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

Athletes Can Taste Victory

Athlete with sports drink

The findings raise the possibility of a “sixth taste sense” that is able to detect energy density.

By Stephen Luntz

The taste of an energy-laden drink can produce a surge in muscle strength even before glucose hits the bloodstream.

In a study run by Dr Nicholas Gant and Dr Cathy Stinear of the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research, 16 young men held weights for 11 minutes, flexing every 2 minutes. “Not surprisingly, the maximum force they could produce decreased over time,” Stinear says. However, when given an energy drink the participants showed 2% more muscle strength only 1 second later.

Security Cameras Get Smart

By Stephen Luntz

New security cameras will enable overstretched security staff to better focus their real-time surveillance.

The proliferation of closed circuit television cameras has meant that most of them are left unmonitored for much of the time. Curtin University and iCetana Pty Ltd have developed an answer to this – a program capable of learning what is normal for a particular camera site, and alerting an operator when something unusual happens.

“Existing video analytics systems require the customer to define the events of interest in advance,” says Prof Svetha Venkatesh of Curtin’s Institute of Multisensor Processing and Content Analysis. This can be an exceptionally arduous task.

Growth Hormone Works in Part

By Stephen Luntz

The first scientific evidence that human growth hormone (HGH) benefits athletic performance has been produced. However, the effect is surprisingly narrow.

HGH is a banned substance for elite athletes, but difficulties in distinguishing supplements from the body’s own HGH production have allowed its abuse to flourish. However, until now there has been no evidence that it actually works. Given that side-effects may include cancer and diabetes, properly controlled studies are difficult.

However, Prof Ken Ho of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research managed to get ethics committee approval for such a study. “My staff attended student clubs, sports clubs and so on. It took us a year to get 100 participants,” Ho says.

Helicobacter Protects Against Cancer

By Stephen Luntz

The bacterium that causes stomach ulcers provides protection against an increasingly common form of cancer.

Adenocarcinomas are one of two types of oesophageal cancers. Although globally they are less common than squamous cell cancers, they now make up 60% of oesophageal cancers in Australia – and rising.

Dr David Whiteman of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research says: “Unfortunately the prognosis is very bad. Median survival is 1–2 years. By the time most people present with symptoms the tumour is usually really large.”

Ice Loss Accelerates Warming

Image of Earth temperatures

The 28-year temperature trend for the autumn season. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

By Stephen Luntz

Climatologists believe they have confirmed what has been long suspected: the rapid loss of sea-ice from the Arctic is a result of a feedback cycle where global warming causes ice loss, which in turn causes more local warming.

Dr James Screen of the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences notes that the Arctic has experienced twice the global average warming in recent years. Theories to explain this include changes in cloud cover and the transportation of warmer air to the poles. However, Screen has demonstrated a tight correlation between the warming and loss of sea-ice, a finding significant enough to win publication in Nature.

Wasp Gene Link to Autism, Schizophrenia

Image of wasp

The NRXN1 gene exists in three species of Nasonia wasps.

By Stephen Luntz

Genes believed to be implicated in autism and schizophrenia have been found in the sequencing of the genome of three species of parasitic wasp, indicating they are extraordinarily ancient and essential for animal survival.

The protein neurexin 1 is linked to learning in species as diverse as mice, humans and honeybees. Defects in the protein are common in families where autism and impaired social interactions are common.

Bee brains are flooded with neurexin 1 when they learn to associate odours with food. The protein helps form connections between neighbouring neurons, providing the linkage essential to the operation of learning in the brain.

Diabetes-Prone Gain More Weight

By Stephen Luntz

People with a family history of diabetes gain more weight than those without when consuming a similar diet, a Garvan Institute study has found. The research was published in Diabetologia.

Calorific requirements were carefully calculated for 17 people with a family history of diabetes and 24 people without. The sample was evenly balanced between men and women. Participants were encouraged to eat 1250 calories per day more than their requirement – similar to what can occur over the Christmas holidays.

At the end, those with a family history had gained 3.4 kg compared with 2.2 kg for those without. All participants were provided with support to lose the weight thereafter.

New Early Human Identified

Image of skull of Homo gautengensis

Partial reconstruction of a skull of Homo gautengensis, a two million year old human species. Credit: Darren Curnoe

By Stephen Luntz

The human family tree is turning bushy with the announcement of yet another new species named Homo gautengensis by University of NSW anthropologist Dr Darren Curnoe.

H. gautengensis lived around the same time and place as “the missing link” Australopithecus sediba (AS, June 2010 pp.14–17), and is a closer relative of ours, belonging to our genus. Nevertheless, publication of the finding in HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology has aroused much less media interest than A. sediba, which Curnoe attributes to the new species being a reclassification of previously known fossils rather than a new find.

Dwarf Planets Are Not So Rare

By Stephen Luntz

The number of dwarf planets in the solar system may be ten times higher than previously thought.

The point at which objects in the solar system become dwarf planets has been wrongly estimated, a new study has found, potentially increasing the number of these objects in the solar system.

Homeopathy Evidence Diluted

By Stephen Luntz

A study has poured more cold water on the evidence for homeopathy.

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia has confirmed the mountain of evidence that homeopathy is scam, not science.

Although many studies have found that homeopathy lacks any benefits other than those offered by placebos, including a review by the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (see p.38), a few have been used by the alternative medicine industry to make claims of scientific evidence. These claims have provided a fig leaf to medical insurers that have bowed to consumer demand for coverage of homeopathic treatments as part of their policies.