Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


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

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.

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.