Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


By Stephen Luntz

Gout linked to sugary drinks, electronics that bend, sleep apnoea diagnosed while you wake and more.

Little Aussie Diggers Improve Soils

Bilbies, bandicoots, potoroos and echidnas play such a crucial part in maintaining the health of Australian soils they have been dubbed “biotic engineers” by A/Prof Trish Fleming of Murdoch University’s School of Veterinary and Life Sciences.

“Digging mammals play a vital role, creating disturbances in the form of nose pokes, scratchings, shallow and deep digs, long bulldozing tracts and complex subterranean burrows,” said Fleming. “These interactions lead to soil turnover, nutrient mixing, better breakdown of organic materials, seed dispersal and improved infiltration of water, which decreases surface run-off and erosion.

The decline of these species, with half either extinct or threatened, is making it harder for soils to germinate. Fleming’s study of the native diggers’ role has been published in Mammal Review, where she notes that a southern brown bandicoot (pictured) can excavate 3.9 tonnes of soil per year.

Gout Linked to Sugary Drinks

The belief that gout is the sign of a misspent youth has been bolstered by research published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, at least if sugar consumption is a mark of debauchery.

“This study shows that sugary drinks reverse the benefits of a gene variant which would usually protect against gout,” said A/Prof Tony Merriman of the University of Otago’s Department of Biochemistry.

Gout, which is caused by uric acid crystallising in the joints, is particularly common among Maoria and Pacific Island men and has been linked to heart and kidney diseases. The SLC2A9 gene has a variant that transports uric acid from the bloodstream to the kidneys for excretion.

“But when people with this gene variant consume sugary drinks, it takes on Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. The apparent function of the gene variant reverses, such that we think uric acid is instead transported back into the bloodstream and the risk of gout is increased,” Merriman said.

Human Fingerprints on Global Warming

Too late for the International Panel on Climate Change’s fifth report, an international team has found further evidence for a human role in global warming.

Prof Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide was an author of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper that used 34 years of atmospheric data to examine changes in temperature with altitude.

“One of the standard skeptic ‘arguments’ is that all the observed changes are caused by natural variability, and often supposed to be due to solar activity,” Wigley says. “What we have shown beyond a shadow of doubt is that the climate changes we are observing cannot be due to the Sun or any other natural factors.”

Solar influence would be expected to warm the stratosphere at least as fast as the troposphere, directly in contrast to Wigley’s evidence.

Electronics that Bend

Phones that bend rather than break, tablets that can be rolled up for transportation and clothing with in-built electronics are among the ideas being dreamed about following the application of electronics to flexible surfaces.

Philipp Gutruf, a PhD student at RMIT Functional Materials and Microsystems, said: “We have discovered a micro-tectonic effect, where microscale plates of oxide materials slide over each other, like geological plates, to relieve stress and retain electrical conductivity”.

The work, published in Asia Materials, combines conductive indium tin oxide and biocompatible silicon. “The ability to combine any functional oxide with this biocompatible material creates the potential for biomedical devices to monitor or stimulate nerve cells and organs. This is in addition to the immediate potential for consumer electronics applications in flexible displays, solar cells, and energy harvesters,” said Gutruf’s supervisor, Dr Madhu Bhaskaran.

E-Voting Report Urges Gradual Change

A report prepared for the Australian Electoral Council has recommended that any shift towards electronic voting should be made gradually. The report was largely written before the federal election but gained increased relevancy when slip-ups by the Electoral Commission led to calls for a move to electronic voting.

The discovery of 1000 misfiled votes for independent candidate Cathy McGowan, more than her eventual margin of victory, caused prominent figures such as Clive Palmer and Malcolm Turnbull to promote electronic voting as a solution. However the Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, said the “human errors” existing in the current system needed to be weighted against the dangers of hacking on a far larger scale.

The Electoral Council’s paper acknowledges the extensive problems with internet voting (AS, September 2013, pp.31–33) and discusses the planning and testing required to make it happen. Numerous media reports quote the report as saying some form of electronic voting was “inevitable”. The report attributes this position to proponents of the idea, but adds that so far pressure has largely been limited to adoption for specific groups, such as people with disabilities or in remote locations for whom paper voting can be dofficult.

