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

Osteoporosis Treatment Extends Lives by 5 Years

By Stephen Luntz

Life expectancy increases even for those without osteoporosis.

A comparison of people treated for osteoporosis with bisphosphonates and those given only Vitamin D or hormone therapy has found that the first group lives 5 years longer. Astonishingly, the same life expectancy gains appear when those given bisphosphonates are compared with people of similar ages who are osteoporosis-free.

Bisphosphonates are a class of drugs that slow the normal removal of bone mass. For people who would otherwise lose bone material more rapidly than they can replace it, this can improve the strength of bones and reduce the risk that small falls cause fractures.

A New Test for Species Survival

By Stephen Luntz

A new test for the prospects of species survival could improve the targeting of conservation funds.

However, it has set the feral cat among the endangered pigeons, promoting practicality over emotion.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature publishes a Red List of Threatened species. This assesses the level of threat based on the decline in the number of individuals and the range over which the species exists in the wild.

Wireless System Complements NBN

By Stephen Luntz

CSIRO’s Ngara technology will use analogue TV channels to send and receive wireless broadband

CSIRO has hailed the success of a trial of a wireless broadband technology that it hopes will fill a niche in the National Broadband Network in areas too sparsely populated for fibre but more densely populated than areas that will rely on satellites.

CSIRO’s Ngara technology will use analogue TV channels to send and receive wireless broadband at a minimum of 12 Mbps per user to small clusters of homes. “Someone who doesn’t live near the fibre network could get to it using our new wireless system,” said CSIRO ICT Centre Director Dr Ian Oppermann.

Virophage Found in Antarctica

By Stephen Luntz

The discovery of a third virus that parasites other viruses has been made in a hypersaline Antarctic lake near Davis Station.

Virophages reproduce by infecting cells that have already been taken over by other viruses. The virophage inserts its genes into the primary virus so that, instead of the cell being forced to make copies of the original virus, it now produces copies of the virophage.

The first virophage, named Sputnik, was found in 2008. The discovery led to the announcement in March 2011 of a second virophage species. Now Prof Rick Cavicchioli of the University of New South Wales has published the details of the Organic Lake Virophage (OLV) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Deaf Mice Follow Their Noses

By Stephen Luntz

Mice with hearing loss have experienced a partial recovery after being treated with nasal stem cells.

While the potential is obvious, Dr Sharon Oleskevich of the Hearing Research Group at the University of NSW says: “The surgery was non-trivial so we are working on refining it before we can think about applying it to humans”.

The mice in question have sensorineural hearing loss caused by the destruction of neurons in the cochlea. In humans this often begins in infancy, sometimes from genetic causes.

“One of the challenges in tackling this condition is that the regenerative ability of the human cochlea is severely limited,” Oleskevich says.

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.

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