Dr Tracy Ainsworth’s research is changing our understanding of the tiny coral animals that built Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef. Tracy and her colleagues at James Cook University in Townsville have found that the process of coral bleaching is a far more complex than previously thought, and begins at temperatures lower than previously considered. And she’s done so by applying skills in modern cell biology which she picked up working in neuroscience laboratories.
Her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship in 2011, which she is using to study the low light, deep water reefs that underlie tropical surface reefs at depths of 100 metres or more. Continue reading The complex life of coral→
Twenty years ago doctors thought epilepsy was caused by injuries or tumours but, thanks to the work of a Melbourne paediatrician, we now know that there’s a large genetic factor.
Prof Ingrid Scheffer, a paediatric neurologist at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes and the University of Melbourne, has spent the last 20 years looking at the genetics of epilepsy, particularly in children.
We now know that genes play a large role and that’s opened the way to better diagnosis, treatment, counselling, and potential cures.
In particular, Ingrid’s team and her collaborators at the University of South Australia have discovered that one kind of inherited infant epilepsy is due to a single letter change in the genetic code.
Dr Georgina Such imagines a miniscule capsule designed like a set of Russian babushka dolls.
The capsule is designed to sneak through the blood stream untouched.
When it finds its target—a cancer cell—it passes into the cell, sheds a layer, finds the part of the cellular machinery it needs to attack, sheds another layer; and then releases its cargo of drugs, destroying the cancer cell and only the cancer cell.
Creating such a capsule may take decades, but Georgina and her colleagues at the University of Melbourne have already developed several materials which have the potential to do the job.
Turning to mathematics to allow us to make smarter conservation decisions.
The diversity of life on Earth underpins the global economy. But we’re losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate and human-induced climate change will threaten more species—up to 37 per cent of the plants and animals with which we share the world. Continue reading Can we save the tiger with mathematics?→
Absorbing carbon emissions from power stations and creating a new generation of hydrogen fuel tanks in future vehicles are just some of the potential applications of Dr Deanna D’Alessandro’s discoveries in basic chemistry.
She has created new, incredibly absorbent chemicals that can capture, store and release large volumes of gas.
It’s all to do with surface area, says Deanna, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Chemistry at The University of Sydney.
She has constructed crystals that are full of minute holes.
One teaspoon of the most effective of these compounds has the surface area of a rugby field.
What’s more, the size and shape of the pores can be customised and changed using light. So she believes she can generate molecular sponges that will mop up carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or in theory almost any gas—and then release it on cue.
In 2010, her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship which provided equipment, travel support and a student to assist her.
Deanna’s compounds have similar molecular structures to those in seashells and the microscopic marine plants called diatoms.
These naturally-occurring materials are commonly used in toothpaste, laundry detergents, kitty litter and other industrial applications.
But her high tech equivalents are crystals known as metal-organic frameworks—clusters of charged metal atoms linked by carbon-based groups.
While she didn’t invent these frameworks, Deanna has developed new kinds of them which are more robust and possess the molecular pores that can be shaped by light.
Photo: Deanna D’Alessandro, The University of Sydney. Credit: L’Oréal Australia/SDP media
Some of the biochemical tricks the malaria parasite uses to become resistant have been unravelled thanks to a series of discoveries by Dr Rowena Martin and her colleagues at the Australian National University.
She is using those insights to give a new lease of life to chloroquine, the wonder drug against malaria first discovered in the 1950s.
For more than half a century chloroquine saved hundreds of millions of lives, but now chloroquine-resistant malaria strains have become common in developing countries.
Rowena is working to understand what happened. The single-celled malaria parasite enters our bodies when we are bitten by an infected mosquito.
It eventually invades and plunders our red blood cells, consuming the haemoglobin contained within.
The digestion of haemoglobin, which takes place in the parasite’s stomach compartment, releases the iron-containing, nonprotein component, haem.
Free haem is toxic to the parasite, which responds by converting it to a harmless crystal. Chloroquine works by blocking the formation of these crystals.
Ten years ago researchers discovered that just a few small changes in a protein PfCRT were enough to give the parasite resistance to chloroquine. But they did not know what the changes did.
Rowena developed a system to study PfCRT in frog eggs—allowing her to examine it in isolation and in detail.
“We found that it moves chloroquine out of the parasite’s stomach compartment so that the drug can’t accumulate at its site of action.” For her achievements to date, in 2010 Rowena won a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship.
Photo: Rowena Martin, the Australian National University, Canberra/The University of Melbourne. Credit: L’oréal Australia/SDP media.
Mystery still surrounds why women who recover from breast cancer often relapse years later —Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat is hoping to use her knowledge of breast tissue stem cells to unravel it.
In 2006, she was part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute team that discovered breast stem cells.
She then built on this finding with a series of studies exploring how these cells develop and are influenced by oestrogen and other steroids.
Her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship in 2010. Breast stem cells are critical to normal breast development, but if the breast becomes cancerous they are also likely to be at heart of the problem.
And that’s been the focus of Marie- Liesse’s work. In a series of high impact papers working with mice, she has explored how these breast stem cells develop into the wide range of cells found in a normal breast and how some of them become aggressive cancer cells.
In 2010 she was lead author of a Nature paper revealing that oestrogen and other steroids can control the function of breast stem cells. “It’s via an indirect mechanism important in understanding how stem cells proliferate, and it could lead to new treatments and new drugs,” she says. “But there are basic questions we still need to answer about breast cancer—such as, ‘What is the cell of origin?’ and ‘What causes a cell to go wrong and turn to cancer?’”