Australian Science News

From CSIRO Science by Email Jan-May 2012

Printing Medications

Imagine going to the doctor. Instead of writing out a prescription and sending you off to the pharmacy, they click ‘print’ on their computer. A short time later, your medicine is ready. Using a 3D printer and open source software, structures are created containing cavities, chambers and channels out of bathroom sealant. These structures, or ‘reactionware’, mimic glassware, like flasks and beakers that chemists typically use to synthesise chemicals. Then researchers use the 3D printer to ‘print’ chemicals into the reactionware and initiate chemical reactions. By changing the starting chemicals or structure of the reactionware, different products can be created. By layering different structures and chemicals, scientists can even conduct complicated, multi-step reactions using just one piece of reactionware. The reactionware can also be cut open and easily sealed again, allowing reuse. The researchers hope that one day this technique could be a cheap way to produce all sorts of chemicals, particularly pharmaceuticals. At the moment, only large engineering facilities are able to modify their reactors to produce different products. The relatively low cost of 3D printers means that the ability to produce a wide range of different chemicals becomes available to smaller laboratories. It may be also be possible to use the technology in non-laboratory environments. Being able to click and print in this way makes chemical synthesis easier and cheaper. This could help drive innovation and the development of new, useful chemicals.

Decade of drought comes to an end

Australia is officially no longer in drought, meaning Australia is drought-free for the first time in more than ten years. Recent heavy rains across many areas of the country eased dry conditions. Drought is not simply a lack of rain. If that were the case, many areas of inland Australia would be almost permanently in drought. In fact, there is no universal definition of a drought. One definition, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is “a prolonged, abnormally dry period when there is not enough water for users’ normal needs”. This definition is useful as it takes into account different communities’ water needs as well as local average rainfall. Drought is one of the most costly natural disasters to affect Australia. Drought leads to reductions in crop yield and herd size, which affect local and national economies. The stress and strain of drought has social impacts as well, such as rises in mental illness and the decline of rural communities. Drought also contributes to environmental issues such as erosion and bushfires. Australia is particularly prone to drought because of its geography. Many droughts in Australia are related to the El Niño Southern Oscillation, but there are a range of ocean and atmospheric phenomena that can have an impact. One of the possible impacts of climate change is an increase in the number and severity of droughts. Reducing carbon emissions, developing drought-resistant crops and climate research are some of the strategies used by organisations such as CSIRO and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to lessen the impact of drought.

About face on facial expressions

Basic facial expressions were once thought to be common across all cultures. These simple expressions include happiness, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. This idea was supported by research that showed that even an isolated people in Papua New Guinea labelled a number of facial expressions in the same way as other cultures. Recent research suggests that facial expressions might not be universal after all. Psychologists used a computer program to randomly create animated faces, some of which showed recognisable expressions. They showed the animations to a group of observers from a western European background, as well as an equal number of observers from an East Asian background. The observers were then asked them to identify the emotion, as well as its intensity. The psychologists found that the observers from more western cultures agreed on six emotions, as well as the relative intensity of the expressions. However, the observers from Asian cultures showed a high degree overlap between emotions. For example, the Asian observers often did not agree on whether a face showed fear or surprise. It was a similar case for anger and disgust. They also found that the Asian observers looked at movement around the eyes to determine emotion, while the European observers used cues from other parts of the face. These results indicate that facial expressions and their interpretation are not as uniform as once thought and that cultural factors play an important role. In our increasingly globalised society, this has potential important implications for international business and diplomacy.

Carbon’s neighbour

Carbon is often called the ‘element of life’. What about carbon’s neighbour? Boron sits next-door, just left of carbon on the periodic table. Given their close proximity, how come carbon seems so important, yet many haven’t even heard of boron? Carbon and boron are similar, but not the same. A key difference is that carbon has four ‘spare’ electrons easily used to form chemical bonds, while boron only has three. Carbon can form many stable compounds, while boron’s ‘electron deficiency’ means many of its compounds react very easily. One of the simplest boron compounds, diborane, is so unstable it spontaneously combusts in air. Boron has potential medical applications. While simple boron and hydrogen compounds are highly unstable, boron is able to form large molecules called clusters that contain many boron atoms. These clusters form highly stable structures that can act as ‘cages’ for other molecules. Most pharmaceuticals are based on carbon. One problem for these drugs is selectivity – making sure they only affect the target and not healthy cells. In many cases, this isn’t a problem, but with diseases such as cancer, doctors only want to kill tumour cells. Many carbon-based drugs aren’t very selective. Chemists hope to use boron-based drugs that are more selective to treat a range of diseases, including various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. The boron-based drugs could be used directly, or as a ‘cage’ to protect and transport another drug. While it might not be as common or as popular as its famous neighbour, it appears there is a place for boron in our medical future.

Australia to co-host Square Kilometre Array Telescope

The starlight that we see at night is only a fraction of what is out there. Stars and galaxies don’t just emit visible light but a range of electromagnetic radiation, including UV radiation, X-rays and radio waves. Most of this radiation is invisible to humans. Special telescopes are required to detect radiation such as radio waves. It has now been announced that part of the world’s largest radio telescope will be built in Australia. The $2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will consist of thousands of antennas concentrated in the Mid West Radio Quiet Zone in Western Australia, as well as southern Africa. Radio waves are emitted by a range of astronomical sources, including stars and clouds of gas and dust. These radio waves are similar to those made by communications systems on Earth. Radio signals that reach the Earth from space can be drowned out, which is why places like the Australian outback and southern Africa are ideal locations for the SKA. Their distance from large population centres means that interstellar signals can be heard above the background radio noise.While the radio waves are hard to detect, the bigger the telescope, the easier it is to pick them up. The thousands of dishes and other detectors of the SKA will cover an area of approximately one square kilometre, making it the biggest radio telescope. Its huge size means that it will be 50 times more sensitive than the best radio telescopes currently available. The SKA will be used to investigate the formation of the first stars in the Universe, the mysterious force of gravity and possibly even search for extraterrestrial life. By hosting part of this important scientific endeavour, Australia will continue to support research that investigates some of the mysteries of the Universe.

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