Genetics can be used to shape plants underground so they absorb water better

Recent discoveries by a University of Queensland agricultural scientist provide the basis for custom designing plant roots. Her discovery is already being used by plant breeders to develop drought-resistant sorghum crops. [click to continue…]

Samurai of the sea

9 June 2011

in 2011

SawfishWhat sawfish really do with their saw

Scientists thought that sawfish used their saw to probe the sea bottom for food.  But a Cairns researcher has found that these large (5 metres or more) and endangered fish actually use the saw to locate and dismember free-swimming fish – using a sixth sense that detects electric fields. She’s in Melbourne this week as a winner of Fresh Science. [click to continue…]

Feeding weeds fertiliser sounds like exactly the wrong thing, if you want to get rid of them, but Jennifer Firn of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems has been doing just that—to control African lovegrass, an invasive species of rangelands in every Australian state.

[click to continue…]

cor_neck_mri_jeMost people recover from whiplash injuries within the first few months. However some people have long term pain – lasting months or years. Until now there has been no way of diagnosing these more severe cases.

New Brisbane research suggests that fat deposits in the neck muscles are the key. [click to continue…]

p8070118‘Fool’s gold’ has tricked many amateur gold miners, but Queensland researchers have discovered it can reveal much about the early evolution of life on Earth.

Three billion years ago the Earth couldn’t support life as we know it – the atmosphere was deadly to oxygen-breathing plants and animals.
But two and half billion years ago life changed the Earth’s atmosphere creating the oxygen-rich air we rely on today. [click to continue…]

tropical_rock_lobster2A team of Queensland researchers have discovered that lobsters, prawns and other crustaceans have evolved a unique way of making colours: making the complex patterns appreciated by biologists and connoisseurs of seafood.

Their work will help with conservation, aquaculture and may even lead to a new food colourant. And all the colours come from just one molecule.

The colour of seafood is directly linked to its acceptability as food. Highly coloured lobsters and prawns attract a premium price. And for the crustaceans themselves, it’s a matter of survival. [click to continue…]


Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a way to deliver drugs which can specifically shut down cancer-causing genes in tumour cells while sparing normal healthy tissues.

Sherry Wu in the lab. Credit: Sherry Wu

Sherry Wu in the lab. Credit: Sherry Wu

They are currently looking at cervical cancer. While cervical cancer vaccines – co-developed by Professor Ian Frazer at UQ – are reducing the chances of infection with the virus that causes the cancer, many thousands of women worldwide are likely to contract cervical cancer in the next few decades.

Fresh Scientist Ms Sherry Wu hopes the new technique, which involves the use of coatings rich in fats, will hasten the application of RNA interference or gene-silencing, a technology which can inactivate individual genes. Using this technology, she and her colleagues observed a 70% reduction in tumour size in a cervical cancer mouse model. [click to continue…]

It may be possible to halt cancer in its tracks by blocking a gene critical to building tumour supply lines, according to new research carried out at the University of Queensland.

Most tumours need a blood supply to grow.

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience have found that when new blood vessels form – in developing embryos and in tumours – a gene, known as Sox18, switches on for just 48 hours.

“In adult mice, we have found that interfering with this gene reduces tumour growth by up to 80 percent,” says postdoctoral scientist Dr Neville Young. “A surprisingly large number of people carry microscopic tumours inside their bodies but these cells never develop into disease.

“One of the reasons these cancerous cells do not rage out of control is that they never establish a blood supply to feed them. Those unlucky enough to develop malignant tumours often do so when cancerous cells co-opt the body’s own blood supply.”

Sox18 has an important role to play in helping specialised cells travel to the right position and then form the tubes needed for blood flow.

Dr Young says that targeting blood vessels was not a new concept in the fight against cancer, but that one of the big problems was the side effects of current treatments.

“The novel thing about targeting Sox18 is that it is only turned on in new blood vessels feeding the growing tumour,” he says. “It does not seem to affect any other blood vessels in the body. By attacking only Sox18 we might be able to stop these new vessels forming while leaving the rest of the blood supply alone.”

