CSIRO NEWS – Science Stuff

TurtleMarin Debris Data Research
By 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut. That is just one finding from our national marine debris research project, the largest sample of marine debris data ever collected anywhere in the world.
We surveyed the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists. We found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About three-quarters of it is plastic and, although there are some large items, 95 per cent of the items are just a few centimetres across, or smaller.In Australian waters, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. Our research shows that the vast majority of this rubbish comes from the land, with large concentrations near our cities, rather than from litter dropped at sea.

Getting Indigenous students into science and maths
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are around two-and-a-half years behind their peers in scientific and mathematical literacy, and this gap has remained the same over ten years. In an attempt to close this gap, we’ve partnered with BHP Billiton Foundation to deliver a new education project for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students that aims to increase their participation and achievement in these subjects. The $28.8 million, five-year project will focus on tailored learning and will support students from primary school through to tertiary education through six key elements.
Gates Foundation funds food in Africa
We have received a $14.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa. This five year humanitarian project will develop tools to generate self-reproducing hybrid cowpea and sorghum crops to help millions of farmers become more self sufficient with higher yielding crops.

What are our attitudes to mining?
It’s no secret that mining is important to Australia, but that doesn’t necessarily make it popular with society at large. We wanted to have a better understanding of what Australians think about mining, so in 2013/14 we conducted an online survey of 5,121 Australians. We’ve gone beyond basic descriptions of attitudes towards the extractive industries, and looked at the relationship between mining and society in a more constructive and sophisticated way.

Smartphone app a life saver for heart attack patients
Patients recovering from heart attacks are almost 30 per cent more likely to take part in rehab at home using a new smartphone app compared to those who have to travel to an outpatient clinic or centre. What’s more, a clinical trial has shown that those who used the online delivery model were 40 per cent more likely to adhere to the rules of the program and almost 70 per cent more likely to see it through to completion. The results of our clinical trial were so positive that next-gen version of the platform is being offered in a number of Queensland hospitals.

Seven things you didn’t know about Ned Kelly
Only we could come up with a book about the science of Ned Kelly.
To celebrate the release of Ned Kelly: Under the Microscope, from CSIRO Publishing, we thought we’d share a few of the most surprising facts about this national icon:

  • Ned Kelly was illiterate
  • A film about Ned Kelly was the world’s first feature film
  • If you have a Ned Kelly tattoo you are more likely to die violently

Lost bushwalker saved by flying robots

Flying robot enthusiasts can breathe a deep sigh of relief, because Outback Joe has finally been saved after spending eight years lost in the bush.
Sixteen teams from around the world competed in the search and rescue mission to save our beloved Akubra-clad mannequin pal as part of the yearly Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge.

Three wins at EurekasImageJ=1.48p

They call them the Oscars of the science world, without the acceptance speech tears. The Australian Museum Eureka Awards were held earlier this month and we’re very proud of our award winners.
Congratulations to the three CSIRO winners – the Hendra Virus Research Team, the WUE Initiative Team and Mark Talbot, for his stunning photographs of plant cell tissue (pictured here).

Nobel Pbodyinspacerize for Body in Space.
It’s three in the morning. Nature calls. You stagger from your bed, squinting in the darkness as you blindly weave your way past a bookshelf, around the glass cabinet, and down the corridor into the smallest room in the house. Not only do the scientists John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser understand how your brain managed this – they earned themselves a Nobel Prize in the process.
Knowing precisely where your body sits in an environment is a neat trick that has less to do with your eyes than you might think. In 1971, John found that nerve cells in the hippocampus region of a rat’s brain fired up when the rat moved through a specific spot in a room. Moving the rat to other spots made other, similar nerve cells work harder. John realised these so-called place cells worked like a tiny map.
Nearly 35 years later, May-Britt and Edvard found another type of nerve cell in a strip of tissue connecting the hippocampus to other parts of the brain. Described as grid cells (due to the pattern of their activation), these nerves seemed to act like a coordinate system.
Together, these cells provide you with a mental map and a coordinate system that tells the rest of your brain where your body is in relation to its surroundings. This way you’re able to move around even while you’re unable to see, hear, or smell anything.
For their research, John, May-Britt and Edvard were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Many neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can dramatically affect the hippocampus region. Knowing more about these cells and how they work can provide new insights and possibly new treatments for those who suffer spatial memory los

