Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Feature article

A Blind Eye to Love

The eyes convey a vast range of emotional cues.

The eyes convey a vast range of emotional cues that help us get along with, and understand, each other

By Bob Beale

Lack of interest in holding a mother’s gaze may be an early indicator of problems to come, such as serious crime, violence and drug-taking.

Asked to picture a psycho­path, you might conjure up a horror movie character: someone prone to violence or even serial murder, coldly scrutinising you with unblinking eyes.

In fact, only a tiny proportion of psychopaths are killers: most psychopaths are involved in far more mundane criminality or callous exploitation of other people for their own ends, notes Prof Mark Dadds of the University of NSW School of Psychology.

Bob Beale is Public Affairs Manager at the University of NSW Faculty of Science.

Hormones In Meat: Science or Spin?

Hormone-free meat

Hormone growth promotants are used in as many as half of the steers and heifers raised for meat destined for the Australian market.

By Kate Osborne

Is the decision by supermarket giant Coles to sell only meat that is free of growth promoters based on science or just a clever marketing ploy?

In September 2010, when supermarket giant Coles announced they were no longer going to sell meat from cattle treated with growth hormones, they revealed an inconvenient truth: that the meat in our supermarkets has been produced using the same hormones banned in the European Union since 1998 and banned in the Australian poultry industry since the 1960s.

Australian beef is very safe to eat. The National Residue Survey, which looks for all kinds of contaminants in food, found two instances from 5732 cattle tested of non-hormone-type residues in meat.

Kate Osborne is an ecologist and science writer.

Smarter than Smartphones?

iPhone apps

The current round of patent litigation is now focused on technologies related to the convergence of cellphones and computers.

By Mike Lloyd

New technology is untangling the complex network of patents at the centre of a litigation war between smartphone companies.

Many Australians are now using smartphones, the all-singing all-dancing devices that combine the functions of phone, computer, email, games machine, music player and video screen in a compact device. These remarkable gadgets are helping to spark revolutions overseas, and back in the more settled parts of Australia are changing the way we live, communicate and interact with each other. Smartphones are advancing rapidly as well, with the Apple iPad and other tablets merging the gap between phones and computers, and threatening to replace many of their uses.

Mike Lloyd is an IP consultant at Griffith Hack.

Cleaning Up the Toxins After the Fire


The South Carolina Fire Academy goes through its paces. Credit: Ryan Adrian King

By Venkata Kambala

Toxic chemicals in firefighting foam accumulate in animal and human tissue, causing cancer and neonatal mortality. New technology is now keeping it from accumulating in the environment.

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) have long been used in fire-fighting foam because they improve the effectiveness of the surfactants that enable the foam to smother fire. PFCs are also widely used in the treatment of fabrics and leather, in paper products, food packaging and insecticides. They are relatively inert and heat-stable, which has made them attractive to manufacturers.

Venkata Kambala is a research fellow with CRC CARE and the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation (CERAR) at the University of South Australia.

How Tectonic Plates Take the Plunge

Mt Etna

The formation of Europe’s largest volcano, Mt Etna, cannot be explained directly by the theory of plate tectonics. Credit: Sebastien Litrico

By Wouter P. Schellart

New evidence shows that the speed of the Earth’s tectonic plates and their boundaries, as well as the formation and destruction of mountain ranges, is controlled by the size of plate boundaries.

In the 16th century a Dutch cartographer named Abraham Ortelius noticed the jigsaw fit between the east coast of the Americas and the west coast of Europe and Africa. He argued that the continents were once joined together and subsequently separated.

Wouter P. Schellart is an Australian Research Council QE II Fellow and a Monash Fellow with the School of Geosciences at Monash University.

Getting to the Heart of Inflammation

Many babies born prematurely suffer from different kinds of inflammation.

Many babies born prematurely suffer, sometimes fatally, from different kinds of inflammation.

By Julia Veitch

Pre-term babies with bronchopulmonary disease are providing insights into inflammatory responses behind diseases as diverse as migraine, arthritis and diabetes.

Inflammation is a hot topic in medical research. As more is understood about various chronic disease processes, it has become evident that acute and chronic inflammation can be damaging. The hunt is on for a means to silence any excessive inflammatory process and provide a therapy for diseases caused by inflammation.

Julia Veitch is Communications Manager with Monash University’s Central Clinical School.

Molecular Assassins

Perforin punching pores through a cell membrane

Perforin punching pores through a cell membrane, allowing granzyme toxins to move into and destroy the cell. Credit: Mike Kuiper, VPAC

By Tim Thwaites

A molecular assassin that bacteria use to punch their way into our cells is also used by our immune system to return fire, opening up avenues for treating autoimmune diseases and cancer.

More effective treatments for cancer and viral diseases, better therapy for auto-immune conditions, and a deeper understanding of the body’s defences enabling the development of more tightly focused immunosuppressive drugs are some of the wide-ranging possibilities arising from research that has unravelled the molecular structure and function of the protein perforin, which is used by the body as a front-line weapon against viral infection.

Tim Thwaites is News Editor with Australasian Science.

Earthquakes with the Midas Touch

The enormous Goldstrike pit in Nevada

The enormous Goldstrike pit in Nevada, USA, was formed about 40 million years ago, possibly due to ancient earthquakes.

By Steven Micklethwaite

Earthquakes are catastrophic events, but the stress changes they generate deep in the Earth mean they have not so much a silver lining, but a golden one.

Gold can be found everywhere in very small amounts. It exists as a trace element in rocks and soils; it is dissolved in seawater; and even plants have the ability to take up gold and retain it dissolved in their tissues.

But before we are tempted to dig up our gardens it is important to understand that the amounts are too small to extract and make money. Typical concentrations are just 2–3 parts per billion: that is, 2–3 grams of gold for every 1000 tonnes of garden rock.

Steven Micklethwaite is a Senior Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Ore Deposits at the University of Tasmania.

New Insights into the Autistic Brain

By Gio Braidotti

Studies of the brain have identified a physiological basis for autism’s impact on human perception, but new technology is making it possible to develop a biologically based diagnostic tool.

Differences in the way our brains process visual information have been detected among people with varying degrees of autistic behaviour, achieving something long sought-after in clinical psychology – a way to diagnose autism biologically rather than behaviourally. This would make autism detectable much sooner, allowing earlier remedial strategies that could, in turn, lead to better lifelong outcomes.

Comfort Foods and Exercise Reverse Anxiety from Early Life Stress

Ingestion of a meal rich in carbohydrate is associated with improved mood.

Ingestion of a meal rich in carbohydrate is associated with improved mood and increased cognitive performance.

By Jayanthi Maniam and Margaret Morris

Stressful experiences during childhood can affect brain development, leading to increased anxiety and depression-like behaviours in adults, but this process can be reversed with diet and exercise.

Early childhood experiences can have long-lasting impacts on behaviour later in life. Several studies have shown that children who are abused or neglected have a higher risk of developing psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety during adulthood. In addition, animal studies have demonstrated similar effects using a model of stress induced by separating pups from their mothers.

Jayanthi Maniam is a PhD student with Margaret Morris, who is Head of Pharmacology at the University of NSW School of Medical Sciences. The research described in this article was published by the authors in Psychoneuroendocrinology.