Seeing Mars in a different light

 A team of Australian astronomers are developing a way of forecasting the weather on Mars – without putting their toes in space and have created beautiful images of our neighbouring planet.

 Their discoveries will help us determine if Mars was a kinder place for life in the past.

And by forecasting the Martian weather they hope to be able to reduce the risks to spacecraft, such as the recent failed Beagle mission and possible future manned missions to Mars.

 Sarah Chamberlain of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology and Dr Jeremy Bailey of the Anglo-Australian Observatory and the associate director of the ACA, observed Mars during its close approach to Earth in August 2003. They used the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

 By using near infra-red light they hoped to be able to map the distribution of elements in the atmosphere and on the surface of Mars. “Along the way we obtained the clearest images of Mars ever taken from Earth.”

 The technique we used will help resolve the controversy as to whether water ever flowed across the surface of Mars. “We will be able to detect where rocks and minerals have been chemically altered by water flow.”

 The most exciting application is a new technique to allow us to predict the weather on Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars is primarily carbon dioxide. By mapping the variations in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and comparing this with topographical maps of Mars we can detect and monitor the movement of pressure systems (what we know as weather) in the Martian atmosphere.

 Predicting the weather on Mars will reduce to risk to landing spacecraft  “If we knew the weather systems on Mars, losses such as the recent Beagle 2 lander might be prevented”

 “Our work shows that ground-based observations can still produce relevant and cutting-edge science without the cost and risk of launching a spacecraft. “Ground-based observations need not be relegated to the back bench when it comes to planetary exploration of our near-by neighbours,” says Sarah.

Image of the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea Summit, Hawaii. The 3.8m telescope used to obtain images and spectra of Mars.

Possibly the sharpest image of Mars ever taken from a ground-based telescope. Sarah Chamberlain at the controls of the UKIRT – (United Kingdom Infrared Telescope) observing Mars.
An image of the near-infrared surface brightness of Mars showing features similar to those seen at visible light.
Our topographic image of Mars obtained by looking at how carbon-dioxide varies across the Martian disk. Surface features can be seen that were only first discovered by spacecraft.
NASA topographic image of Mars obtained by the orbiting instrument MOLA (Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter) on the Mars Global Surveyor. By comparing this image with the topographic image we obtained, we are able to monitor the weather on Mars.

A new process for drying wood could revolutionise the timber industry and lead to cheaper timber for customers.

The process combines a new microwave technology with more traditional drying techniques, such as solar drying.

At present it can take a year or more to convert some Australian timber into top quality furniture or flooring. Much of this time is needed to dry the wood after it has been sawn.

The microwave technology, developed by a team in the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Wood Innovations, could reduce the time needed to dry wood to just months or less.

“A brief burst of high powered microwave energy before drying drastically shortens solar timber-drying time without changing the visual appearance of the wood”, said Mr. Graham Brodie, one of the CRC team.

Quicker drying means increased processing rate and reduced costs for the timber industry. These potential savings could be passed onto customers, making wood cheaper and more consistent in quality.

The work has been in progress for several years and members of the CRC team are currently running pilot microwave conditioning and drying trials on commercial timbers. “We hope that this technology will become a commercial reality soon,” says Graham.

Wood contains millions of tiny cells, stacked together in long rows. These cells resemble little water filled straws. When green wood dries this water slowly leaks out of these straws. Because the walls of these wood cells are quite solid, the drying process can be very slow. It can take several months or even a year to dry some timbers properly.

“Intense microwaves raise the temperature of the wet wood so fast that the water inside the wood cells boils. The steam pressure blasts tiny holes through some of the wood cells to create better connections between the straws. These pathways make it much easier for moisture to escape. Most of these tiny pathways can only be seen under a microscope”, says Graham.

Earlier experiments used a modified domestic microwave oven and a home made solar drier to treat small pieces of wood. The CRC microwave team has graduated to commercial scale microwave generators which are many times more powerful to treat much larger pieces of wood. A new microwave generator is under construction and has 300 times the power of a domestic microwave oven.

The microwave treatment also makes the wood more permeable, making wood processing such as preservative treatment more rapid.

