Peter Koopman graduated with Honours in Genetics at the University of Melbourne in 1981, after majoring in Biochemistry and Genetics. During PhD work with Professor Dick Cotton at the Birth Defects Research Institute (now the Murdoch Institute), he developed a system for identifying and quantitating the cell types generated in differentiating teratoma stem cell cultures. This allowed detailed characterisation of a differentiation-retarding factor that proved to be the famous cytokine LIF, characterisation of several inducers of differentiation, and isolation of a mutant cell line defective in differentiation. This work stimulated a long-standing interest in the molecular mechanisms controlling cell and tissue differentiation during embryonic development.
Working as a postdoc at the MRC Mammalian Development Unit in London, under Dr Anne McLaren, he refined and exploited the technique of in situ hybridisation as a tool for the molecular analysis of mouse embryo development. During a second postdoc stint with Dr Robin Lovell-Badge at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, he helped overturn the theory that Zfy was the Y-linked testis-determining gene and to isolate a new candidate called Sry. Peter conclusively demonstrated the sex-determining role of Sry in transgenic mouse experiments, in which chromosomally female embryos developed as males due to integration of the Sry transgene. His experiments made the cover of Nature, and are considered a milestone in molecular genetics.
On his return to Australia in 1992, Peter established a group at the Centre for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (now the Institute for Molecular Bioscience) at the University of Queensland, where he is now a Professorial Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council. In the last 10 years his group has been successful in isolating several genes involved in cell differentiation and morphogenesis, and studying their expression, regulation and function in the mammalian embryo.
Peter's group continues to study the molecular biology of Sry in order to understand its role in male sex determination and the defects that can result in sex reversal. They discovered a gene, Sox9, that plays a critical role in male sex determination and acts downstream of Sry. His group has also identified several other genes downstream in the sex-determining pathway, using expression screening approaches such as microarrays.
The discovery of Sry led Peter to the study of the structurally related gene family, Sox. The Sox gene family comprises 20 genes in mice, known to be active during embryo development in specific subsets of tissues. Peter identified several new members of this gene family and his group are studying the functions of the various transcription factors they encode. He was awarded the AMP-ASMR Biomedical Research Award in 1992 and the Julian Wells Medal in 1998 for Contributions to Understanding the Genome.