The next step is to test whether researchers can manufacture a drug for humans that can mimic the observed effects in mice. They also need to design a delivery system to get the drug to the growing blood vessel cells to switch Sox18 off.

The early stages of this research are already underway with preliminary results expected within two years. This is dependent on ongoing funding for this research.

Neville is one of 13 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

The world’s fastest growing abalone—the tropical donkey’s ear abalone, Haliotis asinina—can be bred to grow rapidly and reliably for aquaculture, Queensland biologists have found. And that makes it potentially a high value alternative crop for struggling prawn farmers. [click to continue…]

Within 6 months of heart disease surgery, up to 60% of patients suffer from their arteries reblocking.

Queensland scientists have discovered a way to precisely deliver drugs to blockage sites in the arteries – preventing complications after surgery to treat heart disease according to developer Anita Thomas and her colleagues at the University of Queensland.

The technique uses antibodies linked to the drugs to ensure they are deposited in the arteries where doctors want them, rather than in other places in the body where they can lead have unacceptable side-effects.

Cardiovascular diseases-which can lead to heart attack, angina and stroke-are the biggest single preventable killer in the developed world, and result in the deaths of at least 17 million people each year.

Most of these diseases are due to a single cause, the blockage of arteries by cholesterol-rich thickenings.

“Surgical techniques have been developed to remove these blockages, but in up to 60% of patients they re-occur within six months,” says Thomas, a post-doctoral fellow at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

“We thought we could use drugs to prevent this from happening, but they have to be carefully targeted.”

Thomas and Prof Julie Campbell observed that the protein fibrin, which is found in blood clots, is deposited in arteries within 10 minutes of surgery to remove the original blockage.

They then confirmed that fibrin could be used to attract antibodies, which they linked to drugs to prevent the artery from becoming re-blocked.

The targeted delivery of these drugs was effective in preventing re-blocking, Thomas found.

It also stopped the drug being dispersed within the blood stream. Because the drug is concentrated where it is of most value, it can be used in low doses with minimal side-effects. And it also promotes rapid healing of the lining of the blood vessel, a significant benefit.

Various parts of the treatment are already being tested. Anita believes that with a little bit more tweaking, we should see the treatment in hospitals within five years.

Anita Thomas is one of 16 early-career scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments.


  • Click on photo for higher resolution.
  • Photo credit: Robert Campbell
Anita performing surgical manipulations on blood vessels in a kidney. Anita with some samples in the lab. High res available on request.Photo credit:  Jeremy Patten, The University of Queensland.
Anita with some samples in the lab. High res available on request.Photo credit:  Jeremy Patten, The University of Queensland.  

How sea slugs fall in love

14 August 2007

in 2007

Scott Cummins and his colleagues at The University of Queensland have uncovered a potent mix of chemicals which acts like a cross between Chanel No 5 and Viagra-but only if you are a sea slug.

[click to continue…]

Hunting mice in trees

31 August 2005

in 2005

There is more than we know in the rainforest canopy

A crane-driving young researcher from the Rainforest CRC at James Cook University in North Queensland is using a tower crane to reveal a whole new world of life in the canopy of the Australian rainforest.

Already she has found that the native prehensile-tailed mouse, once considered rare, is in fact, common and significant in the tree tops.

Romina Rader spent a year gaining her crane driver’s ticket in order to pursue her Masters and other research at the Australian Canopy Crane Research Facility nestled within the Daintree World Heritage Rainforest.

“Traditionally, researchers have had to spend a lot of time and effort using ropes and climbing gear to get up into the canopy,” Romina says.

“But using the crane, I can easily get to all heights in the trees and thus compare the small mammal communities found at different levels.”

“Finding out which mammals use the canopy, why they are up there and whether their presence is good or bad for the forest are important research questions,” says Romina.

“We need to know what species are there in order to protect them as well as understand how they contribute to the ecology of the rainforest.”

