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

Fish out of water are more common than thought

Fish have evolved the ability to live on land many times, challenging the perception that this extreme lifestyle shift was likely to have been a rare occurrence in ancient times, new UNSW Australia research shows.

“A fish out of water might seem an extraordinary thing, but in fact it is quite a common phenomenon,” says study first author and UNSW evolutionary ecologist Dr Terry Ord. “Amphibious behaviour has evolved repeatedly in a wide diversity of present day fish, and the move onto land does not appear to be as difficult as has been presumed.”

Parkes Telescope Detects Key Feature of Life Outside Solar System

Research with CSIRO's Parkes telescope has discovered the first molecule in space that has a key attribute associated with life - 'handedness' or chirality.

The breakthrough is expected to help scientists solve one of the greatest mysteries in biology – the origin of homochirality - and offer insights into what we can expect from life throughout the universe.

The finding is being announced at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society today and will appear in the journal Science.

Like your two hands, many molecules can exist in forms that are mirror images of each other.

Solar cell efficiency milestone achieved

A new solar cell configuration developed by engineers at the University of New South Wales has pushed sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency to 34.5% – establishing a new world record for unfocussed sunlight and nudging closer to the theoretical limits for such a device.

Coal Shipping Threat to Great Barrier Reef

Australian researchers have raised fresh concerns that a major shipping disaster could harm the Great Barrier Reef, with new research revealing coal dust in seawater can kill corals and slow down the growth rate of seagrasses and fish.

“Corals exposed to the highest concentrations of coal dust died within two weeks,” says author Kathryn Berry, who led the experimental research.

“Corals exposed to lower concentrations of coal lasted longer, but most of them also died after four weeks of exposure.

Artificial Intelligence Runs Physics Experiment

Physicists are putting themselves out of a job, using artificial intelligence to run a complex experiment.

The experiment, developed by physicists from The Australian National University (ANU) and UNSW ADFA, created an extremely cold gas trapped in a laser beam, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, replicating the experiment that won the 2001 Nobel Prize.

“I didn’t expect the machine could learn to do the experiment itself, from scratch, in under an hour,” said co-lead researcher Paul Wigley from ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.

Flaws Identified in Government's Direct Action Carbon Plan

An independent economic analysis of Australia’s Direct Action program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has found major flaws in the program.

The analysis by Dr Paul Burke from The Australian National University (ANU) has found the Direct Action program often leads to inefficient spending on projects that would go ahead anyway without government support, and that the scheme likely overstates the amount of emissions reductions.

Persistant Inflammatory Response Leads to Dementia

University of Adelaide researchers have developed a new theory for the causes of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases, involving an out-of-control immune system.

Published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, the researchers have assembled strong evidence that the neurological decline common to these diseases is caused by ‘auto-inflammation’, where the body’s own immune system develops a persistent inflammatory response and causes brain cells to die.

Weekend Treats Undo Healthy Weekdays

Eating well during the week only to binge on junk food over the weekend is likely to be just as bad for your gut health as a consistent diet of junk, according to a study of the gut microbiota of rats.

The human gut consists of up to 100 trillion microbial cells that influence metabolism, nutrition and immune function. Disruption of this microbiota has been linked with gastrointestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and obesity.

The Paradox of Healthy Obesity

Researchers have defined key characteristics that enable some obese individuals to remain free from type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

“It has been known for some time that some obese individuals seem to stay metabolically healthy,” said A/Prof Jerry Greenfield of Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. “However, there has been no consensus about how to define ‘metabolically healthy’ obesity – so it has not been easy to understand what underpins these individuals’ apparent protection from disease.”