How a molecular assassin operates

The secrets of a molecular assassin could lead to more effective treatments for cancer and viral diseases, better therapy for autoimmune conditions, and a deeper understanding of the body’s defences enabling the development of more tightly focused immunosuppressive drugs.

How a molecular assassin operates
In this simulation, the perforin molecule (blue) punches a hole through the cell membrane (beige) providing access for toxic enzymes (red). Credit: Mike Kuiper
These are just some of the wide-ranging possibilities arising from research which has revealed the structure and function of the protein perforin, a front-line weapon in the body’s fight against rogue cells.

A pivotal role was played by 2006 Science Minister’s Life Scientist of the Year, molecular biologist Prof James Whisstock and his research team at Monash University. It was research fellow Dr Ruby Law who finally worked out how to grow crystals of perforin. And the team was then able to collaborate with Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies of the micro-crystallography beamline at the nearby Australian Synchrotron to reveal its complete molecular structure.
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Seeing fish through rocks

Dr Kate Trinajstic has used synchrotron light and CT scanning to see through rock, in the process discovering how ancient fish developed teeth, jaws and even a womb. Her work is increasing our understanding of how life on Earth evolved.

Seeing fish through rocks
The winner of the 2010 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, Kate Trinajstic. Credit: Ron D’Raine
About 380 million years ago in what is now the Kimberley Ranges in Western Australia, a vast barrier reef formed. In what would have been the inter-reef basins, large numbers of fish were buried relatively intact. Protective limestone balls formed around them and preserved them. When these balls are treated with acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, the surrounding rock dissolves, leaving only fossilised fish bones.

But in the course of studying hundreds of these dissolving balls, Kate began to see what looked like muscle fibres between the bones. She was eventually able to convince her colleagues that irreplaceable soft tissue detail was being lost in the acid treatments.
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Cementing a greener future

Making cement is the third largest source of carbon emissions in the world after the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation—but the Australian roads of the future could be paved with cement that is made in a process that generates less than half the carbon emissions of traditional methods.

Green cement is now becoming part of Victoria’s roads. Credit: Australian Synchrotron.
Green cement is now becoming part of Victoria’s roads. Credit: Australian Synchrotron.

Each year, the world produces about 12 billion tonnes of concrete and about 1.6 billion tonnes of its key ingredient, Portland cement, which is generated by breaking calcium carbonate into carbon dioxide and calcium oxide.

This produces some 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide—so the Geopolymer and Mineral Processing Group (GMPG) at the University of Melbourne, now led by Dr John Provis, went looking for a lower carbon way of making cement.

They have now developed binders and concretes based on a low-CO2 aluminosilicate compounds called geopolymers.

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The Australian science and technology system

Opal Research Reactor. Credit: ANSTO
Opal Research Reactor. Credit: ANSTO

With 22.5 million people, Australia has only about one-fourteenth the population of the US. However, Australia is as big in land mass as the 48 contiguous US states and as geographically diverse. Publicly funded science is targeted at many of the same strategic challenges as in the US—particularly, health and medical research, marine science, climate change, agriculture, energy, resources and defense.

National science agencies

RV Southern Surveyor. Credit: CSIRO
RV Southern Surveyor. Credit: CSIRO

Helping drive solutions to these challenges in Australia is the national research body known as CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). One of the world’s biggest government research agencies, it has an annual budget of close to AU$1.4 billion (2010¬11), of which the Government provides about half directly. There is a separate body devoted to defense matters, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), which receives a budget appropriation of about AU$440 million. Other Government agencies include the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO (AU$369 million in 2010-11), the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) based near Townsville in north Queensland (AU$66.2 million in 2010¬11), Geoscience Australia (AU$156 million in 2010-11) and the Bureau of Meteorology (AU$345.3 million in 2010-11).

Funding bodies

In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC) are the two most significant agencies that administer competitive research grants on behalf of the government. NHMRC, which focuses on health and medical research, had a 2010-2011 budget allocation of nearly AU$792 million. The Australian Research Council (ARC), a general research granting agency, had a 2010-2011 budget allocation of more than AU$700 million.

There are many scholarship programs available to researchers in Australia. One of the best known and most distinguished is the educational exchange program of Fulbright scholarships. These are an important mechanism for generating collaboration between Australian and US scientists.

The Australian component for 2011 has been boosted with the announcement of up to 15 ‘clean tech’ Fulbright scholarships for those interested in renewable energy and climate science research.

About two-thirds of the Australian Government’s science and technology budget is administered by the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio. The other third is administered by other government portfolios: the DSTO, for instance, is managed by the Department of Defence; and the NHMRC by the Department of Health and Ageing.

