Farmers have lent their voices to restoration efforts of a land once considered Darwin’s evolutionary blank canvas.

Mandy Trueman, a Perth ecologist, interviewed farmers in the Galapagos Islands to gather historical details that might help efforts to conserve the island’s special biodiversity, much of which has been lost to agricultural clearing and introduced species.

“I meshed farmers’ knowledge with historical accounts and aerial photographs to map and describe the Galapagos vegetation that existed before humans made major changes. Unfortunately, some parts of the Galapagos Islands have been radically transformed by agricultural clearing and introduced species and now bear little resemblance to their native state,” says Mandy, a PhD student at The University of Western Australia.

Mandy spent four years living in the Galapagos Islands, where she witnessed restoration projects aiming to repair the damage and to protect iconic species, but she noticed that not all of this work was successful.

She spoke to farmers in an effort to gain information that could help land managers restore resilient combinations of plant species and prevent further extinction of unique Galapagos species.

“I loved hearing stories of times-gone-by, when vermillion flycatchers flitted among endemic coffee bushes and giant tortoises grazed under huge daisy trees,” Mandy says. “Farmers have an intimate relationship with the land; their knowledge can add invaluable insights to a scientific understanding of nature.”

WA State Finalist: Mandy Trueman, The University of Western Australia

Sticky ear mystery solved

13 February 2014

in 2013

Ruth Thornton doing video otoscopy2

Perth researchers plan to end the sleepless nights of families faced with chronic ear infections, reduce their need for antibiotics and surgery, and help tackle hearing loss in indigenous communities, with the trial of a new treatment.

Dr Ruth Thornton and her research team at The University of Western Australia have identified a new target for treatment: sticky nets of DNA that hide bacteria in the ears of children with recurrent ear infections.

“This is the first potential change in treating middle-ear infections for a long time, and more effective treatments will hopefully lead to improved hearing, better learning outcomes and a reduced burden on children and their families,” says Ruth, a research assistant professor at the University of Western Australia.

“Bacteria hide in a sticky glue made up of big nets of DNA from the children’s own immune system. This can be a reason why these infections don’t always get better with antibiotics. It is similar to what happens in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis, where a treatment known as Dornase alfa is used to break this sticky DNA up,” she says.

In Australia, middle-ear infections are one of the most common reasons for children to see their doctor, where they are often prescribed antibiotics or referred to specialists for grommet surgery. While current treatments can be effective in the short term, about 30 per cent of children who have grommet surgery will need to have repeat surgery due to re-infection and its associated hearing loss and health outcomes.

“We are now trialling this treatment in the ears of children when they are having grommets put in. We believe this could get rid of these bacteria in nets and stop children getting more infections and needing more ear surgery,” Ruth says.

WA State Finalist: Ruth Thornton, The University of Western Australia


Natalie Strobel

Antioxidants, popular with athletes and fitness enthusiasts, are being challenged by research that shows the nutritional supplements may reduce exercise benefits.

Dr Natalie Strobel, of Edith Cowan University, has found that long-term use of Vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid, purported to counteract free radicals during exercise, reduced the development of skeletal muscle in animals.

“We found that even before the animals exercised, taking antioxidants put their muscles behind the eight ball and who wants all that effort exercising wasted,” says Natalie. “Antioxidants are taken in large quantities by athletes and healthy people under the false impression that this is helping their sporting performance or boosting health.”

For her PhD at The University of Queensland, Natalie observed that rats that exercised for 12 weeks had positive muscle adaptations, but when they took vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid they did not experience the same benefits.

Natalie says further research is needed in this area. “Antioxidants have their place as an important nutritional supplement, but if you’re healthy you can’t beat a nutritious diet and exercise,” she says.

WA State Finalist: Natalie Strobel, Edith Cowan University

The Sea Butterfly effect

13 February 2014

in 2013

Liza Roger

Barely the size of a lentil, a charismatic sea creature may prove a barometer for climate and ocean health.

Liza Roger, of The University of Western Australia, has found that two species of tropical sea butterflies have suffered from thinning shells over the last 46 years, linked to increased carbon dioxide levels and ocean acidification and indicating a potential threat to the food chain that it supplies.

“Shell dissolution has been predicted in the future for polar sea butterflies but it’s already happening in the tropics. It’s not tomorrow; it is now,” says Liza, who did the research for her Honours.

“The building blocks of sea butterfly shells have become less available because of the increase of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by global human activity,” she says.

Liza studied the shells of two sea butterfly species at seven different sites in tropical waters north-west and north-east of Australia, between 1963 and 2009.  She discovered that the shells of both species had become progressively smaller, thinner and more porous.

“Their only protection against the environment and predators is falling apart. Even if their close cousins, the Sea Angels, have no shell, we don’t know if the sea butterflies can do the same and live without a shell,” Liza says.

“Sea Butterflies are an important part of the diet of tuna, salmon, mackerel but also seabirds, seals and whales. The impacts on marine mammals and fish-stocks could be critical worldwide,” she says.

