Lab Talk: Tectonics, 'flu, plastic waste and malaria


We ask four researchers to tell us about the recent papers that have excited them the most.


Shifty tectonic plates triggered complex life

Jo Whittaker

Jo Whittaker
Jo Whittaker

The fossil record tells us that 500 million years ago the diversity of life underwent a step change with what is known as the Cambrian explosion. But what was the trigger? A new study suggests that the tectonic plate movements that remodelled the Earth forming the supercontinent of Gondwana, produced vast volcanoes releasing enough CO2 to warm the atmosphere and incubate complex life.

Tiny grains of zircon are released by exploding volcanoes and the researchers measured them in rocks that formed around the world between 1,000 million and 360 million years ago. They found lots of zircons in rocks just preceding and during the Cambrian but hardly any during the icy periods before and after. Taken together, the findings suggest the volcanoes caused by extensive plate subduction as Gondwana formed were responsible for the balmy conditions that triggered complex life.

Paper: Plate tectonic influences on Neoproterozoic-early Palaeozoic climate and animal evolution.

Geology, 2014, vol 42, p127

A model way to stay one step ahead of the 'flu

Jodie McVernon

Jodie McVernon
Jodie McVernon

Seasonal influenza kills 500,000 each year. Vaccines work, but people need them before the ‘flu season begins. That requires the vaccine-maker to guess what next season’s viruses will look like. It’s an enormous challenge: the virus is a master of change. Current methods rely on vaccinating ferrets to check for protection against viruses circulating in the winter of the opposite hemisphere. But it’s hit and miss.

The authors of this paper asked whether mathematical models might do a better job. They looked at the genetic sequences of the virus in one season and compared them with the ones that dominated in the next. They came up with a mathematical model that was more than 90% successful at predicting dominant virus strains in the next season.

This work represents a significant conceptual advance in a challenging area of public health. Further studies are needed to compare the model with existing methods.

Paper: A predictive fitness model for influenza.

Nature, 2014, vol 507, p57

Tackling the scourge of plastic pollution

Erik van Sebille

Erik van Sebille
Erik van Sebille

Plastics are all around us, even in our oceans. In open water plastic is relatively harmless, but close to the coastline where sea- and bird-life is most abundant it does a lot of damage.

In a new study, a team at the University of Western Australia has estimated how much plastic pollutes Australia’s coastline, and traced where it came from.

The study found it nearly impossible to drag a net through Australian waters and not find plastic particles. Even on the remote and supposedly pristine coastlines of western Tasmania they found many plastic pellets in the water, most less than a few millimetres in size.

Australia’s marine garbage is not just a local issue. By tracing the paths of drifting electronic buoys, the authors show that plastic from all over the Southern Hemisphere reaches Australian waters. Marine plastic is a global problem.

Paper: Marine Plastic Pollution in Waters around Australia: Characteristics, Concentrations, and Pathways

PLoS One, 8(11), e80466.

Thinking Inside the box to defeat malaria

Alice Williamson

Alice Williamson
Alice Williamson

A collaborative approach to drug discovery is being led by the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a Geneva-based charity.

This paper describes their “Malaria Box”, a freely accessible kit containing 400 compounds known to kill the malaria parasite. The compounds are both commercially available and chemically distinct from current drugs. They were selected from more than 20,000 anti-malaria compounds recently placed in the public domain by collaborating pharmaceutical companies.

By distributing the compounds widely, MMV hopes to learn more about how each compound kills the parasite, insights that will hopefully expedite new medicines for malaria.

The Malaria Box is freely available to any scientist, with one request: any data generated should be freely shared. MMV’s "Pathogen Box" against other “neglected” diseases will be ready at the end of 2015.

Paper: The Open Access Malaria Box: A Drug Discovery Catalyst for Neglected Diseases.

PLoS One, vol 8, e62906.

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Jo Whittaker is a marine geophysicist at the University of Tasmania.
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Jodie McVernon heads the Modelling & Simulation Group at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.
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Erik van Sebille is an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales.
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Alice Williamson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working with Mat Todd at The University of Sydney in the OpenSource Malaria Consortium.
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