Blog Technology 18 December 2017

The Australian Academy of Science welcomes the Australian Government’s commitment to fund a much-needed upgrade to Australia’s national supercomputer in today’s Mid-Year and Economic Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO).

The National Computational Infrastructure has received $69.2 million funding in 2017/18 and $0.8 million in 2018/19.

Secretary for Science Policy at the Academy, Professor David Day, said a new supercomputer is a critical piece of Australia’s economic, social and scientific infrastructure.

“This technology is vital for weather forecasting, health and medical research, climate change modelling, hazard management and ocean-safety,” Professor Day said.

“The new supercomputer will allow Australian scientists to continue to tackle complex challenges which would be impossible, unwieldy or inefficient without a supercomputer.”

The Academy also welcomes confirmation of $50 million funding for the Australian Brain Cancer Mission to improve the survival rates of people living with brain cancer, $70 million to support Australia’s next generation of medical research fellowships; and $30 million to support Australia’s biomedical technology sector.

The Academy remains concerned about the potential impact of the higher education measures on both the pipeline of STEM graduates and vital research that is undertaken in Australian universities.

Blog Chemistry 18 December 2017
Liquid gold, apparently.
Liquid gold, apparently.
Marcos Ferro

Researchers from the University of Queensland and Queensland Urban Utilities in Australia have struck gold in the most unlikely of places — the toilet. Two years of intensive research has shown that macronutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as certain micronutrients, can be extracted from urine in situ.

The technology, dubbed UGold, uses microbial electrochemical systems (MESs) to convert the chemical energy trapped within biodegradable substances into usable chemical components. In this case, MESs up-concentrate and extract the nitrogen and phosphorus within urine, for potential use in fertilisers.

Nitrogen and phosphorus make up an integral part of agricultural fertilisers, and are in high demand. The current processes involved in separating them from waste water require vast amounts of energy and are damaging to waterways.

A nine-month pilot trial is on the books, to test the feasibility of this novel technology with UQ chemical engineer Stefano Freguia at the helm. It will take place at the Queensland Urban Utilities Innovation Centre. Waterless urinals will work as the site of collection, and will be connected to an adjacent laboratory, where the magic will happen. A garden will be nourished with the fertiliser produced using the UGold technology.

If successful, this could lead to similar onsite treatment plants being installed in places like offices, apartment blocks and shopping centres.

Blog Biology 18 December 2017
Australian and French researchers have increased the resistant starch component of popular wheat strains.
Australian and French researchers have increased the resistant starch component of popular wheat strains.
Michael Hille / EyeEm

New fibre-rich varieties of the world’s favourite flour, wheat, have resulted from a joint research effort between Australia’s largest research body, the CSIRO, a French company, Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, an arm of the Australian Government.

The researchers found that down-regulation of two particular enzymes increased the resistant starch or fibre content in wheat. Resistant starch is broken down slowly by the microbial inhabitants of the small intestine. This gives rise to a merry mix of small chain fatty acids such as butyrate and acetate. The former acts as energy fodder for cells of the colon, and has been implicated in protecting against bowel cancer. The latter is said to play a defensive role in autoimmune diseases, like type II diabetes.

The new types of wheat were produced using genetic breeding techniques, wherein particular traits in existing wheat varieties, namely the Sunstate and Chara, were preferentially selected for. Plants with these selected traits were crossbred to amplify the resistant starch-rich wheat trait.

In Australia, work is being done to produce seeds, conduct product testing and enlist an Australian licensee to get the products to Australian consumers by 2019. Across the oceans, American consumers can expect to see products made from high-fibre flour in their supermarkets shortly.

Read more about this research here.

Blog Geoscience 18 December 2017
The Great Barrier Reef needs plenty of eyes on it.
The Great Barrier Reef needs plenty of eyes on it.
Jennifer Loder

The sheer size and diversity of habitats that make up the big beautiful Great Barrier Reef (GBR), also represent an extreme challenge to monitor and manage. To boost the extent and regularity of information about key vital signs, individuals and communities are joining a growing movement of citizen science for the Reef.

