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Feature article

Meet Our New Chief Scientist

By Stephen Luntz

Professor Ian Chubb says he expects to do his best work behind closed doors, but he has already made a significant mark on the public debate about science.

Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Chubb, has made his presence felt quickly, already attracting a higher profile than many of his predecessors.

Chubb is not a new figure on the national stage, having been Vice-Chancellor of first Flinders University and then the Australian National University after a distinguished career as a neuroscientist. He had already been named the ACT’s Australian of the Year for 2011 when his appointment was announced in April.

Biological Patent Amendment: Good Intentions, Unnecessary Risk

Genetic research

Bringing a new medicine to market takes years or decades and many hundreds of millions of dollars. Credit: iStockphoto

By Julian Clark

Dangerous uncharted waters lie ahead if our politicians vote to support the proposed amendment of Australia’s Patents Act to ban patents on biological materials and genes.

No one can deny that improved medical treatments and equity of access to them are essential to improving our community’s quality of life. We all know of someone who suffers from, or has died from, a debilitating condition such as diabetes, chronic infection, dementia, mental illness or cancer. It is a simple fact that timely and effective treatment of these conditions depends on access to the latest pharmaceuticals, which are protected by patents.

Julian Clark is Head of Business Development at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Heat Cheats

The smallest camaenid snail in the Pilbara

The smallest camaenid snail in the Pilbara, a newly discovered species of Strepsitaurus found only on the south-facing wall of a single, small gorge. Photos: Roy Teale

By Michael Johnson

The diverse snails of the hot, dry Pilbara region survive by selecting the best microhabitats and through adaptations of shell form, reproduction and behaviour.

The Pilbara region is not the obvious place to look for snails. This 500,000 km2 area in the north of Western Australia is more widely known for its rugged gorges, oppressively hot summers and huge deposits of iron ore. Rain is scarce and highly unpredictable, but the Pilbara is subject to occasional cyclonic or winter flooding.

Michael Johnson is Winthrop Professor in the University of Western Australia’s School of Animal Biology.

Raising the Kids: Do You Need Good Genes or Good Friends?

Dolphin mother and calf

Females who have successful relatives and successful “friends” are much better at producing calves.

By Bill Sherwin

Genetic and social influences on reproduction have never before been studied together in one wild species, but a new study of dolphins shows that not only do genetic and social effects both matter, but they interact synergistically.

Researchers have known for a long time that dolphins associate in something like human “mums’ clubs”. How important is this for successful reproduction compared with the importance of having good genes?

It turns out that both of them matter, but most notably we have found that the females who have successful relatives and successful “friends” are much better at producing calves than we would have expected from simply adding the effects of the relatives and the effects of their peer group.

Bill Sherwin is an Associate Professor in the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre of the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Science, University of New South Wales.

Aboriginal Skies

Aboriginal group gazing towards the Southern Cross.

Artwork depicting an Aboriginal group gazing towards the Southern Cross. Artwork by Gail Glasper

By Paul Curnow

How do indigenous cultures interpret the constellations above?

For 45,000 years or more, Aboriginal Australians have gazed at the celestial dance of stars above. This fascination with the night sky extends to almost all indigenous cultures throughout the world, and this early connection to the stars above has been fundamental in reaching a greater understanding of the universe in which we reside. This need to be able to comprehend the heavens still drives the passions of contemporary astronomers to this day.

Paul Curnow is a lecturer in astronomy at the Adelaide Planetarium, University of South Australia.

Policing the Immune System

Not all T-reg cells are equally effective in policing immune responses.

Not all T-reg cells are equally effective in policing immune responses. Credit: iStockphoto

By Erika Cretney and Stephen Nutt

The discovery of cells that regulate the body’s immune response will help scientists to interpret the effectiveness of newly developed drugs and have wide-ranging repercussions for the treatment of conditions including cancer and multiple sclerosis.

The immune system is an intricate network of cells, proteins, tissues and organs that work together to protect our body from disease. Should a foreign invader such as a bacterium or a virus dare to enter our body, an impressive multi-layered defence is in place to ensure its elimination. Subsequently an immunological memory develops, enabling the body to recall previous attacks and mount an even quicker and more powerful response each and every time that particular type of foreign invader is encountered.

Erika Cretney is a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow and Stephen Nutt is Division Head in the Molecular Immunology Division at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Vitamin Danger for Cancer Patients

Might vitamins actually be harmful for cancer patients? Image: iStockphoto

Might vitamins actually be harmful for cancer patients? Image: iStockphoto

By Ray Lowenthal

Cancer patients need to think twice before adding vitamins to their treatment.

Is it time for cancer patients’ love affair with vitamins to end? Might vitamins actually be harmful for cancer patients?

It’s well known that many cancer patients supplement the treatment recommended by their cancer specialists with complementary and alternative medication (CAM). CAM can include a wide range of treatments such as special diets, meditation and herbal preparations. The term also embraces wacky treatments such as coffee enemas and energy-zapping machines.

Ray Lowenthal is Professor of Oncology at the University of Tasmania. This article was first published in The Conversation (

The Perfect Pill?

Sunflower seeds are an attractive system for making protein drugs.

Sunflower seeds are an attractive system for making protein drugs.

By Joshua Mylne

A protein found in sunflower seeds could be the key to developing plants as pharmaceutical factories.

A tiny protein ring derived from sunflower seeds has inspired drug designers for more than a decade, but the unusual way that sunflowers make it has only recently been revealed in a discovery that could transform plants into drug production factories and turn seeds into pills.

Joshua Mylne is an Australian Research Council QEII Fellow based at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Ageing Young



By Dannon Stigers, Samuel Fraser & Christopher Easton

New evidence suggests that age-related diseases can begin to develop much earlier than we expect, making prevention more important than cure.

It is expected that dementia will be the leading cause of disease burden in Australia by 2016, and that about 3% of the population will suffer from it by 2050. Already 250,000 people in Australia suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Almost every one of us knows a senior citizen, be it family or friends or neighbours, who tends to be forgetful or has trouble completing daily tasks like dressing or feeding themselves.

Dannon Stigers is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Samuel Fraser is a PhD student and Christopher Easton is a Professor at the Australian National University’s Research School of Chemistry.

Vicars & Vagrants

image credit Juan Sagardia

The flightless takahe and flying swamphen or pukeko (P. porphyrio) are related, but molecular and fossil evidence indicates that the swamphen arrived in New Zealand about 300 years ago and probably from Australia – after the takahe evolved. Curiously, takahe plumage is more similar to the swamphen P. madagascariensis from Africa (pictured here; image credit Juan Sagardia) than the one from Australia, implying a shared ancestry that is also supported by molecular data.

By Steve Trewick

DNA studies of New Zealand’s birds are causing a rethink of the importance of colonisation events in the evolution of its endemic species.

Many of the species found on an island do not occur anywhere else in the world. The number of these “endemic” species indicates how long that island’s animal and plant life have been isolated, but the significance of endemicity is difficult to judge from looks alone. DNA sequence data are helping to solve this mystery.

Steve Trewick is Principal Investigator with the Phoenix Group at the Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University (