Liza is extending this work for her PhD at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Perth.

WA State Finalist: Liza Roger, The University of Western Australia – ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies


Gino Putrino

A breathalyser-type device has the potential to sniff out lung cancer in a patient’s breath, allowing for the early detection of the disease without the need for an invasive biopsy.

Gino Putrino and a research team at The University of Western Australia have created an artificial nose that can detect the volatile organic compounds associated with lung cancer, as well as the ‘smell’ of explosives in an airport and the pesticides in groceries.

“The air we breathe is packed full of invisible chemicals that carry a huge amount of useful information. A sensitive enough device can decipher this information, giving us the ability to tell if someone has lung cancer simply by sniffing their breath, detecting explosives in an airport, or just checking if vegetables in a supermarket are fresh,” says Gino, who did the research as part of his PhD.

Studies have shown dogs can be trained to detect lung cancer by smelling people’s breath. Researchers worldwide have recently been able to duplicate this canine feat with devices, but they are often large and static.

“We found a way to miniaturise a core part of the device, making it more sensitive and small enough to be built into a hand-held package,” says Gino.

The handheld device is still in the early stages of testing and may take up to 10 years before it is commercially available. However, strong industry interest has helped fund applications for three US patents based on this technology.

WA State Finalist: Gino Putrino, The University of Western Australia


Veer Gupta

A protein may hold the promise of an early blood test for the development of Alzheimer’s disease, a Perth neuroscientist has found

Dr Veer Bala Gupta has identified apolipoprotein E as a potential indicator for Alzheimer’s by showing lower levels of the protein in those with the disease, compared to those who remain healthy.

“Recent neuro-imaging scans have confirmed that lower blood apolipoprotein E levels correspond with the build-up of a toxic protein, amyloid beta, which is shown to accumulate in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease,” says Veer, a research fellow at Edith Cowan University

“To get an understanding of the importance of apolipoprotein E in tracking disease progression, I undertook a follow-up study at 18 months in the same set of people. Surprisingly, I found a further decline in the blood apolipoprotein E levels in the people with Alzheimer’s disease, confirming the relationship between apolipoprotein E and the risk of the onset of the disease,” she says.

Veer says individual blood proteins have historically been less successful in predicting complicated illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Her research therefore focused on finding a unique combination of different proteins that best defined the disease pathology when studied together.

“This unique group of proteins could serve as a fingerprint for early identification of this devastating disease. This is important because early detection can give clinicians an opportunity to treat the disease in its initial stages,” she says.

WA State Finalist: Veer Gupta, Edith Cowan University

Kitty Rose-Foley

Mainstream employment may improve the quality of life and behavioural problems of people with Down syndrome, a Perth researcher has found.

Kitty Foley, of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, found that participation in employment was associated with improved mental health outcomes and quality of life not only for the person with Down syndrome but also their families.

“We have found that, for those young adults participating in employment in the mainstream workforce, their families report trends towards better family quality of life and improving behaviour in the young person with Down syndrome overtime,” says Kitty, a PhD student at the institute and Edith Cowan University.

Her study followed approximately 200 young people with Down syndrome through their transition from school to adulthood. Families were sent questionnaires in 2004, 2009 and 2011, asking about the person’s activities, behaviour, occupations, hobbies, friends, families, communication, support and medical impairments.

Down syndrome occurs in approximately one in 600 births and is an intellectual disability that affects individuals to varying degrees. Young people with Down syndrome have increased rates of behavioural problems compared to the general population, as well as minimal participation in employment and reduced participation in leisure activities.

The life expectancy for Down syndrome has increased from 12 years old to approximately 60 years old over the past two generations, bringing the issues of participation and employment into relief and highlighting the importance of assessing whether their social and community needs are being met in adulthood.

“The improvements in life expectancy for people with Down syndrome is very encouraging; however, it is now just as important to ensure that there are enough appropriate supports to allow these young people to participate in society and lead lives that are fulfilling and meaningful,” says Kitty.

WA State Finalist: Kitty-Rose Foley, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research

Belinda Brown

Physical activity may prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by lowering levels of a toxic protein in the blood and brain, Perth scientists have found.

Belinda Brown and a group of researchers from Edith Cowan University and McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation found that individuals undertaking higher levels of physical activity had lower levels of beta-amyloid, the protein that causes brain cell death in Alzheimer’s.

“The toxic protein causes cell death, which leads to brain shrinkage and is found in high levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. We found that individuals participating in higher levels of physical activity had lower levels of this protein,” says Belinda, the study’s lead author.

The study, which involved 550 healthy patients over 60 years old, also showed that individuals with a higher genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease received the greatest benefit from physical activity, with reduced toxic protein levels in their brains.

There are an estimated 35.6 million people currently living with dementia worldwide and this number is expected to quadruple by 2050. With Alzheimer’s disease the leading cause of dementia and with no cure available, interest has turned toward lifestyle factors that may prevent the onset of the disease.