Dextrose Prevents Brain Damage

A cheap and simple solution could prevent millions of newborn babies having to spend time in intensive care.

As many as 15% of babies suffer from neonatal hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar. If untreated it can lead to brain damage. Many of these babies are fed intravenously, but this is expensive and can interfere with the crucial early stages of breastfeeding.

University of Auckland nursing academics have massaged dextrose gel into the inside cheek of otherwise healthy babies with hypoglycaemia. “Our study is the first report in babies showing that dextrose gel is more effective than feeding alone for treating hypoglycaemia, and is safe and simple to use,” said Prof Jane Harding after the work was published in The Lancet.

Babies treated with a placebo had almost twice the failure rate of those treated with dextrose, and were more likely to be formula-fed weeks later. The gel is often used for diabetics and costs $2 per baby.

Weight Loss Hard and Worth It

As part of National Nutrition Week, University of Newcastle scientists think they have evidence that will get men taking their weight problems seriously where warnings of diabetes and heart disease do not.

In a randomised controlled trial of 145 overweight or obese men Prof Clare Collins found men who lost weight experienced an improvement in erectile function. This extended to men who were not suffering erectile dysfunction at the start of the trial.

Half the men in the trial were put on the Self Help Exercise and Diet Using IT (SHED-IT) program, which Collins said “is for men to learn that making positive changes to their daily food and exercise habits means they can still have a beer, and other things they enjoy, while getting their weight under control”.

Collins added: “The outcome is likely to be a strong motivator for men who need to lose a few kilograms, and has the potential to be used in strategies designed to engage men in weight loss attempts”.

Children Cause Accidents

Anyone charged with driving while using a mobile phone has grounds to feel aggrieved – they are probably concentrating better than the average parent with children in the car.

Monash University’s Accident Research Centre fitted cars with discrete recording devices and observed 92 journeys. Distraction was measured when drivers looked other than forwards for more than 2 seconds while the car was moving.

“Previous research has shown that, compared with driving alone, dialling a mobile phone while driving is associated with 2.8 times the crash risk, and talking or listening while driving is associated with 1.3 times the crash risk,” said A/Prof Judith Charlton. However, this was trumped by children aged 1–8 in the back seat, who caused parents to take their eyes off the road every 3 minutes and 22 seconds, twelve times as often as talking on a mobile phone.

Sleep Apnoea Diagnosed While You Wake

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is being blamed for an increasing range of conditions (AS, March 2012, p.15), but the challenge of diagnosis has made interventions difficult. Now Curtin University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering has explored the body features that make individuals prone to losing oxygen at night.

“An optical probe was used to map the airway, from the oesophagus to the nasal cavity and, using this information, it was then possible to create a 3D model of the patient’s throat,” says Dr Julien Cisonni. By comparing the way air flows in the pharynx of people already diagnosed with OSA with those known to get a good night’s sleep, Cisonni was able to establish that OSA occurs when the shape of the airway causes stronger suction forces in pharyngeal tissue.

“What our study suggests is that OSA could be identified even when the individual concerned is awake and breathing normally,” said Cissoni.

OSA is estimated to affect 24% of men and 6% of women over 55.

Tiger Quoll Returns to Grampians

A tiger quoll has been photographed in the Grampians National Park, the first confirmed sighting of the carnivorous marsupial in the area for 141 years.

With the species thought locally extinct over a century ago, no one was looking for the quoll. Instead, images were captured on a digital camera set up to monitor brush-tailed rock-wallabies.

“We have been undertaking extensive fire management, fox control and other conservation works for decades, and this sighting adds to our knowledge and importance of our work to conserve these species,” said Park Ranger in Charge, Mr Dave Roberts. “Having a native predator in the system is a great sign that the park is supporting a healthy functioning ecosystem.”

Tiger quolls are endangered in their known habitat in eastern Victoria, and classified as near-threatened nationally.