Fresh Science 2010

Each year we identify early-career scientists with a discovery and bring them to Melbourne for a communication boot camp. Here are some of their stories.

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Print your own lasers, lights and TV screens

Print your own lasers, lights and TV screens
Jacek Jasieniak sprinkling quantum dots. Credit: Jacek Jasieniak

Imagine printing your own room lighting, lasers, or solar cells from inks you buy at the local newsagent. Jacek Jasieniak and colleagues at CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and the University of Padua in Italy, have developed liquid inks based on quantum dots that can be used to print such devices and in the first demonstration of their technology have produced tiny lasers. Quantum dots are made of semiconductor material grown as nanometre-sized crystals, around a millionth of a millimetre in diameter. The laser colour they produce can be selectively tuned by varying their size.

Cling wrap captures CO2
Colin Scholes operates a test rig for his carbon capture membrane. Credit: CO2 CRC

Cling wrap captures CO2

High tech cling wraps that ‘sieve out’ carbon dioxide from waste gases can help save the world, says Melbourne University chemical engineer, Colin Scholes who developed the technology. The membranes can be fitted to existing chimneys where they capture CO2 for removal and storage. Not only are the new membranes efficient, they are also relatively cheap to produce. They are already being tested on brown coal power stations in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, Colin says. “We are hoping these membranes will cut emissions from power stations by up to 90 per cent.”

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Could we grow drugs using sunflowers?

Queensland researchers believe future cancer drugs could be grown in sunflowers and ultimately delivered as a seed ‘pill’.

They’re a long way from that outcome. But, as they reported to the XVIII International Botanical Congress in Melbourne earlier this year, they have already shown that sunflowers make a precursor to cancer drugs as part of their defence against insect attack.

The precursor, a small ring-like protein fragment known as SFTI, has already shown potential as a cancer treatment. Until now, however, it has been considered too expensive to produce by conventional means.
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Preventing breast cancer relapse

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?’”

Photo: Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, WEHI, Melbourne.  Credit: L’Oreal Australia/SDP Media.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, Tel: +61 3 9345 2495,,

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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Plastic not fantastic for seabirds

Seabirds on one of Australia’s remotest islands have plastic in their stomachs.

Plastic not fantastic for seabirds
A flesh-footed shearwater surveys the contents of its stomach Credit: Ian Hutton

A recent survey found more than 95 per cent of the migratory flesh-footed shearwaters nesting on Lord Howe Island, between Australia and the northern tip of New Zealand, had swallowed plastic garbage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, plastic has been shown to bind poisonous pollutants. As a result, some shearwaters were found with concentrations of mercury more than 7,000 times the level considered toxic.

Only six of more than 200 nests visited contained chicks. The overall population is plummeting.
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Building a better banana

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting the efforts of Queensland University of Technology scientists to design a better banana.

James Dale and a better banana palm for Africa. Credit: QUT
James Dale and a better banana palm for Africa. Credit: QUT

The researchers have already added provitamin A—a compound the body converts to Vitamin A—to the East African Highland banana. Now they are working to boost the iron content of the cooking banana that is a staple food of Uganda.

Led by Prof James Dale, director of University’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, the researchers are working with the Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organisation to modify the bananas genetically to raise their micronutrient levels, and then develop disease-resistant strains to distribute to East African farmers. The research is being funded by a $10-million grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health Program.

James and his team developed efficient technology for raising nutrient levels in Cavendish bananas through to field trials in Queensland and then transferred it to Uganda. Ugandan scientists are now using these methods to modify East African Highland bananas genetically to increase their biosynthesis of provitamin A and their accumulation of iron.

Part of the project includes ensuring Ugandans will accept the new fruit, which has deep yellow flesh, thanks to the addition of the Vitamin A precursor, beta-carotene.

Saving koalas by vaccination

The first Australian trials have started of a vaccine to prevent koalas from contracting and spreading the deadly sexually transmitted disease, chlamydia.

Saving koalas by vaccination
Professor Peter Timms is trialling a Chlamydia vaccine for koalas. Credit: QUT

The trials—supervised by Prof Peter Timms and Prof Ken Beagley from Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation—have been undertaken safely both in healthy koalas and koalas that already have chlamydial disease. All vaccinated koalas developed a good immune response to the anti-chlamydia vaccine, which shows great promise of making a significant impact on the disease in the near future.

Chlamydia is a major threat to the continued survival of koalas. Almost all populations in Australia are affected by the disease. It is a significant cause of infertility, urinary tract infections, and inflammation in the lining of the eye which often leads to blindness.

Koala numbers are declining across virtually its whole range. In the Koala Coast region of southeast Queensland in 2008 it was estimated that 2332 koalas had been lost in a three-year monitoring period. That represented a 51 per cent decrease.

By studying chlamydial disease in koalas, QUT researchers hope to understand the condition better in general. They believe their work may also hold the key to developing a successful vaccine for use against the human sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia trachomatis, a major cause of infertility in women.

Photo: Professor Peter Timms is trialling a Chlamydia vaccine for koalas.
Credit: QUT

Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, QUT, Peter Timms, Tel: +61 7 3138 6199,;

Is that you in the video?

Is that you in the video?
Clinton Fookes is technical director of QUT’s Airports of the Future. Credit: Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

A Queensland University of Technology (QUT) engineer is developing techniques to automatically identify people in surveillance videos and recognise their movement and behaviour.

The explosion of video surveillance to make public places safer, says Dr Clinton Fookes of the University’s School of Engineering Systems, has created a new challenge for researchers—to make sense of what cameras and computers see. So he is investigating ways to extract and interpret important information from these visual sources.

The data generated by the proliferation of surveillance cameras, as well as the countless images and videos online, he says, are impossible to intelligently use without sophisticated computer vision technology that can automatically extract information from these sources, collate and report on it in real time.

As Clinton’s work is ideally suited to improving security in public places such as airports, one of his roles is technical director of QUT’s Airports of the Future—a major research project aimed at improving the experience of passengers passing through Australia’s airports.

His research in this field could lead to new discoveries in a range of areas including human-computer interaction, security, medical imaging and robotics.

Photo: Clinton Fookes is technical director of QUT’s Airports of the Future.
Credit: QUT

School of Engineering Systems, QUT, Clinton Fookes, Tel: + 61 7 3138 2458,,

Improved myopia treatment in sight

New glasses that slow the progression of short-sightedness or myopia are now available. The glasses which incorporate a novel lens design could potentially benefit some of the 3.6 million Australians with myopia and hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

New corrective lenses slow the progression of short-sightedness. Credit: iStockphoto
New corrective lenses slow the progression of short-sightedness. Credit: iStockphoto

Until now, correcting myopia has relied on measuring the clarity of vision at the very centre of the retina. Corrective lenses were designed to provide the wearer with clear central vision but did nothing for peripheral vision. Studies have now shown that short-sightedness progressively worsens in spite of correction using these traditional lenses.

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