Is plastic threatening our oxygen supply; a silicon path to quantum computers; Mars, wildlife, and trash talk: a first taste of Science Week

Media bulletins, National Science Week

Today: it’s not just fish, plastic pollution harms the bacteria that help us breathe—scientist available for interview

Ten per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one kind of bacteria in the ocean. Macquarie University scientists have shown that these bacteria are susceptible to plastic pollution.

Study published in Communications Biology overnight; scientist available for interview and images available. Details below.

Today: Australia’s silicon quantum computer will add up accurately!

Yesterday Nature published the latest paper from this UNSW team. It’s their third in three months and reinforces that Australia is leading the race to invent a silicon-based quantum computer. This paper demonstrates that if we invent a silicon computer it will be able to do its sums accurately, which apparently wasn’t a foregone conclusion. UNSW media have all the details. More below.

Mars, wildlife, curious climate and trash talk: a first taste of National Science Week—coming up in August

Mimicking Mars missions on Earth, plastic-eating bacteria, Star Wars science, and hunting wildlife with an app (in a non-lethal way)—just some of the activities planned for National Science Week. Now’s the time to start planning your coverage of Australia’s biggest festival with an anticipated 2000+ events and activities. More below.

Kind regards,

It’s not just fish, plastic pollution harms the bacteria that help us breathe

Ten per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one kind of bacteria in the ocean. Now laboratory tests have shown that these bacteria are susceptible to plastic pollution, according to a study published in Communications Biology overnight.

Plastic pollution can harm both the micro and macro-organisms living in our oceans. Photo: Kevin Krejci

“We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria,” says lead author and Macquarie University researcher Dr Sasha Tetu.

“Now we’d like to explore if plastic pollution is having the same impact on these microbes in the ocean.”

Plastic pollution has been estimated to cause more than US$13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems each year, and the problem is only getting worse with marine plastic pollution estimated to outweigh fish by 2050.

“This pollution can leach a variety of chemical additives into marine environments, but unlike the threats posed by animals ingesting or getting entangled in plastic debris the threat these leachates pose to marine life has received relatively little attention,” says Dr Lisa Moore, a co-author on the paper.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers looked at the effects these chemicals have on the smallest life in our oceans, photosynthetic marine bacteria.

“We looked at a group of tiny, green bacteria called Prochlorococcus which is the most abundant photosynthetic organism on Earth, with a global population of around three octillion (~1027) individuals,” says Sasha.

These microbes are heavy lifters when it comes to carbohydrate and oxygen production in the ocean via photosynthesis.

“These tiny microorganisms are critical to the marine food web, contribute to carbon cycling and are thought to be responsible for up to 10 per cent of the total global oxygen production,” says Lisa, explaining the fundamental importance of these microbes to ocean health.
“So one in every ten breaths of oxygen you breathe in is thanks to these little guys, yet almost nothing is known about how marine bacteria, such as Prochlorococcus respond to human pollutants.”

In the lab, the team exposed two strains of Prochlorococcus found at different depths in the ocean to chemicals leached from two common plastic products—grey plastic grocery bags (made from high-density polyethylene) and PVC matting.

They found that exposure to these chemicals impaired the growth and function of these microbes—including the amount of oxygen they produce—as well as altering the expression of a large number of their genes.

“Our data shows that plastic pollution may have widespread ecosystem impacts beyond the known effects on macro-organisms, such as seabirds and turtles,” says Sasha.

“If we truly want to understand the full impact of plastic pollution in the marine environment and find ways to mitigate it, we need to consider its impact on key microbial groups, including photosynthetic microbes.”

Tetu SG, Sarker I, Schrameyer V, Pickford R, Elbourne LDH, Moore LR & Paulsen IT. Plastic leachates impair growth and oxygen production in Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria. Communications Biology. May 2019.

Images available.

Australia’s silicon based quantum computers will be able to add up!

If we invent a silicon computer it will be able to do its sums accurately, which apparently wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

Yesterday Nature published another paper from the quantum computing team at UNSW. It’s their third in three months and reinforces that Australia is leading the race to invent a silicon-based quantum computer.

Scientia Professor at UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications Andrew Dzurak says, “this year’s three papers confirm that silicon is neck-and-neck with, and in some aspects ahead, of competing technologies for quantum computing, including those under active research at Google, Microsoft and IBM.”

In March Andrew and his team published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology which showed that they could read out the state of a quantum bit in a silicon device using only a single wire (in this case a nanoscale electrode). This vastly simplifies the on-chip electronics needed for a full-scale quantum processor chip containing millions of qubits.

In April the team published in Nature Electronics a new world-record fidelity (or accuracy) of 99.96% for silicon quantum dot one-qubit logic, putting it on an even par with all other competing qubit technologies.

Now Andrew and his team have published the first ever accuracy measure of two-qubit logic, which corresponds to the accuracy of calculations between pairs of qubits.

“Our result published this week finally confirms that silicon can go all the way to a functioning quantum computer,” says Andrew.

With these discoveries, a quantum computer using silicon is a real possibility. This means that the computer-chip industry would be able to manufacture these devices much easier than other proposed quantum computer technology.

Official media release and media resources at the UNSW Newsroom.

Moon landing, Dr Dolphin, Star Wars science, CSI Fremantle, and where the wild things are

August is a prime time to talk innovation and science—National Science Week kicks off Saturday 10 August

It’s time to plan your coverage of 2,000+ events across Australia for National Science Week, 10 to 18 August.

National Science Week 2019 will involve local and international science stars, including:
NASA exobiologist Darlene Lim—the scientist mimicking Mars missions in the Earth’s most extreme places to pave the way for space colonisation
Alan Duffy—astrophysicist, RiAus Lead Scientist and TV science presenter
Veena Sahajwalla—waste warrior and inventor of low-emissions “green steel”

Events are planned around Australia—from Arnhem Land to Antarctica—with more registering each day as Science Week draws closer, including:
• Find and ‘capture’ wild things with your smartphone for the Great Aussie BioQuest—national
• The Science of Star Wars at GAMMA.CON—Canberra
• Can you brew a decent coffee in space? Ask the experts, in Victoria
• Criminology and forensic science behind bars at Fremantle Prison, in Perth
• Was last year’s bushfire season the new normal? Ask your Curious Climate questions, in Tassie
• Meet your brain in Adelaide
• Hundreds of schools taking part in ‘Destination Moon’ science lessons.

Search for an event in your area via Images available via our image library.

Australians will have opportunities to meet scientists, discuss the hot topics, do science and celebrate its cultural and economic contribution to society when National Science Week kicks off in August.

National Science Week 2019 invites people to meet Adelaide’s ‘Dr Dolphin’ and his bottlenose friends, think their way out of a cancer-themed escape room in Queensland, join an Indigenous hackathon, try simulated ‘beer goggles’, or design plastic-eating bacteria.

National Science Week is one of Australia’s largest festivals and was first held in 1997. Last year saw about 1.2 million people participate in more than 2,100 events and activities around the country.

For nine days the nation will celebrate with science festivals, music and comedy shows, expert panel discussions, citizen science opportunities, interactive hands-on displays, film nights, open days and online activities.

The festival is proudly supported by the Australian Government; partners CSIRO, the Australian Science Teachers Association and the ABC; and media sponsors including Cosmos and Science Illustrated.

More information can be found at

National Science Week general media enquiries:
Tanya Ha – or call 0404 083 863