Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Cover Story

Cover Story

Neandertal Life Reconstructed One Bacterium at a Time

The complete jaw of Spy II, with small and thin dental calculus deposits that pr

The complete jaw of Spy II, with small and thin dental calculus deposits that provided usable DNA sequences. Credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Nature Sciences

By Laura Weyrich

Fossilised dental calculus is revealing that Neandertals weren’t the oafish brutes we’ve long considered them to be.

Our vision of Neandertals often includes a grunting, club-touting, beastly individual who may or may not be covered in fleas. The Neandertal is likely wearing furs from the animals it killed and is probably looking a bit confused.

But is that how Neandertals really were? New evidence from bacteria preserved on their teeth suggests otherwise.

Why Are Neandertals Portrayed as Oafs?

How You Can Weigh Black Holes

Messier 81 (also known as NGC 3031 or Bode’s Galaxy) is a barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major 11.4 million light years away. The pitch angle of its spiral arms is 13.4°, which correlates with the black hole at its centre being 67.6 million times more massive than our Sun. Credit: © Ken Crawford http://www.imagingdeepsky.com/Galaxies/
M81/M81.htm

Messier 81 (also known as NGC 3031 or Bode’s Galaxy) is a barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major 11.4 million light years away. The pitch angle of its spiral arms is 13.4°, which correlates with the black hole at its centre being 67.6 million times more massive than our Sun. Credit: © Ken Crawford http://www.imagingdeepsky.com/Galaxies/ M81/M81.htm

By Ben Davis

The largest invisible monsters in our universe are hidden at the centres of galaxies, and we can predict how massive they are by the shape of spiral arms in their host galaxies. Here’s how you can take part in a global “citizen science” census of black holes.

Nearly a century ago, Sir James Jeans and Edwin Hubble noted that spiral galaxies with large central bulges possess tightly-wound spiral arms, while spiral galaxies with small bulges display wide-open spiral arms. Their studies have defined the classification scheme of galaxies famously represented in the “tuning fork” diagram (Fig. 1).

Oz Mammal Genomics

The fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata) is a model marsupial species that’s frequently used in laboratory studies, and has the ancestral marsupial arrangement of chromosomes.

The fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata) is a model marsupial species that’s frequently used in laboratory studies, and has the ancestral marsupial arrangement of chromosomes.

By Sally Potter & Mark Eldridge

A large project to sequence the genomes of Australia’s mammals will provide the first complete picture of their interrelationships and evolutionary history – and aid their conservation.

Australia and its surrounding islands contain a significant proportion of the world’s mammalian diversity, including the only monotremes (egg-laying mammals) as well as a great diversity of marsupials (pouched mammals) and many eutherian mammals such as bats and rodents. More than 300 terrestrial mammalian species are native to Australia, and 87% of these are found nowhere else. This level of unique bio­diversity brings value to Australia at economic, social and scientific levels.

Alchemists of Catastrophe: How Disasters Deliver Data

Scientists could never have justified dumping more than 500,000 tonnes of methane into the ocean to study the effects of climate change on deep-sea habitats, but they didn’t have to – Deepwater Horizon did it for them.

Scientists could never have justified dumping more than 500,000 tonnes of methane into the ocean to study the effects of climate change on deep-sea habitats, but they didn’t have to – Deepwater Horizon did it for them.

By Shanta Barley & Jessica Meeuwig

Ecologists are treating oil spills, species invasions and other environmental calamities as natural experiments on a scale that could never be attained by normal laboratory or field studies.

Since the 1940s humans have detonated more than 2000 atomic bombs. We have cut down more than one-third of our tropical forests. We have transformed the humble chicken into an unlikely avian superstar: its bones may become the “type fossil” for future geologists studying the Anthropocene. We have effortlessly wiped out the apex predators that we once worshipped, and conferred on ourselves alarming names such as “superpredator” to underline our strange superpowers when it comes to eating other animals to extinction.

Ancient Australia’s Super-Eruptions

Credit: Microstocker/Adobe

Credit: Microstocker/Adobe

By Milo Barham

Sediments beneath the Nullarbor Plain have revealed that super-eruptions in eastern Australia more than 100 million years ago were powerful enough to blast crystals right across the country.

The raw power of volcanic eruptions has long captured the human imagination. While their effects have been historically catastrophic – think of what Mt Vesuvius did to Pompeii and Herculaneum – they have also produced fertile soils and geothermal power.

