Each year we identify early-career scientists with a discovery and bring them to Melbourne for a communication boot camp. Here are some of their stories. For more information go to freshscience.org.au
- Two tiny fossils link Australian marsupials to South America and Africa
- Electric fishes spark safer power line technology
- Worms reveal link between dementia gene and ageing
- The fastest sperm may not be best
- Using genes to counter rust
- Building on mud: when can we start?
- How ankles can save footballers’ knees
- Monitoring drugs at home, not the hospital
- Aussie algae fuel green oil hope
- Sticky ear mystery solved
- Mixing drugs and alcohol for better asthma inhalers
Two tiny fossils are prompting an overhaul of theories about marsupial evolution after they revealed unexpected links to South America—and possibly Africa.
The two fragments, found at the Tingamarra site in south-eastern Queensland, are set to overturn the theory that there was a single migration from the part of the Gondwana ‘supercontinent’ that became South America to the part that became Australia.
One of the fossils is a 55 million-year-old ankle bone from a mouse-sized marsupial previously known only from South America. The second is a tooth, which derives from a formerly unknown species that shows similarities to fossils found in South America and North Africa.
Inspired by electric fishes, Melbourne researchers have invented and patented a way of detecting and locating potential electrical faults along large stretches of power line.
Early detection could help prevent major discharges that lead to sparking and blackouts, which might reduce the risks of bushfires caused by electric sparking, says Alexe Bojovschi, of RMIT University.
The discovery of a link between a specific gene and ageing in a tiny transparent worm could reveal valuable lessons for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Yee Lian Chew, a PhD student at Sydney University, found that the tau gene, which is also present in humans, codes for a protein that affects the worm’s life span—low levels of the protein hastens age-related changes in the worm’s brain and shortens its life.
Yet high levels of the proteins are also thought to be associated with cognitive impairment in people with dementia.
Sydney sea squirts show that there’s more to fertilisation, and maybe IVF, than we thought.
Angela Crean, of the University of New South Wales, discovered that sea squirt eggs fertilised within minutes by speedy sperm, and their subsequent larvae, had low survival rates. The strongest, fittest, longest-lived sea squirts grew from eggs fertilised by sperm that swam for about an hour before reaching the egg.
“This is surprising because it suggests that a sperm’s influence on offspring extends beyond just the DNA it carries,” says Angela.
An international study led by a Queensland scientist has found a way to better safeguard an important food crop—and the world’s beer supply.
University of Queensland geneticist Lee Hickey and his team successfully identified a gene, Rph20, which protects barley against the serious leaf rust disease. They then developed a diagnostic DNA marker to determine the presence of the gene.
Lee’s discovery will enable selective breeding of barley to provide genetic protection to the disease—resulting in much lower chemical use and reduced crop losses.
“To date, there have been no reports of a strain of leaf rust that has overcome the Rph20 resistance,” he says. “Thus we hope this gene will continue to provide long-lasting protection around the world.”
A Queensland engineer can now predict how long it takes for reclaimed land to become suitable for development, potentially saving millions of dollars in building costs and avoiding structural failures.
Julie Lovisa, of James Cook University, has created a mathematical model to predict when reclaimed land is solid enough to build on, allowing for greater accuracy in construction timelines.
Knee injuries in Australian footballers could be dramatically reduced if physiotherapists paid more attention to ankles, according to a mechanical engineer from the University of Melbourne.
Hossein Mokhtarzadeh has developed mathematical models of the muscles that protect the anterior cruciate ligament, which is often damaged in football knee injuries and costs the game millions of dollars each year.
“We are improving our mathematical models to predict and screen athletes who are at a high risk of injury while they play,” says Hossein, who is working with the Carlton Football Club.
Personalised medication may become a reality with a tiny Tasmanian invention that accurately measures a drug’s concentration in the blood in just three minutes.
Aliaa Shallan, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania, developed the mechanism at the heart of a hand-held device that could let millions of people test their own blood at home for just a few dollars per test.
Billions of people take prescription drugs every day but the optimum dose for each person can vary greatly. Personalised medicine accommodates these differences by tailoring the dose to the drug level in the blood.
Newly trialled native algae could provide real hope of developing commercially viable biofuels.
Evan Stephens and his team at the University of Queensland, in collaboration with Germany’s Bielefeld University and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, have identified fast-growing and hardy microscopic algae that could be farmed to produce a renewable fuel that would help steer Australia away from petroleum oil dependency.
Despite the claims of some in the biofuel industry, commercially viable fuels from algae have not yet been developed.
“While we know that we can produce algae oil that is even higher quality than standard petroleum sources, we are working to increase the efficiency of production so that we can compete with fossil fuels dollar for dollar,” Evan says.
Perth researchers are trialling a treatment that could end the sleepless nights that families face when ear infections strike and won’t go away.
Ruth Thornton and her research team at the University of Western Australia have discovered that sticky nets of DNA hide the bacteria in the ears of kids with recurrent middle-ear infections, where they evade antibiotic treatment by creating impenetrable slimy biofilms.
Asthma inhalers could soon become much more effective thanks to a clever new way of making the particles they deliver.
Monash University lecturer Meng Wai Woo and his team have developed a method of making ultrafine particles, which will make drug delivery to the lungs much more consistent and efficient.
Current puffer designs and the typical size ranges of particles mean that much of the medication propelled into a patient’s throat remains there—only a fraction reaches the lungs.