“Microwave processing allows timber to be impregnated with resins or preservative to improve its strength, stability and durability,” says Professor Peter Vinden, CEO of CRC Wood Innovations. “Microwave technology enables acceleration of preservative treatment to a few minutes, and generates a more environmentally friendly product.”

Graham is presenting his work to the public and the media for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program presented at the State Library of Victoria.

Research staff Alex Shaginov and Vladimir Dubinin setting up the microwave used to treat sawn timber  Solar kiln – used to dry timber  
Microwaved wood showing holes blown through     

The tree microwave – used for treating whole logs

 Schematic showing wood in a microwave chamber.


Hitchhiking pests uncovered

31 August 2004

in 2004

A test for  toxic algae could help save our coastal waters from attack by invading pests

Coastal waters around the world are threatened by invaders lurking in the ballast water of cargo ships.

A new global agreement will require ships to meet strict regulations to ensure they do not harbour any unwanted invaders. New technologies are therefore needed for treating ballast water on board. But which treatments will work? Some of the most dangerous algae can play dead.

CSIRO researcher Monique Binet has developed a new method for determining which ballast water treatment works, and which doesn’t. Her test will do in one day what previously took up to six months.

 “Ballast water is essential to balance the ship’s cargo,” says Monique, one of the Fresh Science winners for 2004. “But some 15,000 species are hitchhiking lifts around the world with the water each week.”

“A particularly notorious type of algae are the toxic dinoflagellates which are capable of poisoning shellfish. These poisoned shellfish can be lethal if eaten by humans. Several international organisations have suggested that these algae should be one of the benchmarks used to assess new treatment technologies.”

“The trouble is that these are tough critters. The dinoflagellates form dormant cysts which can survive for years in the ballast tanks. So testing the different treatment technologies relies on the ability to distinguish between live and dead cysts.”

Until now this has meant painstaking hours of microscopic examination, followed by a wait for up to 26 weeks to see if the cysts germinate into live, swimming algae.

And that’s where the new method developed by Monique and her colleagues at CSIRO’s Centre for Environmental Contaminants Research (CECR) comes in.

“Using a technique called flow cytometry, we can now analyse each and every cyst for its size, structure and fluorescence. Based on these characteristics and the use of a DNA stain, we can tell which cysts will germinate into live cells in a matter of minutes” says Monique.

“The trick was first washing the cysts for 24 hours to remove their mucous coatings, and selecting the right staining conditions, so we can now determine cyst viability within 1 day, instead of the conventional 3-26 weeks.”

The research has attracted interest from around the world with Monique presenting at conferences in Germany and New Zealand.

Monique now plans to apply this method to other species of toxic dinoflagellates as well as other micro-organisms that hitch a ride in the ballast water tanks. Enabling the rapid assessment of ballast water will help prevent these pests from spreading any further.

As found in the sediment of ballast water tanks – the dinoflagellate Alexandrium catenella in its resting cyst form with surrounding mucous.  The dinoflagellate after a wash. The surrounding mucous has been removed allowing it to be analysed with flow cytometry   
The dinoflagellate in its motile form, a cell chain. This can bloom into red tides

Let the light shine through

31 August 2004

in 2004

Fogged up glasses, windscreens and bathroom mirrors may be a thing of the past.

Researchers have invented a new, permanent, multi-purpose coating technology that will prevent your spectacles, car windscreen or bathroom mirror fogging up ever again.

The coating, called XeroCoat, also cuts out unwanted reflections from glass, letting more light through.  Making it ideal for spectacles and improving the performance of solar cells and glasshouses.

University of Queensland physicists Michael Harvey and Paul Meredith developed this technology based upon thin films of nano-porous silica; this means that “the coating is a layer of glass full of tiny invisible bubbles, just like the foam on beer,” said Mr Harvey. “Because it’s made of glass it’s as hard as glass,” he said, giving the added benefit of a hard coating on items to prevent or reduce scratching.

The whole production process is extremely simple, very low-cost and environmentally friendly.  Queensland’s Sustainable Energy Innovation Fund, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, recently awarded the team a grant to further develop the new coating.  Their support will allow trials of this technology to improve the efficiency of solar cells, with the first improved prototypes expected by January 2005.

