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A round-up of the latest science and news from Australasia.

Komodo Dragon Myth Slain

By Stephen Luntz

One of the best-known stories about Komodo dragons has been proven false, yet it has been surprisingly hard to gain acceptance for the new evidence.

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By Stephen Luntz

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Gene Drives: Just 100 Infertile Mice Can Eradicate an Island Population

University of Adelaide researchers have shown that it may be possible to eradicate populations of invasive pest animals through the inheritance of a negative gene – a technique known as a “gene drive”.

The deliberate spreading of deleterious genes, such as genes causing sterility, through pest populations using gene drives is viewed as a potential “silver bullet” for conservation science and agriculture (AS, July/August 2017 issue). The technology could also be applied to public health efforts to control the spread of diseases by animals such as mosquitoes.

The fine line between playing God and saving species

New Zealand conservation workers are keen on gene-editing to eradicate pests but would rather avoid “playing God” with native species, a University of Otago study suggests.

In an article published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers from the Departments of Anatomy and Zoology outline the views of 148 Department of Conservation (DOC) staff over the use of both gene-editing to save endangered animal species and “de-extinction” to resurrect those already lost.

Stress Hormones Underlie Indigenous Health Gap

James Cook University scientists have found that secretion of the stress hormone cortisol is impaired in young Indigenous adults, and that their biological stress response is linked to the racial discrimination they experience.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, showed for the first time that the morning increase of cortisol that prepares us to effectively deal with the stresses of the upcoming day is missing in otherwise healthy young Indigenous adults.

The Origins of Vanuatu and Tonga’s First People

The origins of Vanuatu and Tonga’s first inhabitants has been revealed by the first major study of ancient DNA from the Pacific Islands.

The study, published in Nature (http://tinyurl.com/j79pr7t), found that Vanuatu’s first people arrived 3000 years ago from Taiwan and the northern Philippines, and not from the neighbouring Australo-Papuan populations of Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that had been in the region for between 40,000 and 50,000 years.

Oldest Fossils Prove that Life Thrived on Young Earth

Australian researchers have uncovered the world’s oldest fossils in a remote area of Greenland, capturing the earliest history of the planet and demonstrating that life on Earth emerged rapidly in the planet’s early years.

Led by Prof Allen Nutman of The University of Wollongong, the team discovered 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils in the world’s oldest sedimentary rocks in the Isua Greenstone Belt along the edge of Greenland’s icecap.

Breakthrough In Predicting Premature Birth

A blood test developed by a team of scientists, including researchers from The University of Western Australia, can identify women who are at risk of having a premature birth but are not displaying symptoms, as early as 18 weeks as into their pregnancy. The breakthrough builds on previous work by the researchers who developed a similar test for women who presented to hospital with early contractions.

The test is the most accurate one to date and provides the earliest detection of premature birth, with a 86 per cent accuracy in determining mothers at risk of early delivery.

Fitness bands undervalue your effort

Popular wrist-worn fitness monitors underestimate energy expenditure with variances of more than 40 per cent, University of Queensland researchers have found.

Supervised by Professor Jeff Coombes of UQ’s School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences, PhD student Matthew Wallen and collaborators tested four common devices.

“We determined the accuracy of the Apple Watch, Fitbit Charge HR, Samsung Gear S and Mio Alpha,” Mr Wallen said.

“None of the devices proved to be consistently more accurate overall and the percentage error for energy expenditure was between nine and 43 per cent.

The world’s oldest farmers

An international team of researchers has discovered the oldest fossil evidence of agriculture, not by humans, but by insects.

The team, led by James Cook University’s Associate Professor Eric Roberts, discovered the oldest known example of fungus gardens within fossil termite nests from the Great Rift Valley of Africa in 25 million year old sediments.

Fungus farming termite colonies cultivate fungi in gardens in subterranean nests or chambers, helping to convert plant material into a more easily digestible food source for the termites.