fish_blindThe Blind Fish
Getting out of bed some days feels like too much effort. If only night lasted all day, just like it does for the blind Mexican cavefish. Like the fish, you just might save some energy by living in an endless night.
The Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) is a species of fish found in the southern United States and parts of Mexico. It takes two forms, or ‘morphs’ – one with good vision and one that develops without eyes. While the sighted morph swims in streams exposed to sunlight, the blind morph can be found underground in lightless caves, finding its way by detecting changes in the surrounding water pressure.
A world without sunlight is also a world without the predictable rhythm of night and day. Many living things – from humans to flowers, and even a number of microscopic organisms – have chemical processes that roughly match the 24 hour patterns of night and day. These processes help prepare you with a boost of energy during the times of day you need it most.
Called a circadian rhythm, this body clock doesn’t rely on you checking your watch or even seeing the Sun. It is kept in check by periods of light and dark. If you’ve ever had jet lag, you’ve experienced your circadian rhythm telling you to sleep or eat at odd times of the day.
Yet the Mexican cavefish lives in darkness, so does it even have a circadian rhythm? To find out, Swedish biologists compared the blind morph with the sighted morph, and found that the blind morph does not have this internal body clock. It also uses less energy than the sighted morph, by not having to prepare for daylight.
Next time you oversleep, you’ve got a new excuse. Tell your teacher you’ve become a blind Mexican cavefish and lost your body clock!

Bacteria under Antarctic Ice
There’s life under ice. Scientists found an entire community of bacteria living 800 metres under the surface of glaciers in Antarctica. These bacteria rely on each other to survive in the dark, isolated, subzero lake.
At the south-eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, under the ice of glaciers, lies the liquid water of Lake Whillans. The thick layer of ice keeps the freshwater lake isolated from the world above, stopping nutrients from flowing down into it. How could anything survive there?
Recently, almost 4000 species of bacteria were found in Lake Whillans. The bacteria seem to survive by getting nutrients from the bedrock. The weight of the ice crushes the rocks, and the minerals in the rocks react with oxygen in the water. This reaction makes the rocks a source of energy for the bacteria.
The bacteria living in Lake Whillans also carefully recycle all the nutrients they can. The ecosystem of bacteria relies on rescuing nitrogen, another important nutrient, from dead bacterial cells.
When studying Lake Whillans, scientists had to be careful not to contaminate the lake with bacteria from above ground. If samples from the lake were contaminated, the researchers wouldn’t know if bacteria actually came from the lake, or if they were just carried on the equipment.
Introducing new bacteria into Lake Whillans could also be dangerous for the bacteria living beneath the ice. After being isolated for so long, the ecosystem could be disrupted by visitors. To break into the lake, researchers melted a hole in the ice using hot water. The hot water was kept super clean by filtering it, blasting it with ultraviolet radiation, heating it, and disinfecting it with hydrogen peroxide.
The ecosystem of bacteria in Lake Whillans shows how life can survive in harsh conditions. Perhaps single-celled life could also live beneath sheets of ice on Mars, feasting on the rocks.

Investigator.
Australia’s new Marine National Facility research vessel, Investigator, arrived on Tuesday to its home port of Hobart. The ship will soon take scientists and high-tech equipment to the watery parts of the world; to measure the weather, take samples from the sea floor and study marine life.
The ocean is a vast area to explore, and a lot about ocean life and geology is still a mystery. So what better place to have a science laboratory than out in the salt spray and rolling waves? The Investigator can carry 60 people and supplies for two months at sea. Oceanographers, marine scientists and geoscientists will be able to use the vessel to answer all sorts of questions.
To help scientists improve weather forecasting, Investigator has a heavy hat. “The weather radar on top of the mast weighs as much as a Toyota Corolla, and must be kept level as the ship pitches and rolls,” says CSIRO’s Brian Griffiths, part of the team that helped to design the ship. The device can record the height of clouds and tell if they are carrying rain, hail or snow.
The ship can also capture history by taking core samples – extracting mud and sand from the seabed using a long steel tube. “It’s like sucking up a milkshake through a straw and putting your finger over the top to keep it in,” explains Brian.
Within this muddy material is a record of the climate from about the last 800 000 years. “We can examine different species of diatoms [algae] and learn how ocean circulation patterns have reacted to changing climates like ice ages,” says Brian. “It’s similar to looking at [growth] rings in trees.”
After years of designing and building Investigator, it is now in Tasmania and getting ready for research.

Penguins_juvenilePenguins team up
Little penguins spend their days finding food at sea. With the help of location-tracking devices, researchers have found out that the smallest species of penguin tends to travel the sea in groups, and may dive at the same time while hunting fish.
 