Dr Meredith said existing technologies for applying anti-reflection coatings were all too expensive for the wide areas required for solar collector surfaces.  “This innovation is set to revolutionise the use of solar energy by making it cheaper and more effective,” he said.

Mr Harvey said that the new coating can be applied to many surfaces, including glass and plastics, and so permanently prevent these items fogging up. He is now developing this anti-fogging, anti-reflection and scratch resistant coating for products such as spectacles,  sunglasses, windscreens and bathroom mirrors.

The University of Queensland’s commercialisation arm, UniQuest, has formed a company, XeroCoat Pty Ltd, to develop and market this technology, offering a better coating solution than those currently available. As the technology develops, Mr Harvey expects that many more applications will emerge, including: enhancing food production by improving the function of greenhouses; scratch-proofing plastics; and improving the performance of high-rise building windows.

“One day soon we will see XeroCoat on products ranging from spectacles, swim and ski goggles to car windscreens and even bathroom mirrors.  We are taking nanotechnology out of the lab and putting it in the bathroom,” Mr Harvey said.  


Michael Harvey and research partner Paul Meredith with a sample of the Xerocoat

Frog sex in the city

31 August 2004

in 2004

Tree frogs defy the trend of urban decline

Central Melbourne used to be a Mecca for frogs, but now there is only one species left.

Southern brown tree frogs can still be heard calling to attract females for mating in parks throughout inner Melbourne, including the Royal Botanic Gardens and Fitzroy Gardens.

A survey conducted at 104 ponds across Melbourne found a total of nine frog species, but revealed the southern brown tree frog to be the sole inner-city survivor.

An important factor in the loss of other frog species from central Melbourne is the steep walls of bluestone or concrete surrounding many ponds, according to Dr Kirsten Parris of Deakin University and the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

“Most frogs around Melbourne can’t climb vertical surfaces, so young frogs would become trapped in these ponds and drown,” Kirsten said.  “But the southern brown tree frog can climb, using its large sticky toes – that’s what makes this frog special.”

A second reason for the decline of frogs in the city is that urban ponds are isolated from each other by roads, houses and factories.  If a population dies out, other frogs cannot arrive safely to start a new population.

“Frogs cannot cross busy roads without being squashed.  I found that the number of frog species at a pond drops as the number of roads around the pond increases” Dr Parris said.

“There are two simple things we can do to bring more frogs back to central Melbourne – replace steep pond walls with gradual slopes, and use a carefully-designed program to reintroduce the tadpoles of some species that used to live there.

“This way, late-night revellers in the city will be able to hear a varied chorus of frisky male frogs calling to woo their women and perpetuate the species in an unlikely urban habitat.”

Kirsten is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the public and media as part of Fresh Science 2004. The scientist who best meets the requirements of the program will win a study tour to the UK courtesy of British Council Australia.

  The southern brown tree frog, showing the large sticky toes that enable it to climb.  Photo: Nick Clemann  
  The southern brown tree frog, an urban survivor.  Photo: Nick Clemann  
A pond in the Carlton Gardens, surrounded by a bluestone wall.  This pond is home to the southern brown tree frog.

The sport of lizards

31 August 2004

in 2004

Sporting technology used on lizards to watch them run.

The same camera that analysed the bowling action of Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan is being used to study how dragon lizards can escape a bigger, faster predator, the goanna.

“It’s all in the running action,” says zoologist, Chris Clemente from the University of Western Australia. His work has shown that lizards have adapted their locomotion to fit with their habitats. For example, the dragon lizard can swing its leg around in almost a full circle which gives it an advantage in woody habitats with lots of obstacles.

Australia has the highest diversity of lizards in the world. They are a major part of our environment. Yet, despite this rich abundance, we don’t know much about them, says Chris, one of 15 early-careers scientists presenting their work to the media as part of the national Fresh Science competition.

What’s more, he says, lizards are direct descendents of dinosaurs. “If we understand modern day lizards we may also be able to unlock secrets of the past,” he said. “For example, the ancient seven-metre goannas may have had a more upright style of running making them faster runners than humans.”   

