Melbourne launches a robotic mission to Mars

Bulletins, Media bulletins

For the past few years Victorian students have been walking on the (facsimile) surface of Mars at the Victoria Space Science Education Centre in Strathmore. Now they will also be able to control a Mars rover and search for water—emulating the intrepid Mars rovers that have caught public imagination in recent years.

The Victorian Education Minister is launching the robotic mission at 11 am tomorrow, Thursday.

It’s highly visual and you can play with the rover and kick the red dust of Mars.

We need plants

And next week we’re going to get you excited about botany. We need plants for food, medicine, energy and our sanity. Almost all life on Earth depends ultimately on plants, and when we talk about fossil fuels we mostly mean fossil plants.  Melbourne is hosting the International Botany Congress from Sunday evening. Delegates will be discussing everything from the highly academic debate about our plant names (are our acacias really acacias?) to the local impact of climate change (will we be growing pinot in the Yarra Valley in ten years’ time) to GM and the challenges of feeding a growing population.

Also in this bulletin – dates for your diary for the L’Oreal Fellowships and Prime Minister’s Prizes; and Melbourne hosts an Asian Psychiatry congress dealing with yoga and the mind; refugees and mental health and many other hot issues.



International Botanical Congress – IBC2011

The world’s botanists are invading Melbourne from Sunday evening.

Some of the interesting people and issues include:

Food security: how can we feed a growing world population, protect the environment and cope with a changing climate?

Jeff Amthor, a plant ecophysiologist from the University of Sydney, can talk about the limitations to human food supply and why it is more than just boosting crop production. Jeff will talk about the possibility of boosting photosynthesis and other physiological processes.

Kenneth Cassman, University of Nebraska, can talk about food security as the human population reaches a climax of 9.5 million. By identifying agricultural land that has not yet reached its full cropping potential we can direct yield intensification efforts (including crop genetic improvement and soil, nutrient and water management) to where they will be most productive.

Richard Richards, Chief Research Scientist and Program Leader ‘High Performance Crops for Australia’, CSIRO Plant Industry, can talk on where advances in genetic improvement of major crops will come from in the next 20 years. Genetic engineering is likely to make only a small contribution to improving yields and tolerance to environmental stress. Advances are likely to come from improved methods for identifying plant genotypes and phenotypes, and identifying key attributes for improving photosynthesis and nutrient and water uptake.

Christine Beveridge, ARC Future Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, can talk on research into newly discovered plant hormones which control many aspects of plant development. In particular, the hormone Strigolactone, which appears to be produced in response to poor nutrient availability, is also responsible for stimulation of the parasitic weed Striga, or African Witchweed, which can devastate cereal crops in Africa. Striga infestation can reduce crop yields to zero, and is considered the major biological constraint to crop production in sub-Saharan Africa.

Robert Park, GRDC Chair of Cereal Rust Research, University of Sydney, can talk about international efforts to control rust, a fungal disease which infects wheat, the world’s most important cereal crop. Breeders have created rust-resistant wheat cultivars by incorporating resistance genes, but in the last ten years two significant challenges have emerged where the rust pathogen has been able to overcome the resistance genes, resulting in decreased production and increased costs in the form of fungicides.

Steven Smith, Winthrop Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, University of Western Australia, can talk about the future of crop production. The ‘green revolution’ and industrialisation of agriculture led to huge increases in crop production around the world. Now the pressure is on to feed 3 billion extra mouths in the next 40 years while the climate changes and the costs of energy and resources escalate. As a plant geneticist and physiologist, Steven sees the future contribution to be made by plant breeders as valuable, but quantitatively small. Instead, changes in the expectations and actions of people will play the major role in steering us through some challenging decades ahead. He suggests that our greatest need is to recognise that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.

Renewable resources: how can plants contribute to sustainability

Chris Somerville, Philomathia Professor of Alternative Energy and Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, UC Berkeley, USA, is able to speak on renewable energy and his studies of cellulose—the major structural element of plant walls and the most abundant component of terrestrial biomass. Cellulose is major component of many commodities, such as timber, paper, textiles and animal fodder, and research into cellulose synthesis will contribute to the future of biofuels as a source of renewable energy. The Energy Biosciences Institute is beginning a collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls, based in Adelaide and Melbourne, which researches plant cell walls as a renewable source of fuel, to improve human health and as superior raw materials for industry.

