Elizabeth Salisbury (Liz) Dennis

By Colin WardFebruary 14th, 2011


Elizabeth Salisbury Dennis was born in Sydney, Australia on 10 December 1943. The eldest of three girls, she grew up in Hunter’s Hill, Sydney and was educated at the Methodist Ladies College (MLC), a girls’ private school which was unusually supportive of women. As Liz recalled:

Its philosophy was that you shouldn’t not do anything because you’re a woman, and so it provided courses for us like physics honours and chemistry honours, which were unusual then. As a young girl I was always keen on chemistry. Reading stories of Madame Curie, I decided I wanted to be like her. I think she was the only heroic figure I had in my early childhood. Then at MLC we had a very good chemistry teacher – she had a PhD in chemistry, and was outstanding in those days – who gave us a real interest in chemistry.

She obtained her BSc (Hons 1st Class) from Sydney University in 1964. When asked by Frank Gibson in the Interviews with Australian Scientists series whether she found the undergraduate course satisfying or stimulating she replied:

Intellectually, in general no. There were huge numbers of people at Sydney University then: we’d have a lecture of 1 000 people and virtually no stimulation by the staff or contact with them, in the first couple of years. I’d say the undergraduate teaching was very poor, except for the ‘odd’ courses. In first year we had Hans Freeman, a very exciting lecturer, for a special chemistry course. And then Harry Messel and Stuart Butler – both exciting – who ran a special physics course. In second year, hearing Gerry Wake talking about nucleic acids made me decide that was what I really wanted to do, and later one of the best things that happened to me was having Gerry as an honours supervisor. He taught me a lot about science, about being rigorous, about being focused and methodical.

She obtained her PhD from Sydney University in 1968, for her thesis entitled: ‘Studies on the Bacillus subtilis genome’ under the supervision of Dr RG Wake followed by a Post Doctoral Fellowship in the laboratory of Dr Julius Marmur at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, USA from 1968 to 1970 where she was supported by the Anna Fuller Fund.

At this time she took a break from mainstream research and went to lecture at the University of Papua New Guinea. She held the position of lecturer in Microbiology and Biochemistry from 1970 to 1972 and Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry from 1974 to 1976. As she recalled in the interview with Frank Gibson:

This may be a paternalistic view, but I thought it was good to do something to use your knowledge for the less developed countries. That was quite a mind expanding experience. I think normally we are comfortable in our own little niches, but Papua New Guinea didn’t have all the molecular biology, high-tech instrumentation and big infrastructure, or an environment where you can feed ideas off lots of colleagues.

I was doing chromosome and DNA studies on the native rodents, and together with a classical zoologist, Jim Menzies, I would go out trapping rodents and taking pictures of them and determining the chromosome complement. We even wrote a book on the rodents of Papua New Guinea. There is a big radiation of species. Some of them are cute little tree mice but one rat is called Hyomys goliath because it’s so big (about 400 mm head and body and tail the same, weighing 1 kg). And they’re quite unrelated to Rattus. That project was fun and I saw a lot of the PNG countryside. Doing this work taught me that there are a lot of scientific problems and it’s interesting when you get involved in any of them.

In 1972, she joined the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, Canberra as a Research Scientist rising to the position of Chief Research Scientist in 1991 and CSIRO Fellow in 2001.

In 1982-83, she was a Visiting Fellow, Biochemistry Department, Stanford University, in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Dr Paul Berg on a Fulbright Fellowship as a Senior Scholar. She also held the position of Visiting Fellow (1991) and Adjunct Professor (1992-98) of the Australian National University.


Liz Dennis has been one of the pioneers in plant molecular biology with interests in gene expression, the molecular bases of plant development, plant gene regulation and the mapping plant genomes.

Together with her colleagues, she:

  • cloned the alcohol dehydrogenase gene and identified promoter motifs responsible for its regulation
  • demonstrated that all plants have haemoglobin and explained the function of one type of haemoglobin, the protection of the plant against low oxygen stress
  • characterised the Ds element and its movement.