Chris is using motion-analysis cameras to create a three dimensional model of the lizards running in virtual space. When combined with information about the habitat and body shape of these lizards, it begins to paint a picture of the lizard world.

“We may then be able to use this picture to predict how extinct reptiles moved and what habitat they lived in,” Chris said.

Goannas are a particular focus of his work. An invasion of these lizards from Asia 6 million years ago has resulted in 27 different species spread right across Australia. They can be found living in diverse habitat, from open deserts to tropical rainforest.

“They also vary in size. The smallest goannas are about the size of your thumb and the largest stretch over two metres,” he said. “No other group of animals shows such variation in body size, and my research is looking at why this group of lizards has been so successful.

“Larger lizards like goannas often hunt smaller lizards like dragons, and my motion research can help predict who would win such a predator-prey survival battle,” he said.

“I have found that the larger goannas will outrun the smaller dragons every time. But the dragons often get away because of their greater manoeuvrability.”

Chris got interested in this research after reading about the study of how ostriches run. Being bipedal, the research was comparing their gait with that of humans. With a passion for lizards, especially the giant lizards from prehistoric times, his honours project began by looking at dragon lizard locomotion. Moving on to goannas for his PhD, he got thinking about who would back in a race – goanna or lizard?

A juvenile Varanus Panoptes is curious about the camera  Head of large adult Varanus Panoptes  Chris building the race track to measure speeds 
Close-up of adult Varanus Panoptes in threat posture  Adult Varanus Panoptes in threat posture  Tongue flicking in Varanus Panoptes 

Ctenophorus Cristatus running upright on two legs (bipedally)


Goanna marked up ready for action

GeneBalls: barcoding DNA

31 August 2004

in 2004

Millions of genetic tests using just one drop of blood

Queensland PhD student Angus Johnston has invented a unique technology with the potential to test for hundreds of diseases, cancers and genes in one, cheap, test. He hopes that within five years the technology will be available in a desktop unit for less than $30,000.

“This is a unique, patented technology that has the potential to revolutionise genetic testing,” said Angus Johnston, PhD student and co-inventor of the technology.

“A simple machine could be installed in a doctor’s surgery which would give almost instantaneous feedback on which diseases the patient is susceptible.”

GeneBalls would not only help diagnosing cancer and other diseases, but also give an early warning for diseases like heart disease. With this early warning the patient can make lifestyle changes before any symptoms occur.

Geneballs can currently look at 12 genes in one test, but in the next 12 months we plan to increase this number to tens or hundreds of thousands. The existing technology, is too expensive and inaccurate for clinical applications.

It’s been an exciting journey for the student researcher. “I’ve had the opportunity to do a PhD that’s led to direct commercial outcomes,” says Angus. “It’s exciting to do the research and see it turn into two international patents and a shareholding in a company which is commercialising the technology.”

GeneBalls are tiny particles one tenth the diameter of a human hair and work like a barcode on items in a supermarket.  Each tiny bead contains a mixture of fluorescent dyes and is coated with DNA.  If a patient has DNA the same as DNA on one of the GeneBalls, their DNA will stuck to the GeneBall

Angus is one of 15 Fresh Scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the State Library of Victoria.

For photos go to www.freshscience.org


Click on the images for a larger view in a new window

Electron microscope images of GeneBalls 

Yoghurt won’t stop thrush

31 August 2004

in 2004

Probiotics not always the right approach

Millions of women around the world have probably used yoghurt as a folk remedy to prevent thrush while taking antibiotics. A Melbourne GP and PhD student has proven that Lactobacillus acidophilus, a key bacterium in yoghurt, was not effective in the prevention of thrush (‘vulvovaginitis’) after antibiotics.

Her findings were published today in the eminent British Medical Journal (BMJ). “It’s a reminder that all medicines, even natural ones need to be tested,” says Dr Marie Pirotta.

235 Melbourne women took probiotic (containing lactobacillus bacteria) or placebo
preparations orally or vaginally until four days after completion of their antibiotic course. They recorded any symptoms and provided vaginal swabs for analysis. The results were so clear cut that the trial was cut short on ethical grounds.

