A new sugar that could prevent heart disease; an Alzheimer’s vaccine that cures the memory of mice; real Star Wars bacteria and robot aircraft that copy insects are just some of the interesting stories that emerged from Australian research published in the last week. Find over a dozen other stories below.
Constant gardeners of world’s reefs
Australian scientists have urged greater consideration for the brilliantly hued parrot fishes that tend and renew the world’s imperilled coral reefs. In a major new study published marine biologists have investigated parrot fish populations on 18 coral island reefs from Mauritius in the west Indian Ocean to Tahiti in the central Pacific. “Parrot fish fulfil a number of key roles on the reef. They remove sick and dead corals and clean areas for new corals to settle, they remove weedy growth, and they cart away literally tonnes of sand and sediment that would otherwise smother the corals.”
Prof David Bellwood, Dr Andrew Hoey and Prof Terry Hughes, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and James Cook University
Proceedings of the Royal Society; http://www-public.jcu.edu.au/news/JCU_094633
Ageing stars are slow on the outside but fast on the inside
An international team of astronomers has made a new discovery about how old stars called ‘red giants’ rotate, giving an insight into what our Sun will look like in five billion years. The group, which includes Sydney researchers, has discovered the cores of red giants spin at least 10 times faster than their outer layers.
Prof Tim Bedding, Dr Dennis Stello, School of Physics, University of Sydney.
Alzheimer’s vaccine cures memory of mice
A vaccine that slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia has been developed by Sydney researchers. The vaccine, which targets a protein known as tau, prevents the ongoing formation of neurofibrillary tangles in the brain of a mouse with Alzheimer’s disease. This progressive neurodegenerative disease affects more than 35 million people worldwide. The tau protein is also involved in front temporal dementia, the second most common form of dementia in people younger than 65 years.
A/Prof Lars Ittner, Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney
Fossil find shows ancient super-predator had high-powered vision
A huge, shrimp-like marine creature that pursued its prey through the warm waters of the Earth’s Cambrian Period 515 million years ago had more acute vision than most of its diminutive modern-day relatives. An international team of palaeontologists discovered its fossilised eyes while excavating in the Emu Bay Shale on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. “Anomalocaris is the stuff of nightmares and science fiction films It is considered to have been at the top of the earliest food chains because of its metre-long body, the formidable grasping claws at the front of its head, and its circular mouth with teeth-like serrations. And this new discovery confirms that it had superb vision to support its predatory lifestyle.”
Dr John Paterson, University of New England
A brighter future for infertility treatment
The treatment of male infertility could soon be boosted through intervention at a sub-DNA ‘epigenetic’ level, according to researchers in Canberra. The research team has uncovered a new mechanism of gene activation which will have important implications in understanding how cellular differentiation is achieved. The team made the breakthrough by looking at what’s happening in our bodies at the epigenetic level, which controls how our DNA is activated.
Prof David Tremethick, Dr Tanya Soboleva, Dr Maxim Nekrasov, John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU
Nature Structural and Molecular Biology; http://news.anu.edu.au/?p=12861
Dolomite discovery ends 100-year treasure hunt
The century-old mystery of a missing mineral in coral reefs has been solved by a team from Canberra. The team uncovered a hidden stash of the mineral dolomite in coral reefs around the globe “We have discovered that dolomite is in fact present in large quantities in modern coral reefs, but from an unexpected source.” The team’s eureka moment came when they found large quantities of dolomite packed inside a ‘reef builder’ species of red algae, Hydrolithon onkodes.
Dr Bradley Opdyke, Ms Marinda Nash, Dr Uli Troitzsch, Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU
Robot aircraft teach themselves which way is up
Australian vision scientists today unveiled a novel way to help pilotless aircraft accurately determine their heading and orientation to the ground – by imitating how insects do it. The technology can improve the navigation, flight characteristics and safety for civil and military aircraft, as well as pilotless drones. “UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or pilotless aircraft) are used in crop dusting, bushfire monitoring, tracking algal blooms or crop growth and infrastructure inspection as well as defence roles. Some of these tasks require the aircraft to fly close to the ground and amongst obstacles, so it is crucial that the aircraft knows its heading direction and roll and pitch angles accurately.”
Mr Richard Moore, The Vision Centre and The Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland
When the heat’s on, fish can cope
Australian scientists have discovered that some tropical fish have a greater capacity to cope with rising sea temperatures than previously thought – by adjusting over several generations. The discovery sheds a ray of hope amid the rising concern over the future of coral reefs and their fish under the levels of global warming expected to occur by the end of the 21st century. Understanding the ability of species to acclimatise to rising temperatures over longer time periods is critical for predicting the biological consequences of global warming – yet it remains one of the least understood aspects of climate science. The scientists were seeking to discover how fish would cope with the elevated sea temperatures expected by 2050 and 2100.
Professor Philip Munday, Ms Jennifer Donelson, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
Nature Climate Change; http://www-public.jcu.edu.au/news/JCU_094504
Global Carbon Project annual emissions summary
Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by a record 5.9 per cent in 2010 following the dampening effect of the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), according to scientists working with the Global Carbon Project (GCP). The GCP annual analysis reported that the impact of the GFC on emissions has been short-lived owing to strong emissions growth in emerging economies and a return to emissions growth in developed economies. Contributions to global emissions growth in 2010 were largest from China, USA, India, the Russian Federation, and the European Union, with a continuously growing global share from emerging economies. Coal burning was at the heart of the growth in fossil fuel and cement emissions accounting for 52% of the total growth.
