Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


By Stephen Luntz

Brief bites of science news

Synchrotron Wins Funding
A federal/state funding agreement has secured the future of the Australian Synchrotron. Federal Minister for Science and Research, Senator Chris Evans, announced that the federal government will contribute $69 million over 4 years, while $26 million will come from the Victorian government.

"Without this funding deal, the ongoing operation of the facility was in doubt, jeopardising important research here in Australia," Evans said.

More than 500 experiments are conducted each year using the Synchrotron’s enormously powerful light, but disagreements between the state and federal governments over the way the facility was established had left its future under question after the Victorian government’s $207 million establishment grant ran out.

Community Management of Reefs Works
Coral reefs can be saved from over-fishing if the local community, government and conservation groups engage, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study of 42 co-managed coral reef fisheries builds on earlier research showing reefs owned by indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are in better condition than those given national park status (AS, September 2006, p.13).

“We found clear evidence of people’s ability to overcome the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by making and enforcing their own rules for managing fisheries,” says Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “More importantly, we have identified the conditions that allow people to make co-management successful, providing vital guidance for conservation groups, donors and governments as to what arrangements are most likely to work.”

Co-managed reefs around the Indian Ocean are only half as likely to be heavily overfished, and the majority of fishers were positive about the process.

Super Spud for Vitamin C
Huge increases in vitamin C production can be achieved by altering a single gene. A paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal reveals that the addition of a gene controlling GDP-galactose phosphorylase leads to increases in vitamin C levels of up to 500% in strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes.

“These experiments suggest that new varieties of plants could be bred that produce enough naturally occurring vitamin C that the recommended daily amount could be achieved by eating, for example, only one average-sized potato,” said Dr William Laing of Plant and Food Research in New Zealand.

Wide varieties in naturally occurring versions of the gene suggest that, since its role has now been identified, it may be possible to produce high-vitamin C versions of fruits and vegetables using selective breeding programs.

Tasmanian Sea Levels Rising
Tasmania has experienced sea level rise of 20 cm in a little over a century, after more than 6000 years of relative stability, according to Dr Patrick Moss of the University of Queensland’s School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management.

“Overall the rate of 20th century sea level rise reconstructed from our data is 1.5 mm/year,” said Moss. The increase has not been even over that time, and reflects more local factors as well as human-induced climate change. The 1910s saw the fastest rise, followed by the 1990s.

“Sea level observations in Australia only go back as far as European settlement,” said Moss. However, sediment cores from saltmarshes can provide earlier data. “The surface of the marshes builds up over time in response to tidal inundation, providing an accurate record for sea level change.”

In Earth and Planetary Science Letters Moss concludes that sea levels have risen more rapidly in the south-west Pacific than other parts of the globe.

Thongs Are OK for Children’s Feet
Children’s feet and ankles move in a manner more similar to walking barefoot while wearing thongs than other shoes, a study has found, calling into question the perception that thong use is bad for the feet.

"It's been shown in epidemiological studies that children who have grown up without shoes have a lesser incidence of flat feet and toe deformities, so there's strong support for the argument that bare feet are the best model of footwear," said Mr Angus Chard of the University of Sydney’s Footwear Research Group.

Chard used 3D camera motion technology developed for Hollywood to observe the movement of 8–13-year-old children’s feet in a variety of footwear. “While we can't yet necessarily say they're good for children's development, we certainly haven't found any reasons to discourage children from wearing thongs for short periods," he said.

Prostate Protein Receptors Found
A newly identified combination of G protein-coupled receptors, revealed in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, could be the key to better treatment of prostate disease. The receptors are the target of 50% of therapeutic drugs against prostate conditions.

“Scientists now realise that these receptors do not work in isolation but in particular combinations, which they call ‘heteromers’,” said A/Prof Kevin Pfleger of the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research. “It is suggested that a number of side-effects from drugs may result from not fully understanding which combinations form and what happens when they do.”

Pfleger is the co-inventor of technology for more advanced study of the G protein-coupled receptors, allowing investigations not only of the receptors but how they combine. This was put to use identifying a new heteromer and exploring how the receptors respond to drugs both naturally and in isolation.

Muscular Dystrophy Slowed
The drug BGP-15 slows the progress of Duchenne muscular dystrophy in animal models, increasing lifespans by 20%, a paper in Nature reports. BGP-15 works by increasing quantities of heat shock protein 72, leading to improved muscle function, including the muscles that control breathing.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy causes the muscles of young boys to waste away. It is the most common childhood form of muscular dystrophy, usually causing death before the age of 25.

“This drug is already being used in human clinical trials for people with type 2 diabetes, so the hope is that we can quickly get this into clinical trials for people with DMD very quickly,” said Prof Mark Febbraio of the Baker IDI Institute. Febbraio leads a team that is studying ways to increase Heat Shock Protein 72, including the use of BGP-15.

Cattle Are Not Lazy
The time that cattle spend resting in the shade is essential to their digestion processes, a study has found. “Resting cattle have filled their rumens with feed, and while they rest the microorganisms in the rumen go into action, helping digest feed to put on weight and grow more meat,” says Bob Kilgour of the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Cattle start grazing at sunrise, and Kilgour says “they don’t spend much time chewing feed before they swallow – which is probably a survival mechanism cattle developed before domestication, when they were avoiding becoming prey.

“The idea was to eat without getting eaten, so cattle eat as much food as possible and then hide – trees play an important on-farm role as they provide shelter.

“Cattle may graze briefly during the day but their next big feed is just before sunset. Then it’s off to camp with the herd to ruminate on their evening meal.”

Thirty Million Wildlife Records
The Atlas of Living Australia has reached 30 million species occurrence records with the help of diary entries from 17th century Dutch navigators.

“The Atlas is a unique national repository for rich data on all Australian life forms – from bacteria to kangaroos, land-based to marine, native and non-native,” said Dr John La Salle, Director of the Atlas.

“Together with information about the whole range of Australian species, the Atlas contains many different types of data, including photos, distribution, maps and mapping tools, DNA sequences, scientific and common names, conservation status, identification keys and heritage literature.

“Local and traditional knowledge is invaluable… Even if a plant or animal is common in your area, it may never have been officially recorded there.”

The milestone was reached with the help of half a million records from Birdlife Australia, including a 1629 observation of the brush bronze-wing amongst other records from early explorers.

The Unbuilt City
Architecture students at the University of Western Australia have created a virtual city of local masterpieces that never came to fruition.

The highlight of their “Unbuilt Perth” exhibition is the Nervi Cathedral (pictured), which was commissioned by Benedictine monks for New Norcia 132 km north of Perth.

“Nervi’s work was both sensational and obscure,” said A/Prof Rene Van Meeuwen.

“The cathedral was designed to hold more than 1800 people and caused an architectural sensation in Australia, yet it was commissioned to be built in an arid landscape on WA’s remote Victoria Plains.”

Using 3D imagery the exhibition allows anyone with a mobile phone or tablet to see how the cathedral and other buildings that were never constructed would have appeared to someone walking through them.