Dr Pirotta was surprised by her results, given that the folk remedy was so popular with women, including her own patients. “But at least now women can be better informed and can choose to use effective treatments instead,” she said. “Currently, there are no recommended medicines to prevent thrush, so women should discuss their options with their health care providers.”

Around 50% of women will suffer a bout of thrush after antibiotics at least once in their lifetime. Although thrush usually does not kill people, it does have a big impact on women’s physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as on their relationships. In 1995 the costs associated with diagnosing and treating thrush in the United States were $US1.8 billion (1).

The clinical trial was instigated after Dr Pirotta’s earlier research that found that around 40% of women had used yoghurt or Lactobacillus to try to prevent or treat thrush after antibiotics. These women also reported that they were concerned about getting thrush after antibiotics, and for a small number, the concern was so great that they would choose not to take the antibiotics (2).

She also found that more than two thirds of GPs and pharmacists that she surveyed thought that oral yoghurt or Lactobacillus could be effective to prevent thrush after antibiotics and they had recommended this therapy to women when prescribing or dispensing antibiotics.

Dr Pirotta said that “complementary therapies probably have a lot to offer in health care. It was disappointing to find that this type of Lactobacillus was not effective in this case. But this is a reminder that all medicines, even ‘natural’ ones, need to be tested, and wherever possible, treatments should be based on evidence.”

“This simple and relatively inexpensive study will change how GPs advise women about thrush prevention,” says Professor Michael Kidd, President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.  “It demonstrates that research in general practice can help GPs deliver the best, most cost effective and evidence based care. We need to invest more in this kind of targeted medical research.”

Dr Pirotta was one of 15 early career scientists selected to take part in the 2004 Fresh Science Awards held recently in Melbourne. The one who most meets the program requirements will win a study tour of the UK courtesy of the British Council Australia.

Four thousand families around Sydney may be placing their young children at risk by spraying partially treated sewage from their onsite aerated sewage systems on lawns where children play.

The sewage may contain disease causing microorganisms such as viruses and Cryptosporidium which can cause gastroenteritis in children who play in areas sprayed with sewage.

Katrina Charles, a PhD student in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales and the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Quality and Treatment, says the domestic wastewater is safe to use provided the householder is aware of the risks and takes sensible precautions.

“Don’t spray the wastewater on lawn areas where kids play and don’t spray it on vegetable gardens” Ms Charles said.

“The best way to reuse this wastewater is through an underground irrigation system where the microorganisms become trapped and die in the soil but the water and nutrients are still available for the garden.”

Ms Charles has recently completed a study into the effectiveness of sewage treatment systems used in unsewered areas around Sydney.

She found that the disinfection used in these aerated treatment systems are not as effective as disinfection in larger sewage treatment plants and only remove a small number of disease causing microorganisms.

“Our results indicate that a safer way to reuse the wastewater is through an underground irrigation system.”

“These treatment and irrigation systems start from about $11,000 for an average block. But the value of water as a resource has never been plainer than in this drought. And underground irrigation systems not only dispose of sewage safely but provide water and nutrients for gardens.”

When there is an infected person in the house, sewage may contain a high number of disease causing microorganisms, including viruses, Cryptosporidium or bacteria. For example rotavirus which can be transmitted by sewage is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis in young children worldwide.

Katrina was one of 15 early-career scientists who are presenting their work to the public and media as part of Fresh Science 2004. Fresh Science is a national competition aimed at getting the work of young scientists into public attention.

Irrigation on a football field Large sewage sprinkler near a dam
Environmental damage from over watering with sewage      
Sewage being used to water lawn  Watering the mail with sewage  Sprinklers near the vegie patch 
Katrina in the lab   Laying irrigation pipe 


Sampling for nutrients    
  Experimental site Goulburn boreholes

A treasure hunt through Western Australia’s south-west has uncovered more than 20 new trigger plant species – small plants that catapult pollen onto visiting insects.

Perth botanist Dr Juliet Wege made her findings whilst researching at the Department of Conservation and Land Management, the study funded by the Australian Biological Resources Study.