Little penguins, also known as fairy penguins or blue penguins, are found in southern Australia, New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. Often they live on islands safe from foxes and feral cats. The penguins spend their day hunting for fish and crustaceans at sea, and come back to land as the Sun sets, to sleep in burrows.
It is difficult to observe bird behaviour at sea, so to work out how penguins find food, Maud Berlincourt from Deakin University turned to technology. A very small and light location-tracking device that also measures depth allowed her to collect data on the penguins at sea. The device was put on the back of the birds like a little backpack, and black waterproof tape kept it attached to their slick feathers.
Each penguin swam around with their backpack for a day, and then Maud collected it again at night. “We are monitoring a breeding colony on the eastern coast of Victoria at London Bridge. Those penguins are already sitting on eggs and some of them have chicks right now,” says Maud. “It’s a lot of work. I have spent many days and nights in the field waiting for the birds to come back with their devices.”
Maud collected data over 22 days, and with only a few penguins each day wearing the device. She found that they went to sea to hunt for about 15 hours during the day, and travelled around 40 kilometres. That’s at least an eight hour hike for us people.
Between 30 and 50 little penguins would leave each day to find food, and only about four would be wearing the device. Even though Maud was only tracking a few penguins at a time, she found them hanging out together quite a lot. On average, about 85% of tracked penguins would spend at least some time walking, swimming or diving near other tracked penguins. Almost half of the time, penguins swimming together would also dive at the same time.
These results suggest that little penguins look for food in groups, and might cooperate as they hunt fish. Does a penguin always look for food with the same feathered friends? More research is needed to find out.

3Dprint_blood vessel3D Bio-printing blood vessels
3D printers can create toys, bicycle parts and models of dinosaur bones. Bio-printers are 3D printers with a difference. They can actually print structures containing living cells, the same kind of cells that make up the human body!
Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could have a new liver or kidney printed for you, if yours was damaged by an accident or disease? It’s a big dream, but scientists are working on the problem now.
One big obstacle to bio-printing a whole organ, like a liver, is that it needs a big network of blood vessels to keep the cells alive. Blood provides cells with life-giving oxygen and nutrients, and also removes waste. Most cells are just a hair’s width from a supply of blood. Blood vessels need to reach everywhere – it’s a big challenge.
Luiz Bertassoni from the University of Sydney is part of the team that has bio-printed blood vessels. The team used two different materials, which were fluid enough to print and then could be made solid. “One material can be solidified with low temperature, it’s a material from seaweed called agarose,” he says. “The other is a jelly-like material (from gelatine), which was solidified by light. Using a combination of both was one of the tricks we had to use to create these vascular networks.”
To create the blood vessels, Luiz used a 3D printer to make a network of agarose. Once the agarose was solid, the structure was covered with a gelatine-like material containing living cells. “Then we removed the agarose structure that we printed, and ended up with little channels left behind,” he says. When endothelial cells – the kind that form blood vessels – were put in the channels, they organised themselves to cover the channel without clogging it. A fluid, such as blood, could pass through this bio-printed blood vessel.
“We’re excited about getting one step closer to creating fully-functional organs, but we’re still a number of years away from that,” says Luiz. “We hope that sometime soon we will be able to create functional organs that could be implanted in patients.”

Gold Test for Diabetes
Researchers have made a cheap and rapid new test to diagnose type 1 diabetes using a gold-studded glass chip.
Each day, around 280 Australians are diagnosed with diabetes. There are many different types of diabetes, and they are all connected by insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas, an organ located behind your stomach. It controls how much sugar gets from your blood into the muscles and other cells of the body. Both insulin and sugar are needed to give your cells energy, so diabetes can be very dangerous.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, which means the body is attacking itself. The immune system creates antibodies that target cells in the pancreas, causing damage that stops it making insulin. On the other hand, in type 2 diabetes the body does not attack itself with antibodies, but either the pancreas is damaged by another way, or the muscles and other cells have stopped responding to insulin.
When someone has diabetes, it is not always easy for doctors to know whether it is type 1 or type 2. The test is to look at their blood for the pancreas-targeting antibodies found in type 1 diabetes. This test is quite slow and expensive. Faster and cheaper tests just weren’t sensitive enough to detect antibodies. To overcome this problem, a team from Stanford University in the USA used nanotechnology
By placing tiny islands of gold on a glass surface, the team made an amplifier. The fast, cheap tests were now 100 times more sensitive, good enough to detect the antibodies found in type 1 diabetes. Placing just a drop of blood on the gold-studded glass chip would allow a doctor to quickly see if antibodies are there. After trying it out, they found the new nanotech-amplified test was as sensitive as the slower test currently used.

