Looking for dark matter in a gold mine

Deep underground in rural Victoria, Matteo Volpi is searching for evidence of the cosmic glue that holds the Universe together: dark matter.

Matteo is taking the initial measurements for the study at Stawell Gold Mine where an international team is set to construct a $3.5 million laboratory more than a kilometre underground.

Matteo Volpi is looking for dark matter in the Stawell Gold Mine. Credit: Michael Slezak
Matteo Volpi is looking for dark matter in the Stawell Gold Mine. Credit: Michael Slezak

Understanding dark matter is regarded as one of the most important questions of modern particle physics.

“If we nail it, it’s a Nobel Prize– winning experiment,” says the project leader Elisabetta Barberio, a University of Melbourne physicist and chief investigator of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale (CoEPP).

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Who cares about the blobfish?

Hugh Possingham and his team are making conservation more efficient. They’re helping to save less fashionable threatened species by getting more bang for the bucks donated to cute and cuddly species.

The team of ecologists and mathematicians in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Environmental Decisions (CEED) worked with the New Zealand government to assess how to better spend money that is donated to conservation. They’ve shown that by protecting habitats shared by several different species, the money donated to charismatic ones can be stretched further to save other species as well.

Could this koala help save less cute species? 9credit: Liana Joseph
Could this koala help save less cute species? (credit: Liana Joseph)

“The way we currently attempt to save species is inefficient, choosing species that are popular or charismatic, like koalas and tigers, over those that are less well known or even ugly, like the blobfish,” says Hugh, ARC Laureate Fellow and Director of CEED.

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Changing lives: Australia–Japan science links

To read about Japan-Australia innovation collaborations—including searching for new malaria drugs, giant robot trucks carrying ore, and chewing gum that reverses tooth decay—click here.

Japanese science changing Australia

The impact of Japanese technological prowess on Australian society is obvious for all to see. How we listened to music was transformed by audio recording technologies: from the Walkman to the CD. Home entertainment was changed by video tapes, DVDs, and game consoles. We rely on Japanese innovation in transport—reliable car engineering, the lean manufacturing techniques that made them affordable and, more recently, hybrid cars.

Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow
Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow

Fundamental science discoveries are bringing a new era of transformation. Japanese researchers were honoured last year with the Nobel Prize for their invention of the blue LED. They succeeded where for 30 years everyone else had failed. Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps—lasting a lifetime and using a fraction of the energy.

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka discovered how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. By introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, that is, immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. His work is transforming stem cell medicine and many Australian researchers are now using induced pluripotent stem cells to develop stem cell medicines.

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Changing lives: Australia–Japan science links

Japanese science changing Australia

The impact of Japanese technological prowess on Australian society is obvious for all to see. How we listened to music was transformed by audio recording technologies: from the Walkman to the CD.

Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow
Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow

Home entertainment was changed by video tapes, DVDs, and game consoles. We rely on Japanese innovation in transport—reliable car engineering, the lean manufacturing techniques that made them affordable and, more recently, hybrid cars.

Fundamental science discoveries are now bringing a new era of transformation. Japanese researchers were honoured last year with the Nobel Prize for their invention of the blue LED. They succeeded where for 30 years everyone else had failed. Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps— lasting a lifetime and using a fraction of the energy.

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka discovered how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. By introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, that is, immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. His work is transforming stem cell medicine and many Australian researchers are now using his induced pluripotent stem cells to develop stem cell medicine.

Australian science changing Japan

It’s not a one way trade. Japanese lives are being improved by Australian inventions such as the bionic ear, gum that repairs tooth decay, sleep disorder treatments, lithium to treat bipolar disorder, aircraft black boxes, and anti-flu drugs, which are all in daily use in Japan.

And when you connect to a fast and reliable wi-fi network you can thank Australian astronomers who were searching for black holes and created tools for cleaning up radio waves.

Collaborating for the future

Today there are hundreds of thriving Australia–Japan research collaborations, many of which will have a profound impact on our lives in the years ahead.

Over the past five years, Japan has consistently placed within the 10 countries that have the highest number of collaborations with Australian researchers on Australian Research Council–funded projects. The ARC reports that the most popular disciplines for collaboration with Japan are: material engineering; biochemistry and cell biology; atomic, molecular, nuclear, particle and plasma physics; astronomical and space sciences and plant biology.

Other collaborations

Seeing every cell in a whole adult brain
Scientists from RIKEN, the University of Tokyo, JAST, and the Queensland University of Technology have developed CUBIC—a technique for rapidly imaging the brain. They believe it will be scalable to whole bodies.

Biomedical applications for ‘magic crystals’
CSIRO and Osaka Prefecture University are developing biomedical applications for the massively absorbent metal–organic framework crystals developed by CSIRO.

How our phones track us
Billions of us now have phones that tell us and others where we are and what’s around us. A team from RMIT, Intel, Fudan University and Keio University is exploring the cross-cultural and intergenerational study of this phenomenon, and the implications for privacy, in three key sites: Tokyo, Shanghai and Melbourne.

For more information: Science in Public, www.scienceinpublic.com.au/stories/japan

Chocolate and iron for speedy drug delivery

Natural phenols, such as those found in chocolate, and minerals such as iron are being used to develop fast, economical drug-delivery capsules.

Frank Caruso is creating nano-packages for drug delivery. Credit: Richard Timbury, Casamento Photography
Frank Caruso is creating nano-packages for drug delivery. Credit: Richard Timbury, Casamento Photography

Frank Caruso and his team at The University of Melbourne are making nano-sized capsules that will encase vaccines and protect them from being broken down when entering the body. They believe that this delivery system will be biologically friendly and overcome a major challenge for medical materials: their compatibility with living systems.

One of the challenges of treating diseases such as cancer and HIV is delivering treatment with minimal damage to healthy areas.

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Why are cells different?

Genes are not enough to explain the difference between a skin cell and a stem cell, a leaf cell and a root cell, or the complexity of the human brain. Genes don’t explain the subtle ways in which your parents’ environment before you were conceived might affect your offspring.

Ryan Lister’s work transcends plants, animals and humans. Credit: The University of Western Australia
Ryan Lister’s work transcends plants, animals and humans. Credit: The University of Western Australia

Another layer of complexity—the epigenome— is at work determining when and where genes are turned on and off.

Ryan Lister is unravelling this complexity. He’s created ways of mapping the millions of molecular markers of where genes have been switched on or off, has made the first maps of these markers in plants and humans, and has revealed key differences between the markers in cells with different fates.

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From little things, big things grow

Michelle Simmons’ work building silicon atomic-scale devices is paving the way towards a quantum computer with the capacity to process information exponentially faster than current computers.

She is also Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, acknowledged to be a world-leader in the field of quantum computing—which uses the spin, or magnetic orientation, of individual electrons or atomic nuclei to represent data.

Michelle Simmons is one of only 11 Australians elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Credit: UNSW
Michelle Simmons is one of only 11 Australians elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Credit: UNSW

In the past five years, Michelle’s research group and collaborators have made a number of notable advances. They have fabricated the world’s first single-atom transistor in single-crystal silicon, and the world’s narrowest conducting wires, also in silicon, just four atoms wide and one atom tall with the current-carrying capacity of copper.

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