Australia and South Africa battle for Acacia

Sandra Knapp, The Natural History Museum, London, is available to talk about the hot debate on the future of the wattle as the genus Acacia may be split into a number of separate genera. Australia is claiming the name Acacia for our 1000 or so species of wattles, even though the 160 or so species in a separate subgroup have scientific priority— a South African species was described as the ‘type specimen’, which defines the genus. Can Australia hang on to the name through sheer weight of numbers or will South Africa regain Acacia and their national pride?

Biodiversity: describing and conserving plant life

W. John Kress is available to talk on DNA barcoding in plants—a new way of rapidly assessing genetic similarities and differences between specimens. This will help identify new species and study biodiversity in ecological systems. John can also talk about the new iPhone app, ‘Leafsnap’ which can identify trees from a photograph of a leaf. Leafsnap has been developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, and currently covers tree species in north east USA. W. John Kress is Director, Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet and Research Scientist and Curator of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC.

Hugh Possingham, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, University of Queensland, can talk about strategies to reduce species loss resulting from climate change or other human threats. In some cases we may choose to relocate a species to a location outside its current range in order to conserve the species. Hugh will discuss how to weigh up the benefits and risks of such a management strategy and how to prioritise such moves.

Stephen Hopper, the first Australian to head up the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, can talk about the plant conservation efforts of Kew Gardens, including their forward-looking Breathing Planet Programme—a 10-year action plan to rescue, revive and restore the plants and fungi that directly or indirectly sustain us all. At the conference Stephen will talk about the Plant List— a new global botanical database of plant species produced by Kew Gardens and Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis.  Food security, deforestation, overpopulation and climate change— plants are a key to solving all these problems.

Australian species

David Watson, Charles Sturt Uni, has this year published the first book on Australian mistletoes: Mistletoes of Southern Australia (CSIRO Publishing). He can talk on mistletoes, parasitic plants that obtain their water and nutrients from their host, and the birds that help to disperse them by eating the mistletoe fruit and releasing the seeds in their droppings. He’s found that mistletoe fruit-eating specialists, who have co-evolved with the mistletoe species, tend to travel among trees that already have mistletoes in them, and that other, generalist species are more important in dispersing mistletoe to new sites.

Community involvement in conservation

Jill Sutcliffe, Manhood Wildlife and Heritage Group, West Sussex, UK, can talk about local community involvement in environmental protection, which is an aspiration of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. The community group, through which some 200 volunteers have contributed over 11,000 hours to conservation, was recently awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Voluntary work.

IBC2011 Public events

Speakers from five public events will be available for interview:

Fruits of the vine—future climates and wine
Monday 25 July, 6:30pm, Plenary Hall, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

Professor Snow Barlow, The University of Melbourne, will discuss:

  • How has climate change altered the climate in well-known wine regions?
  • How will the global wine industry respond to these challenges to established regions particularly if we, as consumers, wish to continue to savour the ‘grassiness’ of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or the ‘white pepper’ of cool climate Shiraz?
  • What sort of wines can we look forward to in the future?

The World of Plants
Tuesday 26 July, 6:30pm, Plenary Hall, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Professor Peter H. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden, USA, will discuss:

  • At least 400,000 species of flowering plants exist, the great majority of them poorly known, with perhaps 20% of the species and a much higher proportion of the genetic diversity threatened with extinction over the next decade or two and probably more than half by the end of the century.
  • The future depends on learning about them and disseminating the information efficiently, conserving natural areas in the face of growing adverse changes, building seed banks, and educating people to know and love what they are losing.

Brave New World—can we solve tomorrow’s environmental and energy problems by using life itself?
Wednesday 27 July 2011, 12:30-1:30pm Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

A forum moderated by Robyn Williams, ABC Science Show. Studying life in all its forms is exciting at this time of great technological change. Computers and modern scientific techniques have provided us with an understanding of life processes at the molecular level in a way never before possible.

Yet we know little about the unicellular organisms that make up most of the Tree of Life. Much of our scientific research efforts and investments go into the study and conservation of relatively few multicellular creatures and ecosystems. Research on the rest of life focuses mostly on controlling harmful microorganisms rather than looking for useful ones.

Is the time right to prioritise research into useful microbes, harnessing them to convert significant amounts of CO2 into biomass and biofuels and to capture and store significant amounts of carbon to slow climate change? Plants feed us and nature sustains us but could microorganisms give us the ‘biggest bang for our buck’?

