The Spark of Life
The Spark of Life
Creating Windows into the Body
Challenge Leader
Challenge Leader
A/Prof Jeremy Thompson
Triple stained embryos
Triple stained embryos
What happens in the moments following conception?
Challenge team
Challenge team
Find out who we are

Biological Challenge 1 - Spark of Life

Challenge Leader – Prof Jeremy Thompson

To understand the dynamic processes at the beginning of life

Nanoscale BioPhotonics offers approaches to measuring ions and metabolites, DNA, RNA and associated proteins. This will reveal the causal pathways between maternal microenvironment and peri-conception programming, allowing us to work towards an improved understanding of the dynamic processes at the beginning of life.

Read More


For all animals, life begins with an egg and sperm meeting within the reproductive tract.  Each egg and sperm contains the genes that will shape much of the size, shape, appearance and health of a new life. Genes are therefore fundamental to the determination of the identity of a new individual, as the genetic code is a recipe for the developing life to form.

However, in many ways the environment in which a developing new life encounters has a profound influence on determining the identity of the individual. In particular, we know that the environment within the mother’s reproductive tract tinkers with the recipe, not by changing the code of genes, but by subtly adjusting when genes are turned off and on.

We call this “epigenetics” and it involves several different mechanisms that directly impinge on when genes are active and inactive. This is especially so immediately after fertilization, which represents a time of significant epigenetic change – the purpose of which is to inform the new life what kind of environment awaits for it after its born, so that it can adapt to that environment beyond what destiny lies within the genetic code.

Currently we view the dynamic nature of embryo development from a distance, through measuring the products of gene expression and metabolism from embryos collected from the reproductive tract and examined in isolation, away from its natural environment.

Measuring the precise epigenetic changes that occur at the single embryo level is not feasible, and none of these can be measured within the reproductive tract, which in itself provides a dynamically changing, yet largely uncharacterised environment.

We want to know what are the metabolic adaptations and epigenetic consequences that occur in embryos when they encounter an adverse maternal environment (such as diabetes and obesity) even though they keep growing but result in an unhealthy offspring.

By engaging with the four themes, we will progressively measure these parameters on a single embryo scale, as non-invasively as we can, ultimately aiming to do so within the reproductive tract.

We will: 

  • work towards understanding the dynamic processes at the beginning of life. 
  • explore the capacity of autofluoresence to measure the dynamic nature of protein
  • explore how we can use nanoparticle technology to measure epigenetic changes 
  • determine how to use photonics to measure changes in the female reproductive tract
  • complete the picture of how the maternal environment influences early development

The Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics links Australia's key nanophotonics groups and builds on Global Collaborations with a focus on doing the science required to advance biology.