Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


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

Herpes Infection Route Revealed

By Stephen Luntz

University of Sydney researchers have found a piece in the puzzle explaining how the herpes simplex virus (HSV) infects us.

Approximately 90% of the human population is infected with either HSV1 or HSV2, in most cases without obvious symptoms. Nevertheless HSV1 has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, and infection with HSV2 increases the risk of contracting HIV, along with more immediate symptoms.

A/Prof Cheryl Jones of the University of Sydney’s Medical School says she and her colleagues have demonstrated that both strains of HSV infect Langerhans cells in the skin. “These are important immune cells, and we always thought they must have a role,” says Jones.

New Fish Species Show Their Hand

The pink handfish is one of nine newly described handfish species.

The pink handfish is one of nine newly described handfish species. It has not been sighted since 1999.

By Stephen Luntz

Nine new species of handfish have been found, bringing to 14 the number of known species of one of the world’s most remarkable creatures. Yet specimens of several species are rare, and at least one species may well be extinct.

Handfish get their name from their fins, which have evolved to look remarkably like hands. Although they can swim, they usually prefer to walk along the bottom of estuaries and the seafloor on these fins.

Over the years many specimens have been collected, but until recently most had not been identified to the level of species.

Placental Cells Heal Lungs

By Stephen Luntz

Cells drawn from the human placenta can reduce lung damage in mice. The finding could lead to methods for restoring damaged lungs in humans, bypassing issues involving embryonic stem cells.

A/Prof Yuben Moodley of The Lung Institute of Western Australia (LIWA) says that the finding came from the observation that, during pregnancy, part of the placenta develops from embryonic cells while the rest forms from the mother. Moodley notes that the embryonic-derived component of the placenta produces the amniotic fluid, protecting the foetus against foreign material and promoting its growth.

Frogs Shake the Tree

Red-eyed tree frogs mating.

Red-eyed tree frogs mating. Males defend their territory, giving them access to females, by vibrating tree branches. Credit: Greg Johnston

By Stephen Luntz

A new form of animal communication has been revealed with the discovery that male red-eyed tree frogs send signals by shaking the branches of the trees in which they sit.

“Unlike most species of frogs, the red-eyed tree frog doesn’t show any evidence of females choosing a mate with the loudest or prettiest voice,” says Dr Gregory Johnston of Flinders University’s School of Biological Sciences. Instead, females seem happy to mate with every male into whose territory they wander, making, in Johnston’s words, “having territory really important”.

Processed Meat Increases Ovarian Cancer Risk

By Stephen Luntz

The consumption of processed meat increases women’s risk of ovarian cancer while consumption of fish reduces it, according to two Australian studies and a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Ovarian cancer is rare but has a high mortality rate, with 60% of those diagnosed dying within 5 years.

“Our research suggests that women who eat processed meat several times a week have about a 20% higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who eat processed meat less than once a week,” says Dr Penny Webb, head of the Gynaecological Cancer Group at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. “Conversely, it appears that women who eat more poultry and fish may have a 10–15% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer than those who eat less poultry or fish.”

A Seven Atom Transistor

By Stephen Luntz

Twenty years since 35 xenon atoms were manipulated into the shape of the IBM logo, the same technique has been used to form a transistor from just seven phosphorus atoms precisely placed in silicon. The achievement represents another step towards the creation of a quantum computer.

“The significance of this achievement is that we are not just moving atoms around or looking at them through a microscope,” says Prof Michelle Simmons of the University of NSW Centre for Quantum Computer Technology. “We are manipulating individual atoms and placing them with atomic precision in order to make a working electronic device.”

Fruit Waste Fights Cancer

By Stephen Luntz

The waste thrown out during the production of fruit juices and other processed fruit products contains antioxidants that may prove potent against disease.

“Fruit has long been known for its health benefits, partly as a good source of antioxidants, the chemical compounds, including some vitamins, that protect body cells from damage,” says Dr Said Ajlouni of the University of Melbourne’s School of Land and Environment. “So we decided to investigate if fruit waste also had these properties.”

Pulsar Glitches Explained

A step has been taken to explaining curious changes in signals from pulsars.

A step has been taken to explaining curious changes in signals from pulsars. Credit: Russell Kightley

By Stephen Luntz

Dr George Hobbs of CSIRO has found a pattern to odd shifts in the timing of pulsars. His work may contribute to a greater understanding of the behaviour of these important astronomical objects, and could make pulsars even more powerful tools for testing the fundamental laws of the universe.

The radio signals that pulsars release as they spin form remarkably accurate timing devices, but they gradually slow down as the electromagnetic emissions drain energy from the stars’ rotation.

Nevertheless, the timing of these signals is not perfectly consistent. While some variations can be explained through external forces, such as large nearby objects altering a pulsar’s orbit, others have been harder to explain.

Unexpected Cold a Killer

By Stephen Luntz

Perth and Sydney experience greater increases in cardiovascular death rates over winter than Tasmania does, a new study has found.

Dr Adrian Barnett of the Queensland Institute of Technology is not as surprised as the general public might be. “A lot of very large studies have found that Scandinavia has a much lower increase in winter deaths than Spain, Italy and Greece,” he says.

However, Barnett says that this could be affected by differences in wealth, culture or the quality of the health care system. “Australia’s a good place to study this because we have such a wide range of climates but relatively similar culture and socio-economic circumstances,” Barnett says.

Exercise First, Eat Later

By Stephen Luntz

The pain of early morning exercise may have a benefit for athletes, with evidence that those who train before breakfast get more benefit than those who eat first.

Conventional advice is that athletes should eat before training, but A/Prof Steve Stannard of Massey University is not surprised that his research found otherwise. “Training is all about putting the body under stress, not going faster,” Stannard says. “So by starting out with less fuel, you will reach the point where you really begin to stress the body quicker. This means you will spend longer under stress, and ultimately the training will be more beneficial.”