Dr Pep Canadell, Dr Mike Raupach, CSIRO
Nature Climate Change; http://www.csiro.au/en/Portals/Media/Global-Carbon-Project.aspx
Research advances breast reconstruction
Breast reconstruction surgery will become both safer and more realistic thanks to a study led by Brisbane researchers. They recently conducted a research project in collaboration with engineers and surgeons in Singapore and Germany, which used computer aided design (CAD) to produce moulds accurately modelled on a laser scan of a patient’s healthy breast. Surgeons then successfully used the moulds during three tissue reconstruction operations.
Prof Dietmar W. Hutmacher, Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, QUT
Bacteria convert wastewater chemicals into toxic form
Interactions with bacteria during water treatment could transform traces of pharmaceutical compounds commonly present in wastewater from non-toxic to toxic forms, a new study suggests. Some drugs can occur in two forms, known as enantiomers. UNSW researchers monitored three common pharmaceuticals during wastewater treatment. These included the anti-inflammatory drug naproxen, which is manufactured and dispensed as a single enantiomer, known as S-naproxen. Its counterpart, R-naproxen, is known to be highly toxic to the liver and is not publicly available.Through the treatment process, researchers observed that some of the safe version of naproxen had been converted to the unsafe form, which could have negative environmental implications. It is the first time that enantiomeric inversion during the wastewater treatment process has been reported.
Plunge in CO2 put the freeze on Antarctica
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels plunged by 40 per cent before and during the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet 34 million years ago, according to a new study. The finding helps solve a long-standing scientific puzzle and confirms the power of C02 to dramatically alter global climate. The study by an international team is the first multidisciplinary research of its kind to show that C02 was tracking global cooling at that time. It confirms that significant falls in the greenhouse gas result in global cooling, just as rises result in global warming.
Dr Willem Sijp, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW
Sugar is good for a sweet heart
A new type of sugar could help prevent heart disease. Researchers have formulated promising new heart disease preventatives based on sugar and selenium. The compounds have been filed under an international patent with the hope of future clinical use. “Mary Poppins was right in saying – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Although these compounds are not the kind of sugar most people would buy as a Valentine’s Day gift we are still very excited by their potential.”
Dr Corin Storkey, Prof Carl Schiesser, ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology, The University of Melbourne.
Chemical Communications; http://newsroom.melbourne.edu/news/n-712
Researchers find clue to cancer cell survival
Protein and cell biology research at The University of Western Australia has contributed to a ground-breaking international study that demonstrates a way to alter the survival of cancer cells. The work demonstrates for the first time that the active sarcoma (Src) gene product is differentially targeted in cancer cells to maintain the viability of the cancer cells.
Prof Wally Langdon, School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, UWA
Platelet formation: in your blood and genes
QIMR researchers, as part of an international study, have identified 68 regions in the genome that affect blood platelet formation, which is essential for blood clotting and wound healing. They studied the genes of more than 68,000 people from different backgrounds, making this the largest study of its kind. “The aim of this genome-wide study was to understand which genes control platelet count and volume, as this can provide important clues into the molecular mechanism underlying blood cell formation.” Platelets are important for wound healing and too high or too low counts can lead to disease – abnormally high platelets can increase the risk of thrombotic events, heart attacks and stroke; too few platelets and there is an increased risk of haemorrhage.
Dr Manuel Ferreira, Genetic Epidemiology Laboratory, QIMR
Mum’s care wards off drug cravings
An attentive, nurturing mother may be able to help her children better resist the temptations of drug use later in life, according to a study involving the University of Adelaide. Researchers have shown for the first time how mothering can strengthen an offspring’s immune system in the brain. Using rats as a model, neuroscientists demonstrated that if babies are nurtured adequately it increases the production of a molecule in the brain’s immune system called Interleukin-10, leaving them less susceptible to drug cravings as an adult.
Dr Mark Hutchinson, School of Medical Sciences, University of Adelaide
Domestic violence not just at home
There is a direct link between domestic violence and productivity in the workplace, with one in five victims experiencing continued harassment from their partners at work, a Sydney study has found. The study confirms that domestic violence affects employees capacity to get to work and their performance, productivity and safety. The majority of the respondents were women (81%), two-thirds were in full-time employment and nearly two-thirds (64%) were over 45.
Star Wars-inspired bacterium provides glimpse into the evolution of life
A bacterium whose name was inspired by the Star Wars films has provided new clues into the evolution of our own cells and how they came to possess the vital energy-producing units called mitochondria. The Sydney research investigated the bacterium Midichloria mitochondrii – named after helpful Star Wars microbes, called Midi-chlorians, that live inside cells and grant the mystical power known as The Force. It has revealed that mitochondria may have entered our cells though a parasitic bacterium that used a tail to swim and could survive with almost no oxygen. “Our results challenge the paradigm – shown in every biology textbook – that mitochondria were passive bacteria gobbled up by a primordial cell.”
Dr Nathan Lo, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney
Molecular Biology and Evolution; http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?
The use of the contraceptive pill by Catholic nuns
Catholic nuns should be encouraged to use the oral contraceptive pill as a way of reducing the likelihood of developing ovarian and uterine cancer, according to a paper published by The Lancet online. The Melbourne researchers arrived at their conclusions after examining various longitudinal and epidemiological studies which showed the risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer is influenced by the number of ovulatory menstrual cycles: the more cycles the greater the risk. Consequently, women who do not bear children (nulliparous women) have an increased risk of diagnosis due to the absence of pregnancy and lactation.
Dr Kara Britt, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University; Prof Roger Short, Department of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, Melbourne University