Starving cancer and other stories

Prostate cancers are made up of hungry, growing cells. Now we’ve discovered how to cut off their food supply thanks to a study published in Cancer Research and supported by Movember. More below. Also Australian science discoveries you may have missed from the past week. Heart cells growing in a test-tube – Melbourne How birds [...]

Dirt solves murder mysteries

Australian detectives can now use a pinch of dirt or a speck of dust to help solve crimes, thanks to techniques developed at the Australian synchrotron.

PHOTO: A SPECK OF DUST OR A PINCH OF DIRT IS NOW ENOUGH TO SOLVE A MURDER. CREDIT: MITARAT
Soil composition is as unique as a fingerprint so scientists can analyse dirt samples and, in theory, match their results to specific regions of the Earth’s surface. Until recently, large sample sizes were needed to make this work.
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Spot the nutrients

Tri-colour map of: Fe (red), Cu (green) and Zn (blue) in a grain of barley.
Tri-colour map of: Fe (red), Cu (green) and Zn (blue) in a grain of barley.

South Australian researchers are using the Australian Synchrotron in their work on how to increase levels of iron and other micronutrients in staple grains such as rice and barley. The intense X-rays of the synchrotron can pinpoint where in the grain those micronutrients are found.

One third of the world’s population suffers from iron deficiency. One of the reasons for this is that more than three-quarters of the iron in rice is lost when the outer layers of the grain are removed during milling.

Enzo Lombi and Erica Donner from the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation at the University of South Australia are using the x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) beam to probe grains of rice, barley and other staple grains that have been designed to boost levels of key micronutrients like iron.

The researchers use the intense synchrotron light to produce images showing concentrations of elements, like iron, copper, zinc and selenium.

One of the new plants they are studying is a strain of rice that has multiple copies of the gene for nicotianamine, which is involved in the long-distance transport of iron. The idea is that more iron will be moved into the inner layers of the rice grain.

The technique used by Enzo and Erica is the only one sensitive enough to determine the chemical form of these elements at the low levels found in cereal grains. It will show how much of the iron will be available when it reaches the consumer.

Photo: Tri-colour map of: Fe (red), Cu (green) and Zn (blue) in a grain of barley.
Credit: Enzo Lombi

Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation, Enzo Lombi, Tel: +61 8 830 26267, Enzo.Lombi@unisa.edu.au

Yeast to make jet fuels

Yeast to make jet fuels
Dr Claudia Vickers is leading a team looking at modifying baker’s yeast to make aviation fuel. Credit: AIBN.

Baker’s yeast could soon be turning sugar cane into jet fuel. Dr Claudia Vickers from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) at the University of Queensland leads a team studying strains which already produce ethanol, industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

The researchers want to use the yeast strains S. cerevisiae to make isoprenoids, chemicals traditionally used to make pharmaceuticals and food additives, but which can also serve as fuel.

The idea is to give the yeast new functions, so they can consume sucrose from cane sugar and produce isoprenoid products, which can be used to replace or supplement traditional jet fuel, without modifying existing aircraft engines or infrastructure.

Claudia’s lab was originally looking at the gut bacteria E. coli, which could also be used to produce isoprenoids, but the yeast is now looking more promising.

Other research groups at The University of Queensland and James Cook University are looking to develop aviation fuel from algae and the oilseed tree Pongamia, both of which can be grown without competing with traditional food crops for land or water.

The University’s sustainable aviation fuel initiative has attracted several backers including Boeing, Virgin Australia, Mackay Sugar, Brisbane-based IOR Energy, and the US-based green energy company Amyris. It is funded by the Queensland State Government.

Photo: Dr Claudia Vickers is leading a team looking at modifying baker’s yeast to make aviation fuel.
Credit: AIBN

Australian Institute for Bioengineering & Nanotechnology, UQ, Claudia Vickers, Tel: +61 7 334 63158, c.vickers@uq.edu.au, www.aibn.uq.edu.au

Pain relief from the sea

For the one in five Australians of working age suffering from serious chronic pain, the options for relief are strictly limited. There’s morphine and . . . well, there’s morphine. But now one of the most powerful toxins in the natural world—the venom of marine cone snails—offers hope of a future free of pain and addiction, say researchers at RMIT University.

