Oz research of note, 4 December, 2011

Eggs that talk to each other, the stressed hearts of the broken-hearted and online chat fighting depression are just some of the interesting stories that emerged from Australian research published in the last week.  Find over a dozen other stories below.

Natural killers help fight human disease

Canberra medical researchers have discovered a new type of cell which boosts the human body’s ability to fight off infections and life-threatening diseases. They have found a type of cell which recognises lipid antigens, or foreign molecules, which sit on infectious bacteria which invade the body. Once recognising the lipids, the cell, called Natural killer T follicular helper (NKTfh), generates antibody responses in B cells – which are the body’s natural defence against invasion by viruses and bacteria.

Prof Carola Vinuesa, The John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU

Nature Immunology; Immunity; http://news.anu.edu.au/?p=12561

Childless women at greater risk of poor health, study finds

Childless women may experience poorer health and wellbeing than the general Australian female population, according to a Victorian study. Health researchers examined the physical and mental health and wellbeing of 50 childless women during the latter part of their reproductive years. The results indicate that while childless women may experience better physical functioning when compared to the Australian female adult population, they may also experience poorer general health, vitality, social functioning and mental health.

Dr Melissa Graham, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

BioMed Central; http://www.deakin.edu.au/news/2011/25112011childlesswomen.php

How do you mend a broken heart?

A study involving Sydney cardiac researchers has shown the loss of a loved one really can break your heart. The team is studying why people, who are grieving the loss of a loved one experience heightened blood pressure variability. Increased blood pressure variability has been shown to be predictive for stroke and other cardiovascular complications.

Dr Anastasia Susie Mihailidou, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney


Baby talk: Turtles eggs communicate in the nest

Researchers in Sydney have eavesdropped on clutches of Australian freshwater turtle eggs to find that they ‘communicate’ with each other to synchronise their development. Under carefully controlled conditions in the lab, the team examined the development of clutches of Emydura macquarii (E. macquarii) – a native freshwater turtle found in the Murray River in South East Australia.

Dr Ricky Spencer, School of Natural Sciences, University of Western Sydney.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B; http://pubapps.uws.edu.au/news/index.php?act=view&story_id=3109

Women backed by women: taking risks

New research has shown that women are more likely to make risky choices when they are surrounded by other women. The findings could help to reduce gender inequality in the workforce.

Prof Alison Booth, Research School of Economics, ANU


New hope for cystic fibrosis

Western Australian researchers have come up with a new drug (VX-770), which essential reverses the abnormality caused by the cystic fibrosis mutation G551D. Patients treated with the new medication showed a significant and sustained improvement in lung function, a lower rate in pulmonary exacerbations and a reduction in sweat chloride and weight gain.

Prof Phil Thompson, Lung Institute of Western Australia

New England Journal of Medicine; http://www.sciencewa.net.au/3753-cystic-fibrosis-drug-reverses-genetic-abnormality-in-the-cf-mutation.html

Internet interventions help beat depression

A new Canberra shows that online therapy programs can play a major and long-lasting role in treating depression. Researchers trialled the effectiveness of online programs MoodGYM and BluePages when used in conjunction with telephone counselling services provided by Lifeline. There was an immediate drop in symptoms of depression among callers to Lifeline who used the two programs.

Dr Lou Farrer, Centre for Mental Health Research , The Australian National University


New path to kill malaria parasite

Researchers, including an Australian expert, have shown that malaria parasites use a group of enzymes called protein kinases to survive in human blood. They are now looking for drugs which stop those enzymes working: that would provide a new way of killing the malaria parasite.

Prof Christian Doerig, Department of Microbiology, Monash University

Nature Communications; http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v2/n11/full/ncomms1558.html

Stone-age industry

An international team of scientists, including an Australian researcher, has been investigating remains that challenge long-held assumptions about the timing and route of early human expansion out of Africa. The “trail of stone breadcrumbs” was left by early humans in Oman migrating across the Red Sea on their journey out of Africa.

Prof Richard Roberts, Centre for Archaeological Science, University of Wollongong

PLoS ONE; http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028239

New adult heart stem cells

Sydney researchers have discovered a new pool of stem cells in both developing and adult hearts that may lead to enhanced heart repair for people who have suffered heart attack or heart failure.

Researchers from many Australian universities and institutes

Cell Stem Cell; http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1934590911004826

Research shows that Southern Ocean is warming and freshening

The Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC has launched a synopsis of the latest scientific research into changes in the temperature, salinity, acidity and circulation in the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean plays a critical role in global and regional climate. More than 90% of the extra heat energy stored by the planet in the past 50 years has been absorbed in the world’s oceans, with the Southern Ocean’s latitude band storing more heat and CO2 than any other latitude band.

Dr Steve Rintoul, Professor Nathan Bindoff, The Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC

Position Analysis: Climate Change and the Southern Ocean; http://www.acecrc.org.au/access/cms/news/?id=91&full=true; http://www.acecrc.org.au/access/repository/resource/4f15b7ba-6abc-102f-a3d0-40404adc5e91/ACE_OCEANS_POSITION_ANALYSIS_LOW_RES.pdf

Risk to human health from climate change

Climate change is already harming health in Australia, and poses a significant threat for the future, according to a report released by the Climate Commission.

The critical decade: climate change and health; http://climatecommission.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/key-messages_FINAL-FOR-WEB1.pdf

Bananas favour long days

New research has found bananas are photoperiod responsive, overruling the widely accepted belief that temperature is the key variable in banana development. Seasonal variation in banana production is an issue for growers worldwide, and has driven research focused on what influences the plant’s rate of development and flowering.