The Australian Citizen Science Association defines citizen science as public participation and collaboration in scientific research, with the goal to increase scientific knowledge. Reef-relevant citizen science programs offer options for different activities, covering what and how data is collected. This means there truly is an opportunity for everyone to get involved.

As a snorkeler or diver, you can contribute by collecting and reporting information from what you see on your reef visit. This might include information on the types of wildlife, habitats or reef health impacts you see through Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Eye on the Reef Program.

Or you can help monitor coral colour using the CoralWatch Coral Health Chart to track bleaching. If you see something usual while out on the water, you can report unusual sea creatures using Redmap’s app, which helps to track species range shifts.

For those who want to elevate their skills, there are options to train to join survey teams that collect globally standardised reef health data with Reef Check Australia.

The GBR is more than just coral, and includes other important connected habitats such as mangroves and sandy islands. So, you don’t even need to leave the coast to get involved in programs such as Tangaroa Blue which allows you to report beach clean-up findings to track marine debris to the source. You can also help monitor indicators for other connected habitats, such as testing water quality in creeks and rivers that flow to the Reef with Conservation Volunteers Australia, or recording the extent and condition of mangroves that filter run-off from...

Blog Biology 15 December 2017
Intrinsic links between human health and the environment are the focus of new collaborative research.
Intrinsic links between human health and the environment are the focus of new collaborative research.
Diogo Salles / Getty Images

The University of Sydney, Australia, has launched a unique program called Planetary Health to aid the fight against climate change and boost our planet’s health.

This is part of a larger agenda, which was a result of a joint commission between the Rockefeller Foundation in the US and British medical journal The Lancet.

Kicked off in 2015, the exercise produced a report that found while humans were living longer and were healthier than ever before, the improvements had come at a great cost to our planet. The report concluded that because humans and the environment are intrinsically connected, we stand to lose the gains made in health and lifestyle if we continue to degrade the Earth.

And so the Planetary Health plan was hatched.

At the University of Sydney, the plan will see open collaborations between various health, environmental, and agricultural research institutes.

In pursuit of these objectives, Tony Capon has been named the world’s first Professor of Planetary Health. With his team, he will perform informative multidisciplinary research; support undergraduate and postgraduate students to find answers to our environmental problems; and bring about real change in policy, industry and within communities through active leadership and engagement.

For more details, see here.

Blog Archaeology 14 December 2017
One of the Bronze Age artworks discovered in Indonesia, in situ (left) and isolate (right).
One of the Bronze Age artworks discovered in Indonesia, in situ (left) and isolate (right).
Sue O’Connor/ANU

On a speck of an Indonesian island, a team of archaeologists from the Australian National University in Canberra have uncovered a cache of incredible ancient cave paintings.

The 28 rock sites housing the paintings were found on an island called Kisar, which has, until now, remained uncharted. The motifs in these paintings suggest that they were created during the Bronze Age, approximately 2500 years ago. They hold a plethora of historical information about the region’s trade and cultural practices.

The island was part of a vibrant spice trade, which is hinted at in the artwork, with illustrations of boats, horses and ceremonial drums. The works share a feature found on paintings on nearby Timor-Leste – a protocol of depicting humans and animals only 10 centimetres high.

Strikingly, these small but dynamic depictions also bear resemblance to those found in north Vietnam and south China, which are assumed to be from the same period. This points to the fact that all these regions were interacting and trading with each other, leading to an exchange of artistic expression.

Sue O’Connor led the expedition and the findings were published in Cambridge Journal of Archaeology, published in Cambridge Journal of Archaeology.

Blog Biology 13 December 2017
It's a race against time to save the Leadbeater's possum.
It's a race against time to save the Leadbeater's possum.
Zoos Victoria

Zoos in the Australian state of Victoria are engaged in a renewed effort to ensure the diminutive, large-eyed Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) has a fighting chance to survive extinction.