In addition, each of the eight state and territory governments has its own administration dealing with science and technology, focused on areas of specific interest. Traditionally, because of their constitutional responsibilities, all states have been interested in public health, education, and agriculture. But some states, such as Victoria and Queensland, have made research and development (R&D) itself a specific economic focus, and have put significant funding into developing research infrastructure.


Australian Synchrotron.
Australian Synchrotron.

Research is a focus at all of Australia’s 41 universities, only two of which are private. About twice as much is spent on R&D by Australia’s universities and medical research institutes as is spent directly by federal government science agencies. Much of the sector’s research funding is provided in the form of competitive grants and block grants designed to support the indirect costs of research. In total, the Australian Government provides about AU$2.5 billion to universities to support their research and research training activities, and this is complemented by research funding from the private sector, non-profit organizations and state governments.

While there is not a strong history of philanthropy or endowments in Australia, universities are increasingly undertaking their own fund-raising, and tapping into new sources of non-government funding.

Medical research institutes

Australia has about 40 independent medical research institutes in addition to its universities and hospitals. As well as tapping into philanthropic money, and being eligible for competitive grants, these institutes are supported directly by about AU$650 million a year from the Australian Government towards infrastructure, and more from the state and territory governments.

Business investment in research and development

While in the US, business has accounted consistently for about 70 per cent of total R&D expenditure, the role of private enterprise in research in Australia historically has been limited. That picture is now changing: the share of national R&D financed by business over the past 25 years has risen from 30 per cent to about 60 per cent in 2008-09. This has been supported by a range of government programs, including an R&D tax concession now worth around AU$1.6 billion a year. The Australian Government is involved strongly with particular agricultural industries in 15 Rural R&D Corporations. These corporations are financed through industry levies matched dollar for dollar by the Australian Government.

Cooperative research centres

CSIRO Solar Tower. Credit: CSIRO
CSIRO Solar Tower. Credit: CSIRO

Making a strong contribution in terms of practical research is the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) Program. The program supports end user driven research collaborations to address clearly articulated, major challenges facing Australia, many of which are global. CRC activities include research, utilization and commercialization, education and engagement with small and medium enterprises.

There are 42 active CRCs that operate across four broad industry categories: agriculture, forestry and fishing (11 CRCs), manufacturing (5), mining (4) and services (22). Since 1991, the Australian Government has committed more than AU$3.4 billion in CRC Program funding. Participants in CRCs have committed a further AU$11 billion in cash and in-kind contributions.


Two national academies are associated with science and technology in Australia—the Australian Academy of Science, based in the nation’s capital, Canberra, and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in Melbourne, Victoria. Both have been involved heavily in promoting collaboration with colleagues outside Australia through the Australian Government’s International Science Linkages Program.

This is an part of a series of eight factsheets exploring US-Australian collaboration and outlining some of the ways that Australian science is contributing to America’s society and economy. You can download all of the factsheets as one PDF here.

  1. Overview: Innovation today means jobs and prosperity tomorrow. (Download PDF)
  2. Delivering sustainable agriculture and biosecurity. (Download PDF)
  3. Slivers of sun: clean energy and smarter mining. (Download PDF)
  4. Science collaboration improves health. (Download PDF)
  5. Understanding and responding to changing climate. (Download PDF)
  6. Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action. (Download PDF)
  7. Searching the southern sky, and unchaining the internet. (Download PDF)
  8. The Australian science and technology system. (Download PDF)

Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action

US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz which will be protected by Nulka Credit: U.S. Navy/James Mitchell
US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz which will be protected by Nulka Credit: U.S. Navy/James Mitchell

Blink and you’ll certainly miss it. Australian and US defense scientists have conducted two of 10 test flights of rockets that use revolutionary scramjet propulsion at the Woomera Test Range in South Australia. The rockets travel at hypersonic speeds of more than Mach 5—that’s well over 3,000 miles per hour. More conventionally, an Australian-designed missile that masquerades as a ship has been selected to protect US aircraft carriers. But it’s not just rocket science where Australian and US collaborations have raced ahead. Artificial intelligence research could see manned and unmanned aircraft fly in the same airspace. Australian materials have been incorporated into the latest American aircraft. And quantum computers could soon be solving the knottiest of problems, now that Australian scientists have pointed the way to building them.

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MCEC hosts the world’s synchrotron scientists

Synchrotron scientists at the ‘6 Star Green Star’-rated Melbourne Convention Centre.
Synchrotron scientists at the ‘6 Star Green Star’-rated Melbourne Convention Centre.

Hundreds of the world’s leading synchrotron scientists descended on Melbourne in September when the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre hosted the 10th International Conference on Synchrotron Radiation and Instrumentation 2009 (SRI2009).

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