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Feature article

Medical Research Spared in Federal Budget

By Jane Hall

Medical research funding has been saved: now we need to spend wisely.

The NHMRC budget has escaped the threatened $400 million cut in the 2011 Federal Government budget. Instead, the 4% annual increase it has received in recent years will continue for another year.

The Government also announced a strategic review of federal funding for medical research. This provides the perfect juncture to reconsider the priorities of the research budget to ensure our health as well as our healthcare system remain viable.

Current spending

Mining with Microbes

Sampling from acidic saline drains in Western Australia.

Sampling from acidic saline drains in Western Australia.

By Carla Zammit

High salt concentrations in Western Australian groundwater have restricted the mining industry’s use of microorganisms to extract metals from their ores. Until now.

Microorganisms first appeared on Earth 3–4 billion years ago. Since then, microbes have evolved to inhabit close to every corner of the world.

Microorganisms are capable of living in environments that are far too harsh for any other Earth-based life form. Some are capable of growth at a pH as low as 0 (the pH of gastric acid is 1), can withstand levels of heavy metals that are lethal to most other life forms, or live in temperatures above the boiling point of water.

Carla Zammit completed this study during her PhD at Curtin University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Adelaide.

Aluminium Production: A More Sustainable Future

Aluminium cans

Alcoa has designed a large-scale bioreactor that can degrade up to 40 tonnes per day of oxalate produced at one of its aluminium refineries.

By Naomi McSweeney

Bacteria that consume sodium oxalate have the potential to reduce the environmental footprint of aluminium production while saving the industry millions.

Aluminium is the most highly used and versatile non-iron-containing metal in the world. It is a light, durable and flexible metal with properties including high heat and electrical conductivity, radiant heat reflection and resistance to atmospheric corrosion.

The physical properties of this metal can be enhanced by alloying, heat-treating and mechanical working to produce stronger and more durable metals.

Naomi McSweeney is a PhD Student with CSIRO’s Light Metals Flagship.

The Scientific Legacy of Burke & Wills

The camp site at Menindee

The camp site at Menindee where a base party remained behind for several months while an advance party continued north under Burke’s leadership.

By Bernie Joyce and Doug McCann

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the deaths of Burke and Wills. The expedition was originally considered a failure, but more recent analysis has changed that view.

When the “thrilling news” (as it was called in the press) of the demise of Burke and Wills reached Melbourne late in the afternoon on 2 November 1861, it initiated a period of profound public grieving. The news arrived in the week of the first Melbourne Cup at Flemington, which was won by Archer before a subdued crowd of about 4000. The city went into mourning. How could an enterprise that began with so such promise end so badly?

Bernie Joyce works is an Honorary Principal Fellow in the School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne. Doug McCann is a science historian and Fellow of the School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne. This article was originally published in The Australian Geologist. As part of the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Burke and Wills Expedition, the Royal Society of Victoria has engaged a team of authors including surveyor Frank Leahy to produce a book on the scientific legacy of the Burke and Wills Expedition and the supporting relief expeditions. For further information see www.burkeandwills150.info

Balancing Act

Ballerina

Moving effortlessly through the world and maintaining balance requires the use of specific areas in the brain that specialise in the processing of the information required for us to be able to do them.

By Mark Edwards and Michael Ibbotson

What can an earthquake simulator tell us about how our visual and vestibular systems communicate with each other to help us balance?

Moving effortlessly through the world and maintaining balance are two activities that we are exceptionally good at. While these tasks may appear simple, given that we can typically perform them with no apparent conscious effort, they are extremely complex and demanding and require the use of specific areas in the brain that specialise in the processing of the information required for us to be able to do them.

Mark Edwards is an Associate Professor at the Australian National University’s Department of Psychology. Michael Ibbotson is a Professor in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science at the Australian National University.

Drug Labs Leave Lethal Legacy

Drug lab

Criminal gangs can rent a property briefly, cook up their lucrative brew, chuck the waste down the drain then take off – leaving others to cop harmful side-effects that can last for years.

By Julian Cribb

Mobile methamphetamine labs leave behind a deadly cocktail of contaminants in residential neighbourhoods – with property owners left to pay for the considerable clean-up costs.

For many young Australians, a dose of ice, speed or ecstasy is all part of a Friday night’s fun at the nightclub or singles bar. But for an increasing number of innocent people – including tiny babies – it could spell cancer, leukaemia, lung disease, birth defects, brain damage, skin diseases, headaches and blindness.

Julian Cribb is a freelance science writer.

Cryptic Clues to Species Diversity

The clawless gecko  actually consists of ten or more species.

The clawless gecko (Crenadactylus ocellatus) actually consists of ten or more different species.

By Paul Oliver

Genetic research is revealing how much we have seriously underestimated species diversity in many Australian vertebrate groups.

Paul Oliver recently completed his PhD on the evolution, systematics and diversity of Australian geckos, and currently works at the South Australian Museum.

Ice, an Asteroid Impact and the Rise of Complex Life

Iceberg

An iceberg carrying rock debris into the Antarctic Ocean near Casey Station. Photo: David Wakil

By Victor Gostin, David McKirdy and George Williams

An asteroid impact in southern Australia is redefining the conditions that preceded the explosion of multicellular life more than 500 million years ago.

Some of the major events during the Earth’s history have occurred simultaneously or in close succession. The consequences of these events have led scientists to conclude that the synchronicity of these global disasters has been a powerful driver of ecological and evolutionary change.

Victor Gostin, David McKirdy and George Williams are with the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

Conducting Plastics for the Bionic Man

Bionic arm

Conducting polymers provide several advantages over standard metal electrodes, and in the future they are likely to be integral in the development of the next generation of implants.

By Rylie Green

Plastics that conduct electricity could bring the bionic man from science fiction to reality.

Within the next decade the bionic man will make the leap from science fiction to reality. More than an exercise in science, advanced bionic devices restore quality of life to those who have lost functions through injury or disease.

Rylie Green is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of NSW Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering.

The Orbital Junkyard

Space junk

New technology can warn whether a piece of junk poses a threat to a spacecraft, and if so in which direction the craft should move.

By Stephen Luntz

Satellites are under threat from about 500,000 pieces of space junk, but new Australian technology can now track the orbit of debris as small as 1 cm to within 1 metre.

Far above our heads, even above the ozone layer, the Earth has a pollution problem. Low Earth orbit is becoming increasingly crowded. Not only are satellites ever more common, but they face more and more danger from pieces of space junk.

However, Australian company Electro Optics Systems Holdings Limited (EOS) thinks it has a big part of the answer. For a country that, to a large extent, has turned its back on space research, this could become our major contribution.

The Problem