Diabetes

Australia’s largest Aboriginal ochre mine
Celebrating National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week with a shared research project between the Wajarri people and the University of Western Australia!
Australia’s largest Aboriginal ochre mine is Wilgie Mia. In Wajarri Yamatji country far north of Perth, it is an incredibly important cultural heritage site. Red, yellow and green ochres from the mine have been traded across the country for many thousands of years.
It’s said that ochre from Wilgie Mia was traded across Western Australia into the Kimberley, the Pilbara, down to the south coast and into neighbouring states. Red and yellow ochres are still an important part of Indigenous Australian cultures today.
This week, three young Wajarri men are visiting the University of Western Australia to work alongside archeologist Vicky Winton. Together, they are studying samples from several new sites near Wilgie Mia.
“We’ll be going down to the stores and floating some of the samples,” says Vicky. “That’s a technique that involves putting excavated sediments into water.” Lighter material, such as burnt or charred wood, separates from rocks and makes it easier to sort.
Even after it has been burnt, charred wood can reveal interesting things. Using a technique developed in Europe, the team previously identified the species of tree burnt in fires long ago. Archeological samples can be compared to modern charcoal, taken from partially burnt trees that have been carefully identified. Brendan Hamlett, a Wajarri Traditional Owner who worked on an earlier trip to the University, was surprised to find Mulga trees had been burnt the past. Today, the Wajarri people mainly use Miniritchie and Gidgee trees, he says.
High-end technology can be used to study rich cultural treasures. Recently, a super computer from the University of Western Australia stitched photos of cave shelters into 3D models. Having a digital record of the sites makes it easier to spot any damage that might occur in the future.
By sharing knowledge, everyone benefits. Training the next generation is a priority for the Wajarri Traditional Owners, says Brendan. “This is the first time I’ve made maps with a computer. It’s unreal to use this technology to draw parts of my country.”

SCIENCE STUFF

With thanks to CSIRO Science by Email

GLOVE CONTROLLER

 In the world of Harry Potter, lights, machines and even castles are controlled by a flick of the wrist. Forget wands and wizards, soon you too could control the world around you.

 Jake Coppinger, from Gungahlin College in Canberra, has designed a glove that could change the way we use technology – and it is as easy as lifting a finger.

 The glove, branded ‘Swirlesque’, allows a person to control technology from a distance.  The master mitt can recognise hand gestures and control internet-connected devices such as computers, smart phones and music players. A small computer sewn into the glove – called a microcontroller – receives data from a motion sensor. The computer looks for specific patterns in the data. When it recognises a pattern, it sends instructions to the required device using wireless Bluetooth signals.

Glove Jake believes that while technology is becoming more powerful, keyboards, remotes, and other controllers have not changed much. The tech-savvy sixteen year old used his idea in a project for the CSIRO CREativity in Science and Technology (CREST) awards program. After spending 140 hours to design and program the glove, he won third place at the 2014 BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards.

 Jake hopes to develop his design further to make it smaller and more user friendly. He is looking forward to completing Year 11 and meeting like-minded people in his upcoming trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in California.

 From an early age, Jake has been interested in mechatronics and filmmaking. He has taught himself programming and design skills which have been very useful in the design of Swirlesque. Once a keen Science by Email reader, Jake’s mantra is: “Don’t be afraid to reach for your dreams!”

 

 INDIA’S THIRST FOR WATER

 97 million people in India do not have easy access to clean and safe water – that is more than four times the population of Australia. 

 Many water sources in India are heavily contaminated or impure. A number of diseases can be carried in the water, making it very unsafe to drink. Untreated sewage is one of the main sources of water pollution in India. Sewage seeps into rivers as there are not enough treatment facilities available. The build up of impurities in waterways can affect fish and food crops such as rice. People can become very sick from drinking water and eating food from polluted rivers.

 Having a safe water supply and understanding water sustainability is everyone’s business in a country where only 31% of rural households have access to tap water. But many children in India don’t get the chance to learn as they must help their parents earn money.

 CSIRO’s Dr Anu Kumar travelled to India with a team of researchers to help scientists develop ways to control the effect of contaminants, including sewage and industrial chemicals, on the environment. As an extension of the project, she organised a field trip for a group of rural children to the Ganga Aquarium in Lucknow. The children learnt about fish diversity and the effects of water pollution on fish and the environment. They also learnt about keeping clean and investigated ways to conserve water. Students were encouraged to share their experiences with their families when they went home.