Juliet has formally named eight new species and is in the process of naming and describing many more. Her work won her a place in Fresh Science 2004, a national initiative to bring the work of early career researchers to public attention.

Trigger plants (scientifically known as Stylidium) are a diverse group of native herbs that get their name from the ingenious way they use insects to exchange pollen.

‘When an insect visits a flower, a catapult-like trigger flips rapidly through the air and strikes the insect on its body,” explains Juliet. This trigger action is not designed to eat the insect, or to brush it away. It either dusts the insect with pollen, or picks up pollen that the insect is already carrying.

“It’s a delightfully cunning way to transfer pollen between flowers, and the insects don’t seem to mind a bit,” Juliet says. “They visit flower after flower only to be whacked time and time again.”

There are over 230 kinds of trigger plant, making it Australia’s fifth largest species group. The new trigger plants grow in Western Australia’s south-west – the only part of Australia internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot.

 “The south-west is home to a treasure trove of trigger plants,” says Juliet. “There are over 150 species recorded from this region, but there are plenty more just waiting to be discovered and named.”

These nameless trigger plants are the tip of the iceberg. Scientists estimate that at least 10% of the south-west flora has yet to be discovered.

“Tragically some of our native plants may become extinct before they are even recognised,” says Juliet. “Many south-west species are rare and subject to threats such as land clearing, dieback disease and weed invasion. Species that we are completely unaware of are especially at risk because they are not being actively targeted in conservation programs.”

Many of Juliet’s newly recognised trigger plants are known from only a few populations. Her research has ensured that their conservation requirements can now be addressed.

“Nature-based tourism is based around our spectacular ecosystems,” says Juliet. “Our native plants also contribute to our economy through industries such as horticulture, and potentially through bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals.”

In pursuit of new species, Juliet hunts through bushland found throughout the south-west region. She also examines pressed trigger plant collections housed at the Western Australian Herbarium and other research institutions in Australia and overseas.

She is constantly on the lookout for the rare or unusual.

“It’s a pretty exciting experience to find and name a new species,” says Juliet. “And you don’t necessarily have to drive too far from Perth or a major town to discover one.”

A collection of trigger plants  New to science – 4 new trigger plants discovered by Juliet  Photographing trigger plants in WA 
A trigger plant after having fired its catapult of pollen  An insect visitor 

Stylidium validum Wege

A PhD student in QLD improves mine safety with her predictive computer program

Some of the risk involved in working underground is being reduced by a revolutionary approach to predicting the collapse of mine retaining walls .

“In mining, huge voids are created underground when valuable ore is removed. Voids often the size of a 50 story-high building,” said Kirralee Rankine, a PhD student at James Cook University.

“The holes are filled up with waste rock. First the rock is crushed to a powder and mixed with water to make a slurry that is about the consistency of soup. It is then pumped back into the underground holes.”

“Retaining walls are constructed to contain the slurry as it is being pumped into the hole. If the walls breaks, thousands of tonnes of slurry is released into the underground tunnels.” 

“If we can accurately predict soil and rock behaviour, we can properly manage the risk of in-rush,” she said.

Kirralee has done just that. As part of her PhD, she has developed laboratory techniques and written a computer program to simulate components of the filling and drainage processes in underground mines. This have given the mining industry a better understanding of drainage behaviour.

The three-dimensional computer program is the first of its kind that will be available for mines throughout Australia and worldwide to use as an effective prediction tool in mine drainage.

The techniques developed by Kirralee are already being implemented in mines across Australia, and she hopes that through continued research and with the aid of her drainage prediction tools, the potential for mine in-rush will be reduced.

Kirralee is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the public and media as part of Fresh Science, a national competition that highlights the work of young scientists. The person who best meets the requirements of the program will win a study tour to the UK courtesy of British Council Australia. 

Underground retaining wall construction    
A very well prepared mud pie  Preparation of mine slurry  Brick pressure testing chamber

Are cancer cells confused?

30 August 2004

in 2004

Scientists have recently discovered that the gene EDD is implicated in the development of breast and ovarian cancer. And like the horse, this gene is into talking.

