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