Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Browse

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

Galactic Democracy

By Stephen Luntz

Public outrage over Pluto’s demotion as a planet has inspired a unique attempt to engage the public in astronomical decision-making.

Prof Duncan Forbes of Swinburne University has teamed with Prof Pavel Kroupa of Universitaet Bonn to offer members of the public a chance to vote on the definition of a galaxy.

On its discovery, Pluto was thought to be larger than Mercury. With no clear definition of the boundary between a planet and smaller objects, its planetary status survived even as its size was revised downwards. Eventually, the discovery of increasing numbers of objects of similar size forced the astronomical community to come up with a consistent definition.

Medical Research Cut?

By Stephen Luntz

Medical researchers have launched a campaign in response to rumours of large cuts to science funding in this year’s Budget.

A combination of election promises, commitments to return the Budget to surplus by 2013 and flood costs not covered by the proposed levy have left the federal government seeking expenditure savings. Numerous reports indicate that scientific research is a major target, with high-level reports of a $400 million cut to the National Health and Medical Research Council over 3 years.

Bacteria Escape Water Treatment

By Stephen Luntz

Dangerous bacteria may be evading water treatment plants and getting into our drinking water by colonising amoebae, according to research at the University of NSW Water Research Centre.

The chlorine used during water treatment would normally kill microorganisms, but amoeba can form cysts that are resistant to chlorine at ten times the concentration used in treatment plants, says PhD student Jacquie Thomas. Once they are in more favourable conditions, the cysts become free-living amoebae again, capable of feeding and multiplying.

Astronomers Witness Planet Birth

By Stephen Luntz

An international team has for the first time photographed a planet in the process of formation. The finding confirms long-standing theories of how solar systems evolve, and opens the door to a range of exciting further research.

The standard theory of planetary formation holds that the gas left over after a star begins to shine gradually condenses into larger and larger objects that become planets. Until now, however, we have not been able to witness this occurring.

Prof Peter Tuthill of the University of Sydney’s School of Physics was part of a team that reasoned that planets in the process of formation would be quite hot, making them visible in certain wavelengths.

Exclusive articles for subscribers

By Stephen Luntz

Subscribe now for access to exclusive online articles

To view this article subscribe or purchase a yearly pass here.

Cancer Cause Also a Cure?

By Stephen Luntz

Patients with colorectal cancer show highly varied responses to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The Garvan Institute is investigating the possibility that a gene called MCC might explain the differences.

“We’ve shown that MCC has an important role to play in a well-known phenomenon known as the DNA damage response,” says Dr Laurent Pangon. “Every cell in the body is regularly exposed to DNA damage from things like toxins, viruses or radiation.”

Ultraviolet Light Exposure Damages Tadpoles

By Stephen Luntz

Depletion of the ozone layer has been revived as an explanation for the extinction of amphibians after the discovery that increased ultraviolet-B radiation makes striped marsh frog tadpoles more vulnerable to predators.

Since 1980 more than 150 species of amphibians have become extinct. This compares poorly with background extinctions of one every 250 years. “With amphibians being the most threatened of all vertebrates, and also important indicators of environmental health, understanding the causes of their declines is critical for their conservation, and possibly the conservation of other species,” says Lesley Alton, a PhD Student at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences.

Swallowed Galaxy Coming Towards Us

By Stephen Luntz

The Siding Springs Observatory has been involved in the discovery of the closest remnant of a small galaxy that has been swallowed by the Milky Way.

Known as the Aquarius Stream, after its position in the sky, the evidence for the former galaxy comes in the form of a small number of giant stars coming in our direction at speeds of about 180 km/s. The closest of these stars is 1500 light years away, and they form a long, thin stream stretching out to a distance of 25,000 light years.

The galaxy was absorbed into our own around 700 million years ago, which is recent enough for the common motions of the stars to be detectable.

No Need to Flog a Tired Horse

By Stephen Luntz

A study of 48 racehorses has found no benefit from whipping them in the last stage of a race.

The research was conducted by Hon A/Prof David Evans and Prof Paul McGreevy of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. It was funded by the RSPCA and published in the Public Library of Science.

Although only one horse was not whipped at all in the study, the number of times the other horses were whipped ranged from 1–14 over the last 400 metres. Evans and McGreevy found that increased whipping did not improve the chances that a horse would place.

Malaria’s Invasion Imaged

By Stephen Luntz

The process by which the malaria parasite makes its way into red blood cells has been observed in astonishing detail.

Malaria’s Invasion Imaged

The findings, published in Cell Host & Microbe, may help the search for new drugs against the killer disease.

Dr Jake Baum of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) says the observations required bringing together several lines of work, while developments in super resolution microscopy allowed extraordinarily detailed three-dimensional images of the process.