alistair was involved in ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ science, generating and analysing some of the first microarrays used in Australia. He also invented a strand specific RNA-seq protocol that signalled the beginning of the RNA-seq revolution.

In 2007 Alistair moved to RIKEN Yokohama Japan on a prestigious CJ Martin Fellowship, where he was involved in the FANTOM5 (Functional Annotation of the mammalian genome) project. Alistair was recognised for his work when he, as lead author, along with researchers from Japan and Germany, collaborated to generate an extensive map of genomic regulatory regions (promoters and enhancers) used in the hundreds of cell types that make up our bodies. His follow-on work has focused on mapping the sets of messages sent between these different cell types. This work showed that hundreds of messages are passed between any two cell types. 

“I led a large scientific collaboration of more than 260 people from 20 countries. This work, FANTOM5, has resulted in over 46 publications so far, including papers in Nature and Science. This work generated a genome-wide map of the regions of our genome that are used in over 200 different cell types. This allows us to better understand which genes cause which genetic diseases.”

Despite abandoning his first PhD after three-and-a-half years, Alistair shows you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, completing his second PhD a decade later in 2007. 

“Think deeply about your problem; think about what is necessary to succeed, not necessarily what everyone is else is doing. Sometimes we limit ourselves with artificial boundaries – try to overcome these.”

Professor Alistair Forrest

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