The population of this emblematic marsupial, also known as the fairy possum, was once widespread, but is now highly fragmented, limited to small nooks of the mountainous ash forests in the Central Highlands of Victoria. Indiscriminate logging and destruction caused by extreme weather events have devastated its habitat and numbers, seriously endangering its long-term survival.

To complicate matters, genetic studies found that the possum population consisted of two distinct subspecies, one living in the lofty highlands and one dwelling the swampy lowlands.

The latter, isolated and inbred, is found in the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve, 45 kilometres from the state’s capital Melbourne, where a mere 38 individuals are thought to live.

These abysmal numbers led to the development of the captive breeding program run out of one of the three state zoos, the Healesville Sanctuary. Despite intensive efforts, this has failed to revive the subspecies.

Now a new program will use the process of genetic rescue, which involves introducing a healthy individual from the genetically diverse highland population. This will bring superior genetic material into the mix, leading to breeding of a resilient hybrid. The technique has worked wonders for other marsupial species that were on the brink of extinction, such as the pygmy possum.

Visit these tiny yet fascinating creatures at the Sanctuary and learn how you can involve yourself in conservation efforts. More in formation here.

Blog Biology 12 December 2017
Coral may cope better with ocean acidification than scientists had thought.
Coral may cope better with ocean acidification than scientists had thought.
Prasit / Getty

Coral may be able to acclimatise and thrive despite increasingly acidic oceans, according to new collaborative research that suggests some hope for reefs.

Scientists from the University of Western Australia and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology examined coral from Hawai’i’s Kāne‘ohe Bay that had previously endured a decade of ocean acidification due to human activity, which caused a drop in the pH of the seawater and a rise in its temperature.

In an experimental setting, they used a unique geochemical approach to track the chemical changes that might occur in the coral calcification process to better understand how these creatures adjust to and withstand detrimental changes.

Interestingly enough, they found that the coral altered the dynamics of their calcification process by tweaking the physiological balance between the pH and carbon content of their internal calcifying liquid. This allowed them to grow and flourish.

The research was led by Verena Schoepf and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Blog Society 12 December 2017
Scholarships and mentorships may smooth the path the world of science for Indigenous students.
Scholarships and mentorships may smooth the path the world of science for Indigenous students.
Paul Taylor / Getty

The University of Melbourne, Australia, has announced a pioneering science mentorship program for Indigenous students.

The approach of the program, called the Indigenous Science Students Pathway, will be three-pronged. It will work to support students at every level from high school through to the workforce to ensure educational equality.

The contribution will boost existing initiatives, such as the Residential Indigenous Student Experience, encouraging year 9 and 10 students to pursue and persevere with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

The money will also be used to support university students through the four-year Bachelor of Science program — geared uniquely towards Indigenous students and provide them with added support to help bridge any knowledge gaps.

Finally, it will provide much needed scholarships to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in undergraduate and PhD studies and connect them with industry mentors.

The program is funded by a $600,000 gift from Agilent Technologies Foundation.

Blog Geoscience 11 December 2017
Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work they go...
Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work they go...
Australian Antarctic Division

Are you tired of your desk job, or just looking for some adventure? Then working as part of the Australian Antarctic Program may be just the gig for you.

The Australian Antarctic Division – part of the federal Department of the Environment – is currently looking to fill over 150 positions, ranging from chef to station leader, medical practitioner to telecommunications operator. You could work on one of the organisation’s three remote research stations, or on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, which is a touch closer to home.

This promises to be an unparalleled experience, living and working as part of a diverse community in one of the most secluded places on our planet. Not to mention the prospect of seeing penguins in their natural habitat, spectacular glaciers and the awe-inspiring Aurora Australis.

Each person will carry out his or her specialised duties, but also have the chance to lend a hand in the day-to-day workings on the station.

To find out about the prerequisites and get your hat in the ring for the various positions that are currently recruiting, click here.