She has made significant innovations in:

  • the molecular basis of plant development especially flowering and seed development
  • plant gene regulation including epigenetic regulation
  • plant response to environmental stress, such as waterlogging conditions
  • the molecular basis of heterosis (hybrid vigour) and epigenetics (changes in the appearance or gene function of an organism not due to actual changes in its DNA sequence).

With industry her research group:

  • developed plant promoters which respond to anaerobic conditions and give high-level expression. This work was funded by Agrigenetics Corporation and resulted in patents which have been granted in the USA.
  • developed a monocot promoter with high-levels of expression for use in cereal transformation. This was supported by Wheat Industry Research Council Funding and has also been patented.
  • developed genetically engineered eucalypts for plantations which was supported by a GIRD grant in collaboration with APM, ANM, North Eucalypt Technologies, Kimberly Clarke and CSIRO Forestry.
  • investigated the use of ribozymes to develop a system for male sterility in research funded by Gene Shears Pty Ltd.

She served as:

  • Program Leader in GrainGene in association with GRDC, AWB and CSIRO PI (Program 1)
  • Program Leader – Rice CRC (Program 2)
  • Leader of projects under CSIRO/Bayer Research Alliance
  • Board Member – Australian Genome Research Facility
  • Research Director – New South Wales Centre for Agricultural Genomics
  • Review Committee GAP Division INRA France

She was President-Elect 1991, President 1992-93 and Past President 1994 of the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; was a member of the Board of Directors of the International Society of Plant Molecular Biology from 1990 to 1993, a Committee Member of the Genetics Society of Australia, in 1978-79 and a member of the American Society of Plant Physiologists.

She has published approximately 300 papers in international journals and one book and been editor of two further books.

Honours and awards

Fellowship of societies

2002 Fellow of the American Society for the Advancement of Science
1995 Elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science
1987 Elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering

Academic honours

2000 Inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Science with Dr Jim Peacock
1997 Avon ‘Spirit of Achievement’ Award
1997 Lemberg Medal of the Australian Society of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
1988 Pharmacia LKB/Biotechnology Medal of the Australian Biochemical Society for contributions to Biochemical Research
1980 Whiteley Prize for best zoological book on Papua New Guinea for A Handbook of New Guinea Rodents by Menzies JI and Dennis ES

Achievements in genomics

Chair of Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis Genome Project
Member Cotton Genome writing group planning the cotton genome sequence
Science Advisory group International Rice Functional Genomics Consortium
Program Leader Genomics and Plant Development, CSIRO Plant Industry
Board member Australian Genome Research Facility
Advisory Board RIKEN Plant Science Centre Yokohoma Japan

Government committees

2000 Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Council
1994 Rice Biotechnology Working Group, Overseas Development Agency, UK Government
1993 – 94 Chairman, Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis Genome Research Project
1990 Ad Hoc Genome Committee, DITAC ‘Plant Molecular Biology’ Co-organiser French-Australian Meeting
1989 Australian Government observer at European Community Biotechnology Action Program Meeting, ‘Plant Biotechnology in the European Community’, Bad Honnef, West Germany
1988 Member Australian Government Biotechnology Mission to the European Community
1986 – 91 Biotechnology Advisory Committee of the IR&D Board, Dept of Industry, Technology and Commerce, Australian Government
1985 – 87 Post Doctoral Awards Committee of CSIRO

Editorial Boards

2008 Associate Editor The Plant Genome
Editorial Board Current Opinion in Plant Biology
Editorial Board Molecular Breeding, Kluwer, Netherlands
1990 – 99 Foundation Editor The Plant Journal, Blackwell & Bios, UK
1990 – 93 Editor Genetical Research, Cambridge, UK
1987 – 93 Editor Advances in Plant Gene Research, Springer, Vienna, Austria