Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


By Stephen Luntz

The Curiosity Show returns, some bad news about coffee, LEGO figures psychoanalysed, and other brief bites of science news.

The Curiosity Show Returns

The Curiosity Show, which for 18 years gave children their first introduction to science, is making a comeback through a YouTube channel. Dr Dean Hutton and Dr Rob Morrison’s program was made in Australia but became a hit in several European countries after being dubbed into German.

“For a lot of material, especially making and doing segments, online delivery is better than television” said Morrison. “You can freeze or replay segments to see how to make something. You couldn’t do that on television.”

“That’s the beauty of science,” said Hutton. “It’s about being curious – wanting to know why things happen and how things work.”

Gecko Giveaway

Asian house geckos are considered pets by some people but can be an invasive species in the wrong environment. In an effort to avoid them hitching a ride to Barrow Island, where Australia’s largest liquefied natural gas project is being established, Edith Cowan University has found a way to detect them aboard ship.

A/Prof Adam Osseiran recorded and digitised the gecko’s distinct calls and created an algorithm to recognise them. “The biosecurity measures start offshore in places like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, where our acoustic sensors are being deployed at the ports when equipment is about to be loaded,” said Osseiran. “The sensors also ride in the holds of ships bringing material to Barrow Island, and we have deployed about 60 on the island itself, mostly around storage sheds where night lights attract insects that the geckos predate.”

Having previously recognised the sounds made by the European house borer, Ossseiran is now turning to those made by cane toads.

Some Bad News about Coffee

Too much of a good thing is indeed bad, a study of coffee consumption has found. “Studies have shown that coffee consumption lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” says Prof Kevin Croft of the University of Western Australia. “This also included research on decaffeinated coffee, which suggested that the health benefits are from a compound in coffee apart from caffeine.”

Croft investigated the effect of a form of polyphenols known as CGAs that are high in coffee, tea and some fruits. He found that when mice were given the equivalent of five or six cups of coffee a day their liver did a poorer job of utilising fat, leading to abnormal fat retention within cells as well as increased insulin resistance.

“It seems that the health effects are dose-dependent. A moderate intake of coffee, up to three to four cups a day, still seems to decrease the risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” Croft says.

LEGO Turns Angry

A study of 6000 LEGO mini-figures finds them increasingly mad at the world.

“Children’s toys and how they are perceived can have a significant impact on children,’’ said the University of Canterbury’s HIT Lab director, Dr Christoph Bartneck. “We considered the distribution of faces across emotional categories in the context of the LEGO themes. Most mini-figures are released in sets that belong to a certain theme, such as Pirates or Harry Potter.”

Presenting at the First International Human–Agent Interaction in Sapporo, Bartneck revealed that happiness and anger were the most common emotions expressed by LEGO mini-figures, and that since the 1990s the proportion of angry faces has been increasing.

Soft Drinks Are Bad for Cholesterol

Even if they are not overweight, teenagers who drink a can or more of sugary drinks have worse cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes susceptibility than those that do not.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that 1400 teenagers from the Raine Study had more bad cholesterol and less good cholesterol in their blood if they drank high-sugar soft drinks regularly.

“What is important about this study is that excessive sugary drink consumption appears to increase risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, even in young people who are not overweight,” said lead author Dr Gina Ambrosini. “This study shows that greater intakes of sugary drinks may put young people on a path to the early development of risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

Just over half the sugared drinks were consumed at home, which Ambrosini says indicates the potential for parents to influence consumption.

Dementia on the Rise in China

The ageing of the Chinese population has created a surge in dementia, with a study in The Lancet estimating that 9.2 million Chinese suffered from the condition in 2010, compared with 3.7 million just 20 years ago.

While the burden of dementia is creating concerns across the developed world, Prof Wei Wang of Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical Science says the problem will be more acute for a middle-income country like China. Migration of young adults to urban areas has left many elderly rural Chinese living alone.

“Public awareness campaigns are needed to counteract common misconceptions about dementia in China, including that it is not very common in the Chinese population, that it is a normal part of ageing, or that it is better not to know about it because nothing can be done about it,” Wang said.

