Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Jean Genie

By Stephen Luntz

Dr Yves Al-Ghazi is finding genes that can make better clothing, but plans to put his scientific training to a very different use.

Cancer charities raise money through “jeans for genes”, but Dr Yves Al-Ghazi is reversing the order, finding cotton genes that can make a better pair of jeans.

As a rule, those who use cotton are looking for fibres that are long, strong and fine. A large part of Al-Ghazi’s work is trying to identify the genes that make a plant produce such fibres rather than short, fat and weak ones. Uniformity of fibres is also highly desired.

To do this Al-Ghazi uses a microchip that tests for the presence of 24,000 genes. Samples of RNA from cotton are tested against the chip, and Al-Ghazi can then use statistical techniques to see which genes are associated with the highest quality fibre.

As well as chasing the source of characteristics that consumers want, Al-Ghazi looks for genes with niche appeal. “Cotton is very hydrophilic,” Al-Ghazi says. “Mostly this is good. For example, it absorbs sweat during sport. However, sometimes a manufacturer wants some that are more hydrophobic, so we look at the surface characteristics.”

Important as Al-Ghazi’s work at CSIRO Plant Industry is, he says it is just the beginning. “They call me the gene hunter, but there is a long way to go before the prey is killed.” Other scientists need to breed cotton with the genes he has identified and see whether it does in fact produce the desired characteristics.

Pressure for constant improvement comes in the form of new technologies. “We also work to meet the industry’s requirements,” Dr Al-Ghazi said. “As new machines are developed to work the fibre into yarns, different types of cotton strands are needed to produce quality fabrics.” Often the manufacturers simply assume that quality will improve, building machines that require the best fibres so that it’s the scientists and farmers who need to run to keep up.

Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop, but Al-Ghazi says he only works on improving the product rather than reducing growing requirements such as water. “There are other scientists working on that, but it is a very different topic of research. It involves looking at more than just the genes.”

Although these days Al-Ghazi only works on cotton, his PhD at the University of Montpellier in France sought the genes that control root architecture in plants in response to concentrations of phosphorus in soil. Where phosphorus is scarce, plants adapt their root structure to find more of the precious element. Although Al-Ghazi eventually found a gene that was triggering response signals to the lack of phosphorus, he says it was slow work.

Upon finishing he was keen to move to Australia or New Zealand “for the lifestyle and nature”. After applying for many positions he eventually secured a contract with CSIRO Plant Industry. However, this runs out in July.

Instead of seeking a new position he is experimenting with a career change, having bought and refurbished a run-down restaurant in the NSW town of Braidwood with his partner. In September the couple will open a French restaurant, L’Auberge, specialising in locally grown produce and “dishes people have forgotten about”.

Located on the road between Canberra and Bateman’s Bay, Braidwood offers Al-Ghazi the opportunity to engage in some of his other passions. “I love sailing, and also mountain biking, surfing and running. I always like being close to nature.”

While he says his science background is very useful for cooking, he does not apply it to his sports. “Sailing is all about intuition for me, about feeling. The animal part of me is in contact with the water and the sky.”

Al-Ghazi says he was “always interested in sciencey stuff,” adding: “I always had a curious mind, but it was only at the end of high school I realised I could do something in biology”. He says he chose to specialise in molecular biology because “DNA is magic to me – it’s the source of everything. I find it exciting to discover the intimate nature of life. I’ve always found it incredible you can stock the information for a living thing in something so small. You can never do that with the best technology. We still don’t understand most of the secrets DNA has to give.”