Skeletons Come out of the Closet to Fight Cancer

Cancer cells divide rapidly and uncontrollably.  Anticancer drugs that target the microtubule cytoskeleton work by preventing cancer cells from dividing correctly, but they also affect other rapidly dividing healthy cells and some aggressive cancers are resistant to their effects. New insights are revealing how specific features of the microtubule cytoskeleton are making cancer cells more aggressive and difficult to treat, paving the way for new anticancer therapies. Credit: Mopic/adobe

Cancer cells divide rapidly and uncontrollably. Anticancer drugs that target the microtubule cytoskeleton work by preventing cancer cells from dividing correctly, but they also affect other rapidly dividing healthy cells and some aggressive cancers are resistant to their effects. New insights are revealing how specific features of the microtubule cytoskeleton are making cancer cells more aggressive and difficult to treat, paving the way for new anticancer therapies. Credit: Mopic/adobe

By Amelia Parker

Cells have skeletons that hold their shape and help them move around. Recent discoveries have revealed that a protein in some cytoskeletons is making cancer cells more deadly, fundamentally challenging our understanding of the function of the cell’s skeleton and offering new hope for the development of targeted and effective cancer therapies.

Despite decades of advances in the way we understand, diagnose and treat cancer, a cancer diagnosis is one of uncertainty. Not all cancers behave in the same way or respond in the same way to treatment, leaving patients without assurances that the treatments that they endure will work, all while suffering through debilitating and potentially lifelong side-effects. Improvements in cancer treatments will depend on our ability to accurately predict which treatments will work most effectively in which patients.

Predicting Pandemics

Credit: Gino Santa Maria

Credit: Gino Santa Maria

By Jemma Geoghegan

Which factors determine whether an emerging virus is likely to burn out or spread like wildfire between people?

The vast majority of “emerging” viruses capable of infecting humans have “jumped” from animals to humans. This includes some of the most devastating epidemics on record, such as the ongoing global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Fortunately it seems that most new viruses that jump from animals to humans are incapable of spreading among the human population. For example, bird flu has repeatedly jumped from poultry to humans, but has not yet adapted to spread directly from those humans to others.

The Emerging Potential of Video Games

Credit: hobbymb/ http://tinyurl.com/hd3u2pp

Credit: hobbymb/ http://tinyurl.com/hd3u2pp

By Aaron Kandola

A growing body of research is finding that video games stimulate the brain, but are the skills acquired transferable and is violence in games really an issue?

Every year, video games grow in sophistication, accessibility and popularity. It’s almost impossible to recognise the influence of early arcade and console video games that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the immersive complexity of modern video games like Call of Duty or Diablo.

The Dark Web Dilemma

adimas/adobe

Credit: adimas/adobe

By Eric Jardine

The dark web can hide the activities of organised crime and child abusers but it can also enable people in repressive regimes to communicate with the wider world.

Imagine you live in a highly repressive regime that closely watches your every move and restricts what you can say and do online. In such a context, trying to engage in public life via a normal internet connection can lead to your abuse, arrest or worse – even at the hands of your own government.

The “dark web” presents an alternative. It can keep you safe from the abuses of governments that want to spy on you, censor what you can say and do online and restrict the very vibrancy of public life that can lead to democratic change.

A Diet that Calms the Schizophrenic Mind

Credit: tankist276/adobe

The ketogenic diet is preferred by bodybuilders who need a high energy intake that doesn’t promote the conversion of fat from excess carbohydrates. Credit: tankist276/adobe

By Zoltán Sarnyai

The ketogenic diet favoured by bodybuilders also normalises schizophrenia-like behaviours.

Schizophrenia has long been treated, with limited success, with drugs that block the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. Pharmaceutical companies have spent billions of dollars developing yet another drug with a slightly different mechanism of action to also block dopamine transmission.

Is it possible that a dietary intervention can help people suffering from this devastating mental illness, or is this idea no better than the fad diets promoted in the pages of celebrity gossip magazines?

Our research found that the ketogenic diet, which is very high in fat and extremely low in carbohydrates, effectively normalised a wide range of schizophrenia-like behaviours in a well-established mouse model of the disorder.

What does this diet do that makes the symptoms disappear? Is this approach safely translatable to humans?

I think it is translatable, and there is some fascinating new science behind it as well.