Colour-changing dragons. And a coral reef recovers from mass bleaching

Bulletins, Media bulletins

A remote WA coral reef has recovered from mass bleaching in just twelve years – surprising scientists with its resilience. The study published overnight in the journal Science challenges our assumptions about reef recovery. Photos and video available and more information below.

Colour-changing dragons will reveal their secrets in a half million dollar study launching on Sunday. The tricks of bearded dragons could change medicine and solar energy.  

How and why lizards change colour is largely a mystery.

On Sunday morning at 11 am a Melbourne researcher with 30 bearded dragons will be available for interview.  They’ll outline a day in the life of a dragon – from black to brown, to yellow and orange.

Their work will open the way for scientists to imitate lizards and develop new materials that respond to light and temperature for energy and medical applications.

Also, this month we kick off our 2013 Fresh Science program for early career scientists. We’d love you to join us in your capital city to meet the state finalists and put them through the wringer over a drink.

In this alert:

Remote reefs can be tougher than they look

WA’s Scott Reef has recovered from mass bleaching in 1998

Embargo: Friday 5th April, 5 am AEDT (Thursday 4th April, 2 pm US Eastern Time)

Isolated coral reefs can recover from catastrophic damage as effectively as those with nearby undisturbed neighbours, a long-term study by marine biologists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) has shown.

Scott Reef, a remote coral system in the Indian Ocean, has largely recovered from a catastrophic mass bleaching event in 1998, according to the study published in Science today.

The study challenges conventional wisdom that suggested isolated reefs were more vulnerable to disturbance, because they were thought to depend on recolonisation from other reefs. Instead, the scientists found that the isolation of reefs allowed surviving corals to rapidly grow and propagate in the absence of human interference.

Australia’s largest oceanic reef system, Scott Reef, is relatively isolated, sitting out in the Indian Ocean some 250 km from the remote coastline of north Western Australia (WA). Prospects for the reef looked gloomy when in 1998 it suffered catastrophic mass bleaching, losing around 80% of its coral cover. The study shows that it took just 12 years to recover.

Spanning 15 years, data collected and analysed by the researchers shows how after the 1998 mass bleaching the few remaining corals provided low numbers of recruits (new corals) for Scott Reef. On that basis recovery was projected to take decades, yet within 12 years the cover and diversity of corals had recovered to levels similar to those seen pre-bleaching.

“The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic,” says Dr James Gilmour from AIMS, the lead author on the publication, “because, unlike reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, there were few if any reefs nearby capable of supplying new recruits to replenish the lost corals at Scott Reef.

“However, the few small corals that did settle at Scott Reef had excellent rates of survival and growth, whereas on many nearshore reefs high levels of algae and sediment, and poor water quality will often suppress this recovery.

“We know from other studies that the resilience of reefs can be improved by addressing human pressures such as water quality and overfishing,” says Dr Gilmour. “So it is likely that a key factor in the rapid recovery at Scott Reef was the high water clarity and quality in this remote and offshore location.”

Full release, paper, photo and contact details at

Or call Steve Clarke at AIMS on 0419 668 497 or Niall Byrne on 03 9398 1416.

Colour-changing dragons to reveal their secrets

A zoological mystery that could change medicine and solar energy

Media call and release 11 am, Sunday 7 April.

Meet a leading Melbourne researcher and their collection of colour-changing lizards at the University of Melbourne

They’re available for interviews and they – and their dragons – will be happy to pose for photos.

An international research initiative led by the University of Melbourne will investigate how and why animals change colour – and what it costs them.

It will also open the way for scientists to imitate lizards and develop new materials that respond to light and temperature for energy and medical applications.

The full embargoed media release is available at together with high resolution photos and a video.

Contact me for the password and for interviews: 0417 131 977 or

Come and see our 2013 Fresh Science state finalists in action

Fresh Science is a national competition which empowers up-and-coming scientists to engage with community, industry, business and the media.

This month we’re hitting the road for the state finals. More than 60 early-career researchers will learn the basics in a one-day media and communication boot camp. They’ll do mock interviews with working journalists and learn how to present their work to the public.

We’ll wrap up each state final with a small networking reception where finalists will have a chance to mingle and perform one last challenge. Their mission: to excite and inspire you over a glass of wine.

The dates of the five state finals are below. If you’d like to come and have a drink and meet the Freshies from your state, RSVP to AJ on The events will go from about 5.30 until 7pm in each capital city.

  • WA – Tuesday 16 April
  • SA – Thursday 18 April
  • Qld – Tuesday 23 April
  • Vic – Tuesday 30 April
  • NSW – Thursday 2 May

What makes your heart tick?