Previous research has suggested a link between physical activity and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease; however, little is understood about the driving force behind this association.

WA State Finalist: Belinda Brown, Edith Cowan University

Janelle Braithwaite

Hungry, tired and probably quite cranky, humpback whales have revealed their need for personal space when making their annual 18,000-kilometre trek along the West Australian coast to Antarctica.

Janelle Braithwaite, a researcher at the University of Western Australia, has discovered that the whales need space not only from humans but also each other as they stop to gather strength at Exmouth Gulf, where tourism, mining and fishing threaten to disturb them at a critical point in their migration

“Small groups of whales, like mums with their calves, space themselves out across the Gulf, keeping an average of two kilometres from each other. This large area of personal space minimises social interactions and conserves the all-important energy whales need to complete their journey,” says Janelle, a PhD student at UWA.

Humpback whales travel great distances without eating. By the time they reach Exmouth Gulf, a sheltered area on the West Australian coast, they have not eaten for six months and still have three more months of travel ahead. Mothers take advantage of this stopover to nurse their young calves, ensuring they have enough energy to finish the next leg of the journey.

Janelle says if the mothers are too stressed to feed their calves adequately in the Gulf, they can run out of energy and die before they reach Antarctica.

“Ensuring these animals have enough space to rest will be crucial as human activity along Western Australia’s coastline expands,” she says.

WA State Finalist: Janelle Braithwaite, University of Western Australia


Chronic-disease patients can take heart as scientists establish an exercise that allows patients to gain the benefits of high-intensity exercise without the stress.

Dr Chris Abbiss, an exercise scientist at Edith Cowan University, and his research team have discovered that by focusing on high-intensity exercise that moves a smaller muscle mass, such as single-leg cycling, patients improved their metabolic and cardiovascular function.

“By exercising a smaller muscle mass, a greater volume of blood and oxygen can be supplied to the working muscles, enhancing adaptations and, as a result, improving general health outcomes,” Chris says.

Recent studies have indicated that a few minutes of intermittent high-intensity exercise may result in similar health benefits to hours of traditional physical activity. However, the increased cardiovascular stress experienced during normal high-intensity exercise makes such activity unsuitable for people at risk of cardiovascular disease.

“The use of reduced muscle-mass training allows high-intensity exercise to be performed with minimal exertion and cardiac strain and is therefore likely to have greater adherence rates and be safer than traditional forms of exercise,” Chris says.

The study findings will help the formulation of public health interventions, clinical practices and exercise-prescription guidelines for the prevention, management and treatment of chronic diseases and the promotion of healthy ageing.

WA State Finalist: Chris Abbiss, Edith Cowan University

Six-legged miners strike gold

10 December 2012

in 2012

Termites and ants are stockpiling gold in their mounds, new CSIRO research has found.

Australia’s smallest and most numerous mining prospectors can show us where new gold deposits are. [click to continue…]

A new land management tool using Aboriginal knowledge

Ngan’gi speakers know it’s time to look for freshwater crocodile eggs when the red kapok trees near the Northern Territory’s Daly River burst into flower.

This can occur at a different time each year, but the environmental link is solid.

A Darwin-based scientist has converted this link and other intimate Aboriginal knowledge of Australia’s landscape into an environmental management tool.

CSIRO’s Emma Woodward worked with Aboriginal elders as part of the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge research program to develop six seasonal calendars from six different language groups from the Northern Territory and Western Australia. [click to continue…]

In flour it reduces heart disease risk say Melbourne and WA researchers

You can lower your risk of heart disease significantly, just by using flour containing 40 per cent lupin beans in the place of conventional wholemeal flour, according to research by Victoria University dietitian Dr Regina Belski and colleagues from the University of Western Australia. [click to continue…]

New genus of bugs discovered at WA alumina refinery

Previously unknown species of naturally-occurring bacteria have the potential to save the alumina and aluminium industries millions of dollars while helping to reduce their impact on the environment, microbiologist Naomi McSweeney has found in a collaborative project between Alcoa of Australia, CSIRO and the University of Western Australia. [click to continue…]

Lava flows in Australia. Credit: Fred Jourdan courtesy of L Evins, formerly at University of Western Australia.

Lava flows in Australia. Credit: Fred Jourdan courtesy of L Evins, formerly at University of Western Australia.

A Curtin University researcher has shown that some ancient periods of massive eruptions released green house gases so quickly that they caused rapid climate change and mass extinctions.

But today we are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere faster than even the most rapid sequence of eruptions.

“We have carefully dated minerals contained in the volcanic rocks and shown that only the fastest sequences of eruptions caused significant species extinctions,” says Dr Fred Jourdan who works as part of an international team.

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A technique which measures the variation in bone density within spinal bones may improve the ability to identify people at special risk of breaking their backs, Curtin University physiotherapist Andrew Briggs has found.

[click to continue…]