“Cancer arises from defects in cell growth and division. We are now beginning to realise that defective cellular communication can also lead to cancer,” says Professor Rob Sutherland, Director of the Cancer Research Program at Garvan Institute.

Cells “talk” to each other in the developing embryo to coordinate themselves into higher structures like organs and blood vessels. Vigilant communication and coordination between cells is essential throughout life to maintain these structures.

Part of EDD’s job is to tell cells where to go. Garvan scientists have shown that mice without EDD have the cells to make blood vessels but they are unable to coordinate their development. Without EDD cells become confused.

Cancer is often caused by cells producing too many copies of key cancer genes. Work at Garvan has demonstrated that excess copies of the EDD gene are present in 73% of one aggressive type of ovarian cancer and that excessive amounts of the EDD protein are found in 63% of breast cancers and 39% of ovarian cancers. Garvan research aims to define whether too much EDD is crucial to the development of these cancers.

“We now anticipate that this research will have practical applications,” says Garvan Scientist Jennifer Clancy.

Jennifer is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the media as part of the national Fresh Science competition.

“We are currently looking at whether excess levels of EDD can help us predict the behaviour of a cancer. This could assist doctors in deciding how best to treat future cancer patients.”

Key questions of how altered levels of EDD lead to cellular confusion, and whether this leads to cancer, are current areas of research at Garvan.

“We expect that future work will yield more clues to the function of this fascinating gene and the role of communication in the development of cancer,” says Jennifer Clancy, “More importantly, one day this research may provide better treatment options to future cancer patients.”

When the EDD gene is mutated in fruit flies, it causes fly ‘cancer’    Cells without the EDD gene cannot coordinate the formation of blood vessels. 
Cells without EDD do not communicate well with adjacent cells    The amount of EDD protein produced in breast and ovarian cancer tissue 

Adelaide research shows way to pain prediction test

There’s a global pain epidemic, despite the availability of various drug and non-drug treatments. A breakthrough by Australian researchers may lead to a new era of pain control.

“We still don’t fully understand pain,” says Mark Hutchinson from the University of Adelaide. He has discovered a strong link between our immune system and how we feel pain. His results, published this month in the journal Pain, could revolutionise the prevention and control of pain.

“The brain and nerves were traditionally thought to control pain signalling. While neurons are vital to pain, our experience with pain medications led us to investigate what role the immune system might play in pain,” Mr Hutchinson says.

“85% of the cells in the brain are immune-like cells and I had an idea these cells might be involved in pain control.”

Mr Hutchinson’s research led to the discovery of a simple blood test that uses morphine to produce a response in the collected immune cells which can be used to predict pain tolerance.

“A simple blood test is much easier than asking for a brain tissue sample.”

“While the science behind the blood test remains a mystery to us, we believe it is possible our test reflects the activity of brain immune cells.  We appear to have stumbled across a biological pain dimmer switch that is controlled by the immune system.”

The finding may lead to the development of new pain treatments targeting both the immune system and the brain.

Pain and the associated suffering, is a global health problem, costing society in excess of A$12billion per annum in Australia and US$100billion in USA.

“Our discovery will initially accelerate pain research focussing on the way the immune system controls pain. Subsequent research will then be required to further develop the pain blood test and new pain medications,” Mr Hutchinson says.

“This research has opened a window into the brain, which will enable us to significantly expand our understanding of how we feel pain and why some people feel pain more. Furthermore, our findings may help to explain the variable response people have to the available pain medications and treatments,” Mr Hutchinson says.

“We have to thank our volunteers who altruistically participated in our studies and put themselves through several very painful close encounters with very very cold water during the pain tests.”

The fine art of stripping

22 August 2004

in 2004

Careful chemistry has peeled back two layers of house paint to unveil a rich world of Victorian murals at Mandeville Hall-Loreto Girls School in Toorak. Called the Indian Room, the walls were decorated in the 1870s with paintings of lush green foliage and vegetation, bordered with red draperies and golden architectural detail.

But for the past 50 years, the exotic artworks have lain under a shroud of thick white and grey paint. Stripping the overlying paint without eating into the murals beneath presented quite a challenge. That’s where art conservator and applied chemist Jocelyn Evans from Melbourne University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC) stepped in.