 Projects like this help people to help themselves build a healthier life. Anu believes that “education and awareness is the key to improving conditions in India”. 

 

SPINELESS ORIGINS

 To be called faceless or lacking a backbone is a bit insulting, however, it might now be time to face up to our simple origins. 

 Scientists have known that jawed vertebrates evolved from ‘jaw-less’ ones, but just when and how it happened has remained a mystery until recently.

 A fossil fish discovery in China indicates that placoderms gave rise to all modern fishes and vertebrates, including us. Placoderms are an extinct group of armoured fish and are thought to be the first early vertebrates to develop a jaw. The fossil uncovered new clues that challenge the current theories about the origin of the vertebrate face.

 A team of French and Swedish researchers have built upon this discovery when they studied the skull of a fossilised Romundina – an ancient placoderm that lived over 400 million years ago.

Fossil Romundina The researchers were able to trace the development from ‘jaw-less’ to jawed vertebrates with the help of high energy x-rays. The images show that the ancient fish developed two nostrils and a very big upper lip that extended in front of the nose. Over time, this upper lip disappeared and gave way to the nose. The forehead began to grow and the face lengthened.

 The arrangement of facial features in Romundina appears to be very similar to that of a human face – suggesting that our face hasn’t changed all that much over time! Fossil findings reveal fascinating results. This discovery shows that vertebrate evolution is a little fishy and we should dig deeper!

 

DEEP SEA RESEARCH ROBOTS
Is it a fish? Is it a boat? No, it’s a robotic float – ready to dive deep and collect information about the ocean!

 The ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and plays a big part in controlling global weather. The Indian Ocean is one of the main pathways by which warm water returns to the Northern hemisphere. It is also home to huge fisheries and mineral resources.

 Ocean-diving robots – known as Argo floats – have been plunging to the depths of the ocean to provide scientists with important data on underwater salinity and temperatures. Now, CSIRO scientists have teamed with leading marine scientists in India to take a closer look at the Indian Ocean climate and ecosystems. To do this, the team extended the robots’ capabilities – developing new ‘Bio Argo’ floats.

 These clever floats will collect data to help scientists understand what factors keep the Indian Ocean healthy. Over the next few years, dozens of floats will be released into the depths of the Indian Ocean.

 Undersea research robotTiny sensors on the floats measure a range of factors like ocean temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, and dissolved organic material. The floats will also collect information on phytoplankton cells – underwater ‘plants’ that fuel the ocean food web. This data will ultimately help scientists better understand and predict how carbon dioxide is processed by the ocean and how much food the Indian Ocean can produce.

 The floats will free drift in the ocean from anywhere between the surface and 1000m depth, collecting data along the way. When each robot’s memory is full, it will emerge at the surface and send data to scientists via satellites. The floats will then dive back down into the ocean, continuing their mission for months or even years at a time.

 With a new set of senses, these underwater allies are ready to embark on an exciting mission. We wish them the best of luck with their journey and hope they have a whale of a time!

PENGUINS SUIT UP

 Life has never been easy for penguins, and changing weather patterns are creating more challenges for some colonies.

 The coast of Argentina is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins. Scientists from the University of Washington have found that downy chicks are struggling to cope with increasing storm activity and rainfall in the region.  

 Downy chicks haven’t yet developed waterproof feathers and are too big to snuggle under their parents for warmth. Without this protection, water can easily seep into their down – or immature feathers – during periods of heavy rainfall. The wet down makes chicks very cold and sometimes leads to death.

 PenguinsFurther south on Ross Island in the Antarctic, Adelie penguin survival depends on the form and amount of sea ice. Over recent years, sea ice in the Ross Sea has become less predictable with more ice in some years and less in others. An international team found that it is easier for Adelie penguins to forage when sea ice is low. When sea ice is high, penguins are restricted from accessing prime foraging areas. Starvation and exposure are real dangers for chicks as the adult penguins must leave the colony for longer foraging trips.

 While coping with change is a challenge for some penguins, researchers from the University of Minnesota discovered that some Adelie penguin colonies may actually benefit. With increasing temperatures, glaciers melt and retreat – opening up new nesting sites for some populations.

 Environmental change offers both challenges and opportunities for species, especially for those living in extreme climates. Scientific monitoring can help to ensure these seabirds continue to waddle on.