Speaking for the plants:

Speaking for the microbes:

Any inquiries to Janelle Hatherly, Manager Public Programs,

Sister Water Lily meets the Big Bad Banksia Man – Can a whimsical and largely discarded branch of illustration be used to reinvigorate botanical education?
Thursday 28 July, 6:30pm, Plenary Hall, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

Dr Peter Bernhardt, Saint Louis University, USA, and his co-author Retha Meier review the works of C.M. Barker (England), W. Crane (England), May Gibbs (Australia), J.J. Grandville (France) and M.T. Ross (America).

All produced detailed illustrations featuring anthropomorphic flowers, stems and edible plants. The tragic J.I.I. Gerard (a.k.a. Grandville, 1803-1847) began this trend in floral fantasy to amuse a mature audience of sophisticated Parisians but his techniques were assimilated by later author/artists of children’s books.

Peter Bernhardt is a Professor of Biology at and a Research Associate of the Missouri Botanical Garden (St Louis) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Research in the Bernhardt/Meier laboratory concentrates on flower evolution and the pollination systems of rare and threatened plants in North America, Australia and China. Peter is the author/co-author of 75 reviewed journal articles and four popular books on plant life including ‘Wily Violets and Underground Orchids’ (1989) and ‘Gods and Goddesses in the Garden’ (2008). He has a keen interest in how plants have been incorporated as characters in children’s literature.

The Atlas of Living Australia: infrastructure for biodiversity research – Friday 29 July, 6:30pm, Plenary Hall, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

Dr Donald Hobern, Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO Entomology, Australia discusses:

The Atlas of Living Australia is a national initiative focused on making Australia’s biodiversity information more accessible and useable online. In short, ‘an online encyclopaedia of all living things in Australia’. The Atlas website already holds more than 23 million distribution records for Australia’s fauna and flora, integrated with over 300 environmental layers for mapping and analysis. The Atlas enables researchers to provide policy and decision makers with targeted and useful information, presented in accessible ways. Members of the public can contribute sightings and photos of species and help to build a more complete picture of Australia’s biodiversity. Funded by the Australian Government, the Atlas is a collaboration between CSIRO, Australia’s national science research agency, and more than 60 biological collections from Museums and Herbaria, Federal and State Departments, universities and microbial collections.

To contact any of the speakers, contact me on or 0417 131 977.

Science prize winners

L’Oréal Australia For Women In Science Fellows

The three L’Oréal Fellows for 2011 will be announced in Melbourne on Tuesday 23 August. We’ll be interviewing the fellows and writing up fact sheets over the next few days.

We’re ready to brief long lead media on embargo.

Give me a call on 0417 131 977 or email me at for more information.

Prime Minister’s Science prizes

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes will be announced on Wednesday 12 October.

Asian Psychiatry Congress

The 3rd World Congress of Asian Psychiatry will be in Melbourne from 31-July to 4 August.

The opening address will be given by The Hon Mary Wooldridge MP, Victorian Minister for Mental Health, Women’s Affairs and Community Services, and 2010 Australian of the Year Pat McGorry will talk on the mental health of teenagers and young adults. Psychiatrists from many specialities will discuss the latest findings in psychiatry research relevant to practitioners in the Asia Pacific region—representing over 40 countries that host over 60% of global population.

This congress will blend philosophy, the practical and the spiritual, venerable Eastern wisdom and cutting edge Western science with demonstrated dynamic results.

More info at

Tomorrow Melbourne launches a robotic mission to Mars.

For the past few years Victorian students have been walking on the (facsimile) surface of Mars at the Victoria Space Science Education Centre in Strathmore. Now they will also be able to control a Mars rover and search for water– emulating the intrepid Mars rovers that have caught public imagination in recent years.

The Victorian Education Minister, Martin Dixon, is launching the robotic mission at 11 am tomorrow.

It’s highly visual and you can play with the rover and kick the red dust of Mars.

The Victorian Space Science Education Centre’s Robotic Mission to Mars program will allow Year 9 and 10 students to remotely control a rover on the VSSEC Mars surface in real time. The web-based software turns any school computer laboratory into Mission Control and uses the principles of serious gaming to teach science and mathematics.

From Mission Control students control the rover on the VSSEC Mars surface, monitor robotic systems, and collect scientific data for analysis. This program delivers an engaging curriculum-based science program that reflects the latest strategies for effective teaching and learning to rural and remote schools. As well as providing hands-on science, the program encourages collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication. The on-line delivery mode allows remote schools to access one of VSSEC’s missions, along with the curriculum material to enhance the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Victorian Space Science Education Centre, 400 Pascoe Vale Road, Strathmore, Victoria, Australia 3041

For more information contact