Designer roots, Wallaby mystery, and humanity + nanotech – will you still be human?

Bulletins, Media bulletins

Can we design plant roots to use less water?  A Queensland scientist says yes, and her genetic discoveries are now being used by sorghum growers as a first step to drought-resistant food crops by changing the shape of the roots to absorb more water.

Wallabies are helping us understand how our immune systems work. A Sydney researcher has discovered why wallabies have two thymuses – to give the joeys the boosted immunity they need to survive in a dirty pouch.

This Thursday, nanotechnology experts will be talking about regrowing lost organs, stopping cancer before it starts, exploring space with enhanced bodies and the ethical price that might have to be paid for these advances.  They’ll be at a free public forum in Coogee (Sydney) as part of the Sydney International Nanomedicine conference, and available for interview. If you’re in Sydney join us for a beer and pizza.

On the horizon: From 23-30 July, scientists at the XVIII International Botanical Congress at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre will report on plant research from the molecular level to global food security and environmental change.

And on 21 July visit Mars (in Melbourne) with the launch of the Victorian Space Science Education Centre’s Robotic Mission to Mars program.

Here’s the details:

Fresh Science: Designer roots to counter drought

Fresh Science: Tammar wallaby’s clever immune tricks revealed

Humanity + nanotech – will you still be human?

XVIII International Botanical Congress – Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, 23-30 July

Melbourne’s robotic mission to Mars, launch: Thursday 21st July, 2011.


Fresh Science: Designer roots to counter drought

Genetics can be used to shape plants underground so they absorb water better

Recent discoveries by a University of Queensland agricultural scientist provide the basis for custom designing plant roots. Her discovery is already being used by plant breeders to develop drought-resistant sorghum crops.

The shape of the root system plays an important role in sorghum’s capacity to absorb water.  Dr Vijaya Singh has demonstrated this is governed largely by a region of the plant genome that she has located. Her findings and techniques could well be transferrable to other crop plants.

Full release and photos at

Fresh Science: Tammar wallaby’s clever immune tricks revealed

Baby wallaby photos available

Until now, it was a mystery why many marsupials have two thymuses—key organs in the immune system—instead of the one typical of other mammals. Now postdoctoral researcher Dr Emily Wong from the University of Sydney and her colleagues have found that the two organs are identical, which suggests why they are there.

“The presence of two organs with identical function can allow the young to produce white blood cells rapidly, leading to faster development of immune defences,” Emily says. “This may be especially critical in marsupials, as they are born at an immature stage without immune tissues. They need to develop an immune system very quickly while growing in the pouch.”

“It used to be believed that the marsupial immune system was more primitive than that of humans and other mammals,” Emily says. “But, in fact, some aspects of the marsupial immune system appear more complex than our own—the two thymuses, for instance.”

Full release and photos at

For interviews, contact Emily Wong on 0433 567 288 or

For University of Sydney, contact Ben Wilson, 0402 128-073,

For Fresh Science, contact AJ Epstein on 0433 339 141 or Niall Byrne on 0417 131 977 or

Humanity + nanotech – will you still be human?

Speakers from this free public forum will be available to cover the following topics:

* How nanoparticles could sniff out cancers before they grow

* How to regrow cartilage and body tissues with stem cells

* How bionic ears, eyes, and muscles could change us

* How these new technologies need to be controlled – to ensure their safety

* How these technologies could keep you alive much longer – but at what price

* How close to reality are the depictions of human augmentation in movies and games?

* When will we stop being human?

Speakers include:

Dr Helder Marcal, University of New South Wales – Biomedical Engineer who specialized in guided tissue engineering and has an interest in ‘bioastronautics’ and space biomedicine.

One of his students is currently investigating the impact of microgravity on tissues and will collecting the last mission samples from space shuttle Atlantis.

Prof Suzanne Smith, ANSTO – Looks at the behaviour of novel materials and their applications in various industrial and biological systems.

Prof Justin Gooding, University of New South Wales – His work is focused on the surface modification of nanoparticles and nanoporous photonic crystals for applications in sensing and cell biology.

Email me for more details –

This free public forum at 6pm, Oceans Bar, Crown Plaza Hotel, Coogee is presented by the 2011 International Nanomedicine Conference and the Commonwealth Government’s National Enabling Technologies Strategy.

XVIII International Botanical Congress – Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, 23-30 July

Scientists will report on research from the molecular level to global food security and environmental change.

The program also includes public lectures on:

  • the future of wines under climate change;
  • strategies for conserving the 20 per cent of plant species faced with extinction yet of vital importance for our lives;
  • botanical illustration as botanical education;
  • how an Atlas of Living Australia contributes to research and policy making.

Jeff Powell, University of Sydney, and Kirsten Heimann, James Cook University, will argue that we should prioritise research into microbes to find solutions to problems such as climate change while David Mabberly from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London and Kevin Thiele, Curator of the WA Herbarium will be speaking for the plants.

Fruits of the vine – future climates and wine – 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 enjoy the ‘grassiness’ of Malborough Sauvignon Blanc or the ‘white pepper’ of cool climate Shiraz?
  • What sort of wines can we look forward to in the future?

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

  • At least 400,000 species of angiosperms 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?

Robyn Williams, ABC Science Show, will moderate a discussion on whether we need to prioritise research into useful microbes, harnessing them to capture CO2; or focus on the plants that feed us

Sister Water Lily meets the Big Bad Banksia Man – Can a whimsical and largely discarded branch of illustration be used to reinvigorate botanical education?

More info at or email me –

Melbourne’s robotic mission to Mars, launch: Thursday 21st July, 2011

The Victorian Space Science Education Centre’s Robotic Mission to Mars program will allow Yr 9 & 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).

For more information contact