Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


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

Ancient Asteroid Impact Revealed

By Stephen Luntz

Australia's second-largest impact linked to geothermal energy.

Research into the geothermal energy potential of the Cooper Basin has led to the discovery of an ancient asteroid impact, possibly Australia’s second-largest. Intriguingly, the impact may be the reason that the Basin holds so much potential to supply Australia with clean energy.

Vale Frank Fenner, Vanquisher of Smallpox

By Stephen Luntz

One of Australia’s greatest scientists, Professor Frank Fenner, passed away on 22 November 2010 after a short illness. He was 95.

Fenner studied science and medicine at the University of Adelaide before joining the Army Medical Corp. He was awarded an OBE for his work combating malaria in New Guinea.

Fenner first came to prominence when he, along with Macfarlane Burnet and Ian Clunies Ross, injected themselves with the myxoma virus to prove it was harmless to humans. The subsequent release of the virus controlled rabbit plagues for decades until resistance became widespread.

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Evidence for Family Cancer Syndromes

By Stephen Luntz

A study of women diagnosed with cancer before the age of 35 has found that their close relatives have double the risk of cancer for the general population.

The findings held true even after women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer gene mutations were removed as these mutations are already associated with family histories of ovarian and prostate cancer, respectively.

“The results suggest there could possibly be undiscovered genes causing breast cancer in these young women, and perhaps other cancers in their families,” says Prof John Hopper, Director of Research from the Centre for Molecular, Environmental, Genetic and Analytic Epidemiology at the University of Melbourne.

Polygyny History Found in Non-Coding DNA

By Stephen Luntz

If you want to know about certain aspects of human history you need to avoid looking at the genes, argues Dr Murray Cox, a computational biologist at Massey University’s Institute of Biosciences. Instead it is important to look at non-coding DNA that is located well away from the genes, as data from genes can pollute the sample.

Cox was part of a team seeking evidence for polygyny – the practice of men having multiple wives. He compared patterns in X chromosomes, which spend the majority of their history in women, with those of the non-sex chromosomes, which spend equal time in men and women. The Y chromosome is too small to offer as many data points as Cox was seeking.

Flu Recombination Risk High

Flu image

A future pandemic with more severe effects than last year’s could gain resistance through co-infection with a seasonal variety.

By Stephen Luntz

The discovery of high rates of co-infection between two versions of the flu virus has raised the danger of a drug-resistant flu pandemic.

“Last year our influenza season began with the circulation of the regular seasonal A/H1N1 strain, which is Tamiflu-resistant,” says Dr Matthew Peacey of New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research. “This seasonal A/H1N1 strain was rapidly overtaken by the worldwide pandemic A/H1N1 strain. In New Zealand there was a short 4–5-week period when both strains were circulating within the community, and in some cases both strains were able to infect a single patient.”

Moa Males Hatched Eggs

Moa egg shell

Moa egg shells were remarkably thin for their size, providing indications that males incubated eggs. Photo: S. Brookbanks

By Stephen Luntz

Detective work on egg shells from moa have provided insights into the behaviour of these extinct species, including evidence that males kept eggs warm prior to hatching.

Along with colleagues at Griffith University, Dr Craig Miller of the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences collected DNA from the outside of remnant moa egg shells. Miller was able to match the DNA with samples from bones to identify which species the eggs came from, including some of the largest of the ten known moa species.

Vitamin Deficiency Doubles Schizophrenia Risk

By Stephen Luntz

Important evidence has firmed up the suspected link between vitamin D deficiency and schizophrenia.

Babies in Denmark routinely have blood samples taken at birth, and analysis of these published in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows that those who were deficient in vitamin D have twice the rate of schizophrenia as adults.

The finding is far from a surprise. Evidence for connections between vitamin D deficiency in the latter months of pregnancy and increased risk of schizophrenia has been growing for many years (AS, July 2005, pp.35–38).

Fossilised Stromatolites Push Back Date for the Great Oxidation Event

These fossilised stromatolites may have been producing oxygen 270 million years

These fossilised stromatolites may have been producing oxygen 270 million years earlier than previously accepted. Photo: David Flannery

By Stephen Luntz

The fossilised stromatolites of the Pilbara region are among the oldest evidence for life we know. Now it appears some are even older than first thought, possibly pushing back the date at which oxygen-forming species appeared by 270 million years.

Between 2.45 and 2.32 billion years ago the Earth experienced the Great Oxidation Event, in which the atmosphere first gained a high oxygen content. While this is accepted, there is much debate about what happened earlier.

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