PHOTO: CONE SNAILS MAY OFFER PAIN RELIEF. CREDIT: ISLAND EFFECTS
PHOTO: CONE SNAILS MAY OFFER PAIN RELIEF. CREDIT: ISLAND EFFECTS

“The big problems with morphine are addictiveness and the fact that people develop a tolerance to it,” says Professor David Adams, director of the RMIT Health Innovations Research Institute. “With the painkillers derived from cone snail venom, we don’t have those problems. People don’t develop tolerance, and they don’t get hooked.

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Silicon solves helicopter corrosion

An inexpensive, environmentally friendly alternative to a toxic coating currently used in Australian naval helicopters has been developed at Monash University in collaboration with CAST Cooperative Research Centre in Melbourne.

A non-toxic coating will reduce environmental and maintenance costs in Seahawk helicopters. Credit: US Navy
A non-toxic coating will reduce environmental and maintenance costs in Seahawk helicopters. Credit: US Navy

The magnesium alloy used to house the gearbox of Royal Australian Navy SeaHawk helicopters is prone to severe corrosion in marine environments, costing millions of dollars in maintenance every year. To protect the alloy from corrosion, it is covered with a chrome-based coating that is toxic to humans and the environment.

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Rapid identity check for border security pests

When Australian biosecurity officers find a suspicious insect or other invasive pest, they can now quickly identify it, drawing upon experts around the world using microscopes linked via the internet.

The Remote Microscope Network will allow experts to ‘look over the shoulder’ of biosecurity officers and help them identity pests. Credit: CRCNPB
The Remote Microscope Network will allow experts to ‘look over the shoulder’ of biosecurity officers and help them identity pests. Credit: CRCNPB

The Remote Microscope Network (RMN), developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for National Plant Biosecurity (CRCNPB), allows the officers to examine an insect or specimen closely in real time, manipulating it under the microscope while discussing its identification with national and international experts.

The system is coupled to a comprehensive diagnostic information database, allowing comparison with images and information about the suspect.

Until now identification in the field of invasive insects and other pests has been a slow and cumbersome process. It often involved sending a sample to a capital city and waiting several weeks for results.

The RMN is used in conjunction with a Pest and Disease Image Library and a Plant Biosecurity Toolbox, which includes high quality images as well as information about pest distribution. Together they enable field officers to identify pests quickly and accurately, and respond to any threats. This could save millions of dollars in eradication costs and lost market access for Australian producers.

“We’ve added a new, innovative tool to our system which is very cost effective and efficient, and decreases the response time when dealing with potentially harmful pests and diseases,” says Dr Simon McKirdy, CEO of the CRCNPB. “Now relevant diagnostic information is available to field officers around Australia and to our near neighbours.”

Photo: The Remote Microscope Network will allow experts to ‘look over the shoulder’ of biosecurity officers and help them identity pests.
Credit: CRCNPB

CRC for National Plant Biosecurity, Max Knobel, m.knobel@crcplantbiosecurity.com.au, www.crcplantbiosecurity.com.au/

Crashing helicopters for safety

Mathew Joosten crashes several helicopters a day—without any deaths or injury. He uses computer simulation.

Crashing helicopters can now be done from the safety of the keyboard. Credit: ACSCRC
Crashing helicopters can now be done from the safety of the keyboard. Credit: ACSCRC

A research student of the Cooperative Research Centre for Advanced Composite Structures, Mr Joosten has designed ‘virtual crash test’ software to help accelerate the development of safety systems.

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Putting a cap on fatigue

Drivers of trucks, dozers, graders and excavators at Australian mines could soon be saved from the risks of fatigue by their headgear.

Putting a cap on fatigue
The SmartCap protects against fatigue. Credit: CRC Mining

Incidents on mine sites caused by tiredness are a significant cause of injuries and deaths, and cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost production and accidents each year. So Dr Daniel Bongers at the Cooperative Research Centre for Mining (CRCMining) in Brisbane has invented a SmartCap, fitted with sophisticated sensors which can “read” the brain’s nerve activity through hair and detect the level of fatigue of the wearer.

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Milk could soothe the savage gum

Melbourne dental health researchers have discovered a painless, low-cost treatment which may prevent gum disease.

Milk could soothe the savage gum
A peptide found in milk may help prevent gum disease and protect teeth. Credit: Istock photos

And the key ingredients—protein fragments known as peptides—come from cows’ milk.

The link between the peptides and gum disease was forged at the Melbourne Dental School node of the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre by Dr Elena Toh. “This could provide a cheap and simple way to help prevent gum disease,” she says. “And because the peptides are derived from milk, there should be no toxicity issues.”
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