“Overpaint-where the original paint layer of an art-work or mural is covered by later paint like house-paint-is a common problem in conservation,” she says. “The difficulty lies in trying to remove the overpaint without damaging the original.  Most chemical systems that attack the overpaint also harm the original paint.”

Evans had to develop her own paint removal system. It was based around a slow-acting paint stripper, called a dibasic ester. “In essence, dibasic esters have a strong softening effect on paint films. But unlike other chemicals commonly used in paint-strippers, they penetrate quite slowly, allowing us to remove the upper paint layer before they can reach the original layer underneath.”

While conservators have already used commercial paint strippers based on dibasic esters to remove non-original paint in a variety of contexts, the idea that they could be used to remove overpaint from an original paint layer, leaving it intact, had not been fully explored. In the meantime, commercial paint strippers based on dibasic esters were withdrawn from the Australian market, apparently due to poor sales.

In her investigation, Evans looked at how dibasic esters act on paint layers, and how conservators could use them to remove non-original paint. This involved devising (and testing) a range of formulations from materials that Australian conservators would have ready access to.  The end result was the paint-removal system used successfully at Mandeville Hall. 

“It’s impossible to describe the feeling when uncovering these astonishing murals, and being the first to see them in decades” says Evans.  “Conservation is such an exciting blend of science and art.  In this project I was able to apply chemical principles to a real-life problem, with such a visually beautiful result at the end of it all.”

Stripping in action: removing house-paint from a 19th century mural (Jocelyn Evans and Raaf Ishak from The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation)

 The finished product: reinstated mural at Mandeville Hall (Loreto Girls School)
Bottom edge of the frieze showing red drapery with gold detail.
The top of the wall shows lush green foliage and gold detail.
Working on a piece of the wall the size of an A4 page at a time, it comes down to a razor blade to remove the house paint. Conservation under construction: scaffolding and partly-treated mura

Plankton poo could be the key to understanding how much carbon dioxide our oceans can store according to Tasmanian researcher Dr Karin Beaumont.

The greenhouse effect is arguably humanity’s greatest environmental threat.


“We need to understand where and how carbon dioxide is stored in the oceans. Part of the answer lies in the poo of microscopic zooplankton: does it float or does it sink?” said Karin.


“Heavy poo that sticks together and sinks to the ocean floor is good. It locks up carbon dioxide for thousands of years.”

“Other poo that breaks up and floats near the surface is not good. The carbon dioxide in this poo can be re-released to the atmosphere, adding to the Greenhouse Effect,” says Karin, who conducted her research as part of a PhD with the University of Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division.


Karin has discovered that the poo from the most abundant plankton floats. And she has co-authored an internet-guide to zooplankton poo.


Around 25% of carbon taken up by the oceans is currently stored in the deep-sea. “Knowing which plankton contribute to this carbon export will help us understand how changes in their abundance will influence the greenhouse effect.”


As algae grow in the oceans they take up carbon dioxide – a powerful greenhouse gas.” “Zooplankton are tiny marine animals that graze the algae and hopefully lock up this carbon dioxide in the deep ocean.”


“I found that while larger zooplankton poo transports carbon to the deep-sea, microzooplankton poo doesn’t. These microzooplankton represent around 10 times the biomass of larger zooplankton and process most of the atmospherically derived carbon. So, this finding is important for understanding how much carbon the oceans can take-up from the atmosphere.”


Karin is developing the first internet guide to zooplankton poo in collaboration with Assoc Prof Juanita Urban-Rich, University of Massachusetts, Boston, “The guide will allow researchers to identify whose poo reaches the deep-ocean and whose poo doesn’t.


This will allow us to know which plankton are the key players in keeping atmospherically derived carbon in the oceans,” she said.


This guide will be the first integrated resource of its kind in the world, with anticipated contributions by researchers from at least seven other countries.


Karin does not expect the guide to top the best-seller list! “It is a research tool for scientists that will help us build a better picture of the carbon cycle in the oceans. She hopes the guide will be published in a matter of months, subject to funding.

Karin is one of 15 Fresh Scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the State Library of Victoria.