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The Ethics of Online Genomics Tests

Credit: Syda Productions/adobe

Credit: Syda Productions/adobe

By Jacqueline Savard

There is a significant difference between the expectation and reality of direct-to-consumer personal genome testing, creating a gap where interesting tensions and ethical dilemmas sit.

“They can test for that?” This is often the response when I explain that I study the ethics of genomic tests that consumers can buy online.

For the past 7 years I have been studying the field of direct-to-consumer personal genome testing in Australia. This includes following the regulatory changes that have occurred and how they have impacted upon certain companies and the field as a whole. This has been amusing to a degree, as some companies would disappear from the internet only to re-appear with new branding and names a few months later.

What’s the Key to Chronic Fatigue?


Credit: alphaspirit/Adobe

By Donald Staines & Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik

Chronic fatigue has a range of debilitating symptoms that have defied a pathological explanation. Now researchers are zeroing in on receptors with a role in the immune system.

The term “chronic fatigue syndrome” is a poorly conceived diagnostic term to describe a debilitating and protracted condition. It entails profound fatigue, usually worsened by exertion, and an incapacitating type of brain fog associated with greatly impaired memory, concentration and rational and emotional thought processes. Most who experience it describe it as the worst experience of their live. Many are undiagnosed or disbelieved; a number even suicide.

The Devil Is in the DNA

Credit: Menna Jones

Credit: Menna Jones

By Anna Brüniche-Olsen & Jeremy J. Austin

DNA analysis reveals that Tasmanian devils survived a major population decline thousands of years ago, leaving them with low genetic diversity to withstand devil facial tumour disease.

When Europeans first arrived in Tasmania they encountered a strange creature. It was black with white markings, the size of a dog, and had an impressive set of teeth. This loud and rowdy scavenger, mainly active at night fighting over carcasses, puzzled them. They named it the “Tasmanian devil”. Two hundred years later we know a lot more about devil biology, but they stand at the brink of extinction and have become a symbol for the conservation of biodiversity worldwide.

Survival of the Littlest

© Peter Schouten from Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origin of Birds

Jinfengopteryx, a feathered bird-like dinosaur. © Peter Schouten from Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origin of Birds

By Michael Lee

Birds co-existed with their dinosaur ancestors for nearly 100 million years, but eventually outlived them. Two new studies have revealed why.

The transformation of lumbering ground-dwelling dinosaurs into agile flying birds may have seemed fanciful in the 19th century, but it now represents a poster child for evolution. The dinosaurian ancestry of birds had been suspected ever since Archaeopteryx was unearthed from a slate quarry in Germany more than 150 years ago. This famous transitional fossil had wings and feathers like a bird, but retained a long reptilian tail, toothy jaws, and legs with sickle-shaped claws like those of carnivorous dinosaurs.

The Boring Billion

Sedimentary rocks such as these hold the key to understanding variations in ocean trace elements and atmospheric oxygen.

Sedimentary rocks such as these hold the key to understanding variations in ocean trace elements and atmospheric oxygen.

By Ross Large

Trace element levels in the ocean over the past 3.5 billion years explain important evolutionary events such as the Cambrian explosion of life and a “boring” billion years when evolution stood still.

Four years ago I was sitting at a research seminar listening to one of my colleagues talk about the chemistry of the ancient oceans. He was discussing how a group of scientists in the USA had used computer models to predict the trace element chemistry of oceans 1–2 billion years old.

The idea flashed into my mind that we have the technology in our research laboratory to actually measure trace elements in the ancient oceans using the rock record. It was one of those rare light bulb moments in science that are few and far between.

In the Eye of the Beholder



By Michael Kasumovic

Beauty is a subjective value, but studies are finding that mate choice is often affected by upbringing, self-esteem and previous experiences in courtship.

People are a complicated, and our understanding of what we find attractive in a partner is just as complex. Some prefer a perfectly coiffed hairstyle or a sly smile while others like bulging biceps or a smart sense of style.

In fact, the one thing we can be sure of is that there would be as many descriptions of what is attractive as there are people in a room! That’s because there is no simple definition of beauty: it is something personal to the individuals.

Michael Kasumovic is a Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of NSW.

Herbicides Can Induce Antibiotic Resistance

Credit: luckybusiness/Adobe

Credit: luckybusiness/Adobe

By Brigitta Kurenbach & Jack Heinemann

The overuse of antibiotics has led to a dramatic rise in the number of untreatable infections. To make matters worse, other chemicals like weed-killers can reduce the susceptibility of bacteria to antibiotics.

In many parts of the world, treatable bacterial diseases are becoming untreatable because they are resistant to many of the antibiotics we used to take. The most prominent example for this is tuberculosis, for which drug-resistant varieties have been confirmed and are spreading.

This is not a problem restricted to developing countries with inadequate medical capacities. Infections with antibiotic-resistant organisms forming the so-called ESKAPE group (named after the members Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii,

It’s Not Just About “The Science”

Credit: Mopic/Adobe

Credit: Mopic/Adobe

By Rachel A. Ankeny & Heather J. Bray

Female scientists and health professionals have revealed that opposition to genetically modified food is less about “the science” and more about perceived conflicts with personal values.

Opposition to a technology is often thought to be caused by a lack of understanding of the underlying science. In response, scientists and science communicators often explain the scientific details in the hope that these facts will persuade people to change their behaviours or beliefs.

Does a Fly Know If It’s in Control?

Credit: Nick Valmas (QBI)

A tethered fly walks on a trackball controlling an object on a digital display, allowing its brain activity to be recorded at the same time. The fly moves the object to the front when it’s paying attention to it. Credit: Nick Valmas (QBI)

By Leonie Kirszenblat & Bruno van Swinderen

What do the brain waves of a fly placed in a virtual reality arena tell us about self-awareness in animals?

When you step on your car’s accelerator, you know that it will go faster. We all know that our actions have consequences, but are animals also self-aware of their actions?

You may find this surprising, but even the tiny fruit fly that hovers around your fruit bowl is calculating her every move. Although her brain is infinitely smaller than a human brain, it is capable of many of the same operations, and may offer some clues to how our own minds work.

Rewilding Australia

Joanne Draper

The proposed rewilding of Tasmanian devils on the mainland jumps a time gap of about 1750 generations, has no clear understanding of what caused devils to go extinct in the first place, and returns no lost function that hasn’t already been made up by other species. Credit: Joanne Draper

By Allen Greer

Are there ecological benefits behind proposals to return Tasmanian devils to the mainland and dingoes to south-eastern Australia, or is “rewilding” simply “biological control” rebranded?

A current controversy in Australian conservation biology is the introduction of one or more species to help “manage” an ecosystem “naturally,” continuously and cheaply instead of artificially, episodically and expensively – as with human management. In Australia, advocates of “rewilding” have proposed introducing native species, exotic species and even extinct species.