US and Japanese backing for a new Australian institute’s work to reveal what really makes your heart tick

A new, more complete computer model of the heart could help us design anti-ageing drugs and predict side effects from cancer medications, thanks to researchers at the new Australian node of Japan’s pioneering Systems Biology Institute.

The new node, known as SBI Australia, is based at Monash University and has just recruited its first researchers.

We don’t really know how our heart works, although we’re getting pretty good at fixing it when it’s broken. But most heart research focuses on diseased hearts, when its systems have already broken down.

Dr Sarah Boyd and her colleagues will create computer models of healthy hearts, which will be used to analyse new drugs before testing them in real hearts. The US Food and Drug Administration has already invested in the research in Japan and hopes to use the model to study of the effects of anti-cancer drugs on the heart.

The work will be done in collaboration with Prof Nadia Rosenthal and her heart research team at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute. They bring internationally recognised expertise in studying the heart as a whole.

The research is a classic illustration of the power of systems biology, a new way to answer scientific questions using biology and computer science to understand how whole organs and whole organisms work.

For the full release and interviews, contact Tamzin Byrne: or (03) 9398 1416.

You can read more about SBI Australia at:

New gene discovered for common epilepsy

Scientists have discovered a new gene that causes some cases of the most common form of epilepsy, focal epilepsy, which accounts for 60 per cent of all cases.

“Focal” seizures come from one part of the brain, and are generally considered to be due to a structural abnormality such as a brain injury or tumour. All seizures are caused by electrical disturbances in the brain but “partial” or focal seizures occur when this electrical activity originates in a specific area of the brain.

A small proportion of people with abnormalities of this gene also have intellectual disability, psychiatric or autism spectrum disorders.

Principal researcher, Professor Ingrid Scheffer, is an internationally renowned paediatric neurologist. She is a senior principal research fellow at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, holds a chair at the University of Melbourne, and is a clinician at Austin Health and the Royal Children’s Hospital.

The discovery of the gene will lead to improved clinical care as:

  • a genetic test will be conducted, reducing the need for other tests
  • accurate genetic counselling will be offered
  • in future, specific therapeutic drugs will be developed.

Professor Scheffer says the discovery will have an impact on the lives of many people.

“Previously, genes for focal epilepsy have been identified for rare familial epilepsies but this new gene, known as DEPDC5, is also relevant to patients without a strong family history.

“The gene makes a protein that is found within nerve cells and appears to be important for signaling within cells, triggering epileptic seizures,” she says.

A large collaborative research team worked on the discovery, comprising researchers from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, The University of Melbourne and University of South Australia, the Belgian Free University of Brussels and Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands. Clinical collaborators worked together from across Australia, Europe and Canada.

The results were published in the journal Nature Genetics on Monday this week.

Professor Scheffer is available for comment as is a family with focal epilepsy.

Media enquiries: Amanda Place, Florey Institute 0411 204 526.

The end of absolute poverty – Gates Foundation policy maker to visit Australia

Geoffrey Lamb, Gates Foundation President of Global Policy and Advocacy will give the 2013 Graeme Clark Oration on Monday 29 April in Melbourne.

His visit comes just five days after World Malaria Day. Geoff will discuss the contributions of Australian scientists and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation towards the global fight against malaria.

He will have some time for a small number of high impact interviews while he’s here.

If you’ll be in Melbourne, you’re also invited to the Oration at the Melbourne Convention Centre at 5.30pm on 29 April. Let me know if you’re planning to come along.

In his Oration, Geoff will review the extraordinary successes of the past half century in reducing mortality and disease. He will show how investments in health have been critical for economic growth and the reduction of global poverty – and have helped bring the goal of an end to absolute global poverty within generational sight. “In retrospect the huge basic health advances of recent decades may have been the easy part,” Geoff says.

“What needs to be done to ensure the next transformation in global health, and make the end of absolute poverty attainable?”

Geoff leads the foundation’s international policy and advocacy team, and its engagement with governments and international institutions.

The Graeme Clark Oration is a free public lecture established to honour Professor Graeme Clark, inventor of the bionic ear. The Oration celebrates the new possibilities emerging from the convergence of biology, computing and engineering. It is hosted by the ICT for Life Sciences Forum, collaboration between Melbourne’s leading medical research institutes, hospitals and universities to share ideas about the convergence of biology and computer science.

More details about the Graeme Clark Oration at:

For interviews: Niall Byrne on 0417 131 977