Mutation for Hearing Loss Identified

A collaboration of Melbourne and Monash universities has identified a genetic mutation responsible for hearing loss from the age of 20, even without too much time spent at rock concerts.

The mutations are apparently recessive, with the effects observed in people lacking both copies of the normal version of the gene that controls the enzyme inhibitor SERPINB6.

“Most people show gradual signs of age-related hearing loss from 60 years of age onwards, but mutations in SERPINB6 accelerate this process. It is not yet clear how this mutation causes hearing loss,” said Dr Justin Tan of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Otolaryngology.

When the SERPINB6 gene was altered in mice they lost their hearing at 3 weeks old, equivalent to teenage years in humans. The sensory hair cells of the inner ear, along with neighbouring cells in these mice, were observed to have died.

Heart Not Set on Coconut Oil

A comparison of oils has led cardiologists to reject claims for the health benefits of coconut oil. “There have also been bizarre claims that coconut oil lowers cholesterol, cures Alzheimer’s disease and even prevents heart disease, however the research does not support this,” said A/Prof David Colquhoun of the University of Queensland’s School of Medicine. “In fact, coconut oil is full of unhealthy saturated fat, which raises bad cholesterol levels, clogs the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease.”

Colquhoun supports the Heart Foundation’s recommendation of 500 mg of omega-3 oil from marine sources per day. He says this can be achieved by eating two or three serves of oily fish per week, or through fish or krill oil supplements. “Krill oil is a good source of omega-3s however it is no better for you than fish oil and is usually more expensive,” he said.

Irony in Late Umbilical Clamping

Children have a better start to life if clamping of their umbilical cord is delayed, a review of 15 trials has found.

La Trobe Midwifery Professor Susan McDonald said: “Clamping the cord too soon may reduce the amount of blood that passes from mother to baby via the placenta, affecting the baby’s iron stores.”

She acknowledged this needs to be set against a slightly raised risk of jaundice from delayed clamping, the reason cords are usually clamped within a minute in most wealthy nations.

Using the Cochrane Collaboration, McDonald found that where clamping was delayed in full-term babies the haemoglobin levels were higher in the first few days after birth, and iron deficiency was less common 3–6 months later.

Backhand Whipping Hurts Horses More

Jockeys may not whip horses competing under Australian Racing Board rules more than five times before the last 100 metres of a race, but only forehand whipping is regulated in this way.

“This h3ly implies that backhand whip use is less closely scrutinised, which may have profound implications for horse welfare,” said Prof Paul McGreevy of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science.

When McGreevy used pressure detection pads to measure the impact of whip strikes he found backhand strikes were 15% more powerful when jockeys used their dominant hand, while the forehand and backhand impact was the same with the non-dominant hand. The findings were published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour.

“This result challenges the rules’ current focus on forehand whip strikes. It should inform any review of the rules around whip use, including its impact on fatigued horses when they are being struck for a perceived sporting gain,” McGreevy said.

SKA Predecessor Starts Up

The Murchison Widefiled Array (MWA) telescope has commenced operations. Located at what will become the site of Australia’s arm of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the MWA is the first of the three SKA precursors to start. It operates in the frequency range 80–300 MHz, including the commercial FM band, making a remote location essential.

The MWA will be used to observe the path of solar storms, including extending warnings of those with the potential to damage the Earth from 3 to 20 hours. There are also plans to bounce radio waves off objects in low Earth orbit to detect space junk, along with more traditional radio telescope activities as far as 13 billion light years afield.

Every 10 seconds the MWA will produce data equivalent to a feature-length high-definition film, requiring new capacities in data storage and transmission.

Deforestation Threat to Reefs

Deforestation is a bigger threat to coral reefs than climate change, according to a study in Nature Communications.

“Managing hinterland land use is the major action needed to buy time for corals growing near rivers,” says Dr Jens Zinke of the University of Western Australia’s Ocean’s Institute.

The study looked at four watersheds near Madagascan coral reefs. It found that sedimentation from rainforest destruction was the single largest cause of damage to the reefs.

Madagascar was chosen because its climatic zones are representative of tropical reefs worldwide, as well as being a hotspot for rainforest destruction.