Romina is now unravelling the secretive nocturnal habits of some of Queensland’s small rainforest mammals. She has already found that the rat community has an important impact on some plant species. By removing the pulp from fruits they can increase the chance of seeds germinating.

This is important for the long-term survival of forests and the maintenance of forest diversity.

“Traditionally when researchers set out to survey small mammal communities, traps are only set on the ground,” says Romina.

This means climbing or tree-dwelling species may be underestimated or even excluded, leading to the conclusion that they are rare when in fact they may only be rare on the ground. This has proved true with the exciting discovery of the prehensile-tailed (or soft-furred) mouse.

Romina is one of 13 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. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

Romina in the gondola, investigating the canopy Pogonomys, a rainforest marsupial mouse

The Australian lungfish-one of the world’s oldest fishes and related to our ancient ancestors-may have been viewing rivers in technicolour long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Recent work by postgraduate student Helena Bailes at the University of Queensland has found these unusual fish have genes for five different forms of visual pigment in their eyes. Humans only have three.

Night and day (colour) vision are controlled by different light sensing cells known respectively as rods and cones. Humans have a single type of rod and three types of cone, each containing a different pigment gene tuned to red, green and blue wavelengths. Lungfish possess two additional pigments that were lost in mammals, Bailes says. They are tuned to longer wavelengths than in most other fish.

“Lungfish are very large, slow-moving fish, so vision was always assumed to be of little importance” she says. “This work may change that theory.”

Lungfish are ‘living fossils’ unchanged for over 100 million years. The Australian species (Neoceratodus forsteri) is the most primitive of the living lungfishes. It is a threatened species protected from fishing which lives in only a handful of rivers in south east Queensland.

“The only way to find out how the first creatures on land saw the world is to look at their closest living relative: the Australian lungfish,” Bailes says.

The photoreceptive cells, which house the visual pigments, are bigger in lungfish than for any other animal with a backbone. This probably makes them more sensitive to light.

“We keep discovering ways in which these animals are quite different from other fish,” Helena Bailes says. “Their eyes seem designed to optimise both sensitivity and colour vision with large cells containing different visual pigments.”

She now is hoping that behavioural research can find out how these fish are using their eyes for colour vision in the wild.

“We may then learn what Queensland rivers look like to some of their oldest inhabitants, before those inhabitants are wiped out,” Bailes says.

Helena is one of 13 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

Helena working in her laboratory Composite image, clockwise from top: Helena in the lab, Australian lungfish, retinal photoreceptors of lungfish, a retinal ganglion cell leading from the eye to the brain in lungfish Australian lungfish

Box jellyfish are capable of moving several kilometres a day, but seem to stay within a relatively short stretch of beachfront. Those are some to the initial findings of a young researcher in North Queensland, who is undertaking the first detailed study of the movements of the potentially lethal animals.

Matt Gordon of the Tropical Australian Stinger Research Unit at James Cook University in Cairns is using the latest ultrasonic technology to track the jellyfish. He aims to make Australia’s tropical beaches safer by developing a computer model capable of predicting where and when they will occur.

“There are several long held theories regarding where box jellyfish are found and why they move from one area to another,” Gordon says. “But until now there has been limited evidence to support them.

“For instance, as early as the 1960s it was suggested that box jellyfish swim up creeks towards the end of the season to reproduce. But until we followed a large, sexually mature individual up an estuary near Tully in April of this year, there was no hard data on this.”  

In order to record their movement patterns, each box jellyfish is fitted internally with an ultrasonic tag using a type of surgical glue called Histoacryl. Each tag emits a unique signal that can be heard underwater using a hydrophone. It is now possible to track the movement patterns 24 hours a day, 7 days a week using new submersible ultrasonic receivers developed in the US.

By collecting data from four different locations, Matt Gordon intends to develop a model that can be applied throughout the tropics. It is anticipated that such a model will be of benefit to local councils and the tourism industry by allowing stinger enclosures, tourist attractions and resorts to be placed in safer areas.

Matt is one of 13 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. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

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

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