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Online Feature

Small Dams Create Bigger Problems

By David Stauth

A global push for small hydropower projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may cause significant losses of biodiversity.

Researchers have concluded in a new report that a global push for small hydropower projects, supported by various nations and also the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, may cause unanticipated and potentially significant losses of habitat and biodiversity.

Top US court blocks patents on breast cancer genes

By John Liddicoat and Dianne Nicol, University of Tasmania

All nine members of the US Supreme Court have ruled that isolated genetic material cannot be patented – unless the material is markedly different to what exists in nature.

The court ruled against Myriad Genetics' patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The primary plaintiff was the Association for Molecular Pathology, although the case was brought on behalf of a range of other stakeholders including medical associations, and breast cancer and women’s health groups.

The US decision may impact on the impending appeal in an Australian in which a Federal Court judge ruled patent claims to isolated genetic sequences were valid.

Catch of the day in Borneo uncovers new species

Scientists have travelled to Borneo to study parasites infecting sharks and stingrays. The study has led to the discovery of many new species, and the data has been used to help Australian aquaria control the spread of parasite infections in the sharks and stingrays they have on display.

An ongoing project investigating the biodiversity of parasites on sharks and stingrays has seen two researchers from the South Australian Museum travel as far as Borneo to work with local fishermen in finding the freshest and most accurate samples. The researchers – Parasitology Collection Manager Dr Leslie Chisholm and Head of Biological Sciences Associate Professor Ian Whittington – were invited to be a part of the study because of their specialist knowledge in monogenean parasites.

Celebrity pandas and tigers hog the extinction limelight

Worldwide, around 20,000 endangered animal species are competing for scarce conservation funds – but just 80 ‘celebrity species’ are hogging most of the attention.

The world has developed a very inefficient way of choosing which animals facing extinction to save, says Professor Hugh Possingham of the National Environmental Research Program’s (NERP) Environmental Decisions Hub and The University of Queensland (UQ).

This has led to extinctions that could have otherwise been avoided, he cautions.

Comet Factory Discovered

New observations of a “dust trap” around a young star solve long-standing planet formation mystery

Astronomers using the new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have imaged a region around a young star where dust particles can grow by clumping together. This is the first time that such a dust trap has been clearly observed and modelled. It solves a long-standing mystery about how dust particles in discs grow to larger sizes so that they can eventually form comets, planets and other rocky bodies.

Smart bots out-game human hunters

Increasingly, those who venture into any computer-driven environment will experience a diminishing ability to tell if they are dealing with another human being, or with an artifice constructed from machine code.

Another milestone has been achieved in the seemingly unstoppable march by artificial intelligence to rival, and perhaps exceed, human intelligence. Thanks to a competition conceived and organised by Associate Professor Philip Hingston at Edith Cowan University’s School of Computer and Security Science, true anthropomorphism in the virtual world of gaming is here to stay.

The Tamiflu saga shows why all research data should be public

By Chris Del Mar

Attempts to evaluate whether the antiviral drug Tamiflu is effective have been stymied by lack of access to the data from clinical trials.

There’s a dispute going on at the moment, a war of words with lots of public relations manoeuvring. It’s all about the disclosure of trials undertaken in the past. And it is between Cochrane reviewers (of which I am one) and Big Pharma (in this case, Hoffman-La-Roche of Switzerland).

To understand the dispute, it’s necessary to go back a bit in history.

Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is a drug, cleverly-designed in 2000 to attack a molecule in the influenza virus. It prevents the influenza virus bursting infected human cells to spread more virus in the body.

Thinking the unthinkable: tracing language back 15,000 years

By Michael Dunn

Linguists have identified a set of 23 frequent words to establish relationships between languages dating back to ancient times.

Just about everyone has a personal stake in language, and many people — expert and amateur — feel entitled to an opinion. But linguists care more than most people, and when linguistics hit the media, linguists can get very agitated indeed.

Gender-bending fish share their secrets

By Leigh Dayton

Local scuba divers are teaming with scientists to survey populations of sea dragons, which are classified as “near threatened” on the Red List of threatened species.

When David Booth spotted his first seadragon he thought the colourful 40 centimetre-long fish looked like an intergalactic hybrid: half alien, half animated seaweed. “They are amazing things,” the marine ecologist says.

Its oddball appearance not only gives the quirky creature its name – weedy seadragon or Phyllopteryx taeniolatus – it provides cover from hungry predators. “A fast escape or sharp scales are definitely not in their protective repertoire,” says Professor Booth, Director of the Centre for Environmental Sustainability at UTS. “They just blend in.”

Words that stand the test of time

Linguists have compiled a list of words that can be traced to old forms around the time of the last Ice Age.

A University of Waikato academic involved in a groundbreaking and controversial new study on words which have remained in use for around 15,000 years says the team involved expected the results to be controversial but the years of work that went into it were worth it.

"It's a new thing and won’t be accepted by everyone," Dr Andreea Calude says.