Prof David Turner, honorary research fellow, UWA

Functional Plant Biology; http://www.sciencewa.net.au/3754-banana-crop-abundance-linked-to-length-of-day.html

New research reveals how phantom limbs form

New Australian studies on how phantom limbs form show there is no default position that the phantom moves into after it forms. “Our research suggests that the state of nerves in the limb at the time the phantom is forming is very important in determining how the phantom develops,” say the researchers. Because distortions of body image, such as phantom limbs, are difficult to treat, a better understanding of the mechanisms behind their formation will help developing more effective treatments.

Prof Simon Gandevia, Dr Lee Walsh, Neuroscience Research Australia, UNSW

The Journal of Physiology; http://www.neura.edu.au/news-events/news/new-research-reveals-how-phantom-limbs-form

Fish catch prey in clever ways

Sydney researchers report that tool use among fish is more common than previously thought. Tool use is inherently difficult underwater especially for animals that lack hands but the researchers say that fish have found many ingenious solutions to allow them to overcome this. Many species of wrasse, for example, use anvils to smash open shell fish and other difficult to handle prey.

Dr Culum Brown, Macquarie University

Fish and Fisheries; http://www.sciencealert.com.au/news/20113011-22901.html?

Push-ups no match for combat

Australian researchers have found a better way to ensure soldiers have the strength and endurance to perform in combat. The researchers found that current generic fitness assessments (including push-ups, sit-ups and chin-ups) are often poor predictors of performance in strength based job tasks. “Assessments that are directly relevant to specific tasks give a better indication of a person’s ability to perform a role. This means that the person can perform more effectively with a reduced risk of injury.”.

Mr Greg Carstairs, DSTO

2011 Defence Human Sciences Symposium; http://www.dsto.defence.gov.au/news/6797/

Indian Ocean cocktail party leaves trail of party hats behind

Scientists have unexpectedly found traces of the supercontinent Gondwana in the Indian Ocean – in the process solving a mystery behind a large group of ocean ‘mountains’ known as seamounts, including Christmas Island. The German-Australian team of marine geologists set out on the German research vessel Sonne to map and sample about 60 seamounts – ranging in height from one to three kilometres – in one the world’s largest volcanic seamount provinces off the north west Australian coast.

Prof Dietmar Müller, Ms Ana Gibbons, University of Sydney

Nature Geoscience; http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newscategoryid=2&newsstoryid=8311

New thinking required on wildlife disease

Much more could be done to predict the likelihood and spread of serious disease – such as tuberculosis (TB) or foot-and-mouth disease – in Australian wildlife and commercial stock, according to Adelaide researchers. They used a combination of models to look at the possible spread of TB among feral water buffalo in the Northern Territory. “We found that the probability of detecting a disease as well known as TB in buffalo was extremely small, even with thousands of ‘sentinel’ animals culled each year.”

Prof Corey Bradshaw, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide

Journal of Applied Ecology; http://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news49701.html

Isolated reefs ‘recover faster’

A recent Australian study shows that isolated reefs may have a better ability to regenerate compared to those closer to human activity. The study focused on WA’s Ashmore Reef, located on the north-west shelf, which is home to 275 species, making it one of the most diverse coral systems in the region.

Dr Daniela Ceccarelli, CSIRO

Marine and Freshwater Research; http://www.sciencealert.com.au/news/20112711-22884.html?

Bomb spike in Antarctic moss shows East Antarctic climate is changing

Chemical clues absorbed from the atmosphere by Antarctic mosses during nuclear tests in the 1950s and 60s, have provided scientists with evidence of significant climate change in East Antarctica. The discovery comes after researchers found that the dramatic increase in atmospheric radiocarbon (14C), known as the ‘bomb spike’, was detectable in living moss shoots 50 years after nuclear testing, and could be used to track changes in moss growth rates.

Prof Sharon Robinson, University of Wollongong

Global Change Biology; http://www.antarctica.gov.au/media/news/2011/bomb-spike-in-antarctic-moss-shows-east-antarctic-climate-is-changing

New fungi killing tuart trees

A new Phytophthora fungi species might be a significant factor in tuart decline of tuart trees. Western Australian researchers have found that Phytophthora multivora might be a large contributing factor in tuart decline. Other contributing factors include site clearing, insect pests, fire damage, site degradation, groundwater modification and climate change.

Mr Peter Scott, Tuart Health Research Group, Murdoch University


Hearing theory music to MP3 generation ears

The revival of a 150-year-old theory on how the human ear protects itself from damage caused by loud sounds could lead to better noise protection says a Canberra researcher. He urges reconsideration of the long-discarded ‘pressure theory’ saying it explains inconsistencies that have long puzzled hearing researchers.

Dr Andrew Bell, Research School of Biology, ANU

Journal of Hearing Science; http://news.anu.edu.au/?p=12641

Four new leads identified for anti-cancer drugs

Four new anti-cancer drug leads have been identified in an Australian study published online this week. The researchers undertook a comprehensive study that combined existing knowledge of an enzyme with a specifically tailored computational chemistry approach to identify novel inhibitors. The enzyme (indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase) has generated excitement amongst researchers over the past decade due to its increasing recognition role as a drug target, particularly for cancer.

Jason Smith, Macquarie University

Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry; http://www.mq.edu.au/newsroom/control.php?page=story&item=4762&category=science+%26amp%3B+nature