EU-Australia research success, 2022

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Find out about medical advances in fighting cancer, sleep disorders, and in harnessing the power of stem cells

Learn about the latest telescope technologies that are discovering how planets are born, and looking back in time to the first light in our Universe

How can we use steel better? How are cockatoos coping with city life? And what happened to the mammoths?

These stories and more in our 2022 collection of successful partnerships between European and Australian researchers.

Our thanks to the European Union Delegation in Canberra for making this possible.

Stories:

Fossil discovery rewrites modern human history in Europe

Humans arrived on the European continent 10,000 years earlier than we previously thought, a Franco-Australian research team has found.

“It was a great surprise to the team when a modern child’s tooth and stone tools, which in no way were associated with Neanderthals, were discovered in a soil layer dating back 54,000 years ago,” co-author of a recent study, Dr Martina Demuro from the University of Adelaide, said.

Previously it was believed the Neanderthals had the continent to themselves until 45,000-43,000 years ago.

Distinctive stone tools, not seen before at this time outside Africa and the Levant, along with remains of Homo sapiens, were found in Grotte Mandrin – a cave in the Rhône Valley not far from Marseille.

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Laser light waves point the way to super-accurate measurements

Scientists in Australia and Scotland have discovered a new way to use lasers for measurements, which brings a new level of quantum precision never before available.

The improved sensitivity will enable the next generation of sensors with a wide variety of optical and quantum technologies.

“We have used the wave properties of light to create grainy patterns due to interference, termed ‘speckle’, which offers a sensitive probe of both the light and the environment,” says Professor Kishan Dholakia, who is jointly at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide, and the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews.

Professor Dholakia worked with Morgan Facchin and Dr Graham Bruce from the University of St Andrews to ‘scramble’ light into a grainy pattern. They used two techniques – a piece of glass fibre the width of a human hair and a hollow sphere where the light bounces around many times before emerging.

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Humans hastened the extinction of the woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoths were under threat from climate warming but could have survived for 4,000 years longer than they did, if it hadn’t been for humans, a Danish-Australian led research group has found.

 “Humans were a crucial and chronic driver of population declines of woolly mammoths,” says Damien Fordham from the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

His research, as a member of an international team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Adelaide and University of Copenhagen, debunks the popular theory that a warming climate critically reduced mammoth populations, leaving so few that humans merely picked off the last survivors at the end.

“Until now, it has been difficult to disentangle the exact roles that climate warming and human hunting had on extinction,” said Associate Professor Fordham.

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How Classical Greek culture conquered the modern world

The cultural history that developed around the Mediterranean Sea more than 2000 years ago has had a lasting impact on Western civilisation.

But the riches of that time we call Classical Antiquity has had an impact far beyond Europe and is still felt around the world.

In a Polish-led and European Research Council-funded project, researchers around the world are investigating how ideas from the interlocking Greek and Roman cultures of ancient times are entrenched among children everywhere.

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Dustbusters get in at the birth of baby planets

Thanks to the latest high-resolution telescopes and instruments, we are now able to study ‘baby’ planets shortly after they have formed.

This is a widespread by-product of the process of star formation itself and occurs within relatively thin and dense protostellar discs made of gas and dust that orbit the newborn star.

The European Union is supporting this research through its Dustbusters program, a global network of astronomical research institutes including Monash University in Australia, where astrophysicists were the first to discover a new planet inside a protoplanetary disc.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, they mapped the flow of gas around the young star known as HD97048 about 500 light years away in the constellation Chamaeleon by looking for where the flow is disturbed by the presence of a planet.

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Who is most at risk of breast cancer?

Early warning improves outcomes

Breast cancer affects nearly 250,000 women a year in the EU and more than 20,000 in Australia. The identification of women at high risk of the disease could be a gamechanger in terms of survival rates.

If we know who is most likely to develop the disease, it might even be possible to avoid the disease altogether through intensive screening, chemoprevention or prophylactic surgery.

BRIDGES, or Breast Cancer Risk after Diagnostic Gene Sequencing, is a Horizon 2020-funded initiative co-ordinated by the Leiden University Medical Centre, in the Netherlands, aimed to do just that, bringing together a multidisciplinary team, data and expertise from clinical genetics, epidemiology, bioinformatics, statistics, and gene biology.

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The physics of cancer

A novel research project has shed new light on how to manage and monitor cancer treatment by measuring the physical forces active in all cancers.

Named ‘FORCE, Imaging the Force of Cancer’, the Horizon 2020 project was funded by the European Research Commission and led by King’s College London, with partners around the world, including the University of New South Wales.

Most cancer deaths are caused by the cancer spreading from its primary source throughout the body – a process known as metastasis.

Despite that, there has been surprisingly little work done on indicators for the potential for cancers to spread. Cells use ‘traction forces’ to perform various tasks, including maintaining cell shape and moving within tissues.

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AI for a good night’s sleep

Almost one billion people suffer from sleep apnoea. Unfortunately, our current diagnostic metrics are simplistic at best, simply measuring the frequency of breathing cessations.

An Horizon 2020 project, supported in Australia by a $500,000 collaborative National Health and Medical Research Council grant, hopes to address that by coming up with an artificial intelligence solution that takes into account symptoms and comorbidities of sleep apnoea. It will be used to develop individual treatments addressing each patient’s symptoms.

The project is being coordinated by Reykjavik University with 37 partners across Europe and the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia.

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MAVIS: optometrist to the stars

A new instrument will give Earthbound astronomers a clear view to rival Hubble

An ambitious collaboration led by Australian, French, and Italian scientists, together with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) located in South America, is aimed at fixing the distortion of images on land-based telescopes caused by the Earth’s atmosphere by designing a giant pair of “glasses” to correct the vision of a Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO.

Dubbed MAVIS, standing for MCAO Assisted Visible Imager and Spectrograph, the instrument is designed to correct for atmospheric interference in real time to deliver crystal clear images and provide 3D data portraits of objects millions of light years in the distance.

Once deployed MAVIS will help deliver images that will rival those of the Hubble Space Telescope in detail and clarity, says project scientist Associate Professor Richard McDermid from Macquarie University in Sydney.

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