By Andrea Wild
Statistics help us with many things. Using stats we can count how many whales there are in the sea, protect the Great Barrier Reef from agricultural run-off, and even decide whether playing lotto is a good investment or not. In fact, stats could even help us better grow our own bones back.
Thanks to a mishap on the soccer field, a car accident or a disease like osteoporosis, many of us will need to grow new bone at some stage of our lives. Luckily, our stem cells are pretty good at patrolling our bodies and fixing any damage. But when bones need help to heal, surgical grafts (of either bone itself or a biomaterial) can encourage new bone to grow in the right place. These biomaterials are used in medicine to repair or replace diseased or damaged parts of the body.
The UK’s Imperial College London (ICL) has been developing a biomaterial known as strontium-modified bioactive glass for use as a bone graft. The bioactive glass dissolves slowly and releases the strontium, which coaxes mesenchymal stem cells to turn into bone cells, healing the damaged bone.
But how does it work? What’s happening inside the cell? Many researchers have wondered.
Thanks to what are known as gene expression microarrays, it’s possible to screen the body cells’ response to a treatment at the genetic level. But this process creates masses of data, which can be a mystery in themselves. The answers are in there, but where?
Enter our computational modellers, led by Dave Winkler, and their new statistical technique for analysing gene data: sparse feature selection. They collaborated with the ICL’s Helene Autefage and Molly Stevens, who head up one of the world’s leading biomaterials groups, to solve the strontium bioactive glass mystery.
Here’s how it works, in four easy steps (not that we suggest trying this at home):
- Take human mesenchymal stem cells from three patients and treat them with strontium bioactive glass extracts.
- Run a microarray experiment to find out which genes have been effected by strontium in these cells.
- Put the data into a hat.
- Wave your sparse feature selection wand, and pull out eleven genes that matter most in stimulating bone growth from the 1000 or so genes that were influenced by strontium.
Sounds simple, right? We should note that we glossed over some very important researchers and their work, which you can learn more about here.
But the next step is the really exciting bit: drug discovery. Understanding why strontium helps new bones grow opens the way for drug development.
Statistical analysis has taught us that the biological pathways involved are those that make fatty acids and sterols inside our cells. If we can use this knowledge now to develop more targeted drugs, it’s possible that some surgical bone grafts won’t be necessary in the future. There may be a less invasive way of encouraging bone to regenerate and that would be fantastic news for an ageing population facing degenerative diseases like osteoporosis.
Taking similar steps to provide in-depth knowledge of the effects of specific biomaterials on cell behaviour could lead to new treatments for many different diseases that are more effective, easier to administer, less toxic, and cause fewer side effects.
And it’s all thanks to a little statistics.
This research was published today in the journal PNAS. Read about other new health technologies we’re developing.
For media inquiries, contact Andrea.Wild@csiro.au or +61 415 199 434
You may have heard it in the playground, but today we’re bringing you the word ‘slag’ in another form altogether: one that’s good for the environment and good for business. In steelmaking, slag is a legitimate term used to describe the glass-like waste product created during the process of refining or smelting ore. Our smart technology has found a way to turn that waste into a new product to make cement, while reducing water use and greenhouse gas emissions.
How? With the power of Dry Slag Granulation (DSG). These may be three of the most uninspiring words ever strung together to form a phrase, but know this: DSG technology has the potential to save 60 billion litres of water, 800 petajoules of heat energy and 60 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
The potential savings are equivalent to 14 per cent of Australia’s energy use and about 10 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions each year.
For a major industrial nation like China, where 60 per cent of the world’s iron waste is produced, there is clearly an opportunity to put this unloved by-product to better use.
That’s where DSG comes in. The technology is fitted to blast furnaces in the form of a spinning disc and granulation chamber. This separates molten slag into droplets under centrifugal forces. Then, using air to quench and solidify the droplets, the DSG process extracts a granulated slag as well as heated air.
The granulated slag can be reused for cement and the heated air (extracted at a trifling 500-600°C) can be used onsite for drying, preheating or steam generation.
This isn’t something we just cooked up. We’ve been working on developing DSG for over a decade with business partners Arrium and BlueScope. This week we announced a new commercialisation trial with the Beijing MCC Equipment Research & Design Corporation in what we hope to be the first step to commercialising this technology globally.
If DSG hasn’t frightened you off yet, watch this video to see the seething bubbling cauldron of science in action.
For more information about our work, visit the mineral resource flagship page.
Ever wondered how hot your home gets in summer or how cold it is in winter? Think solar is a good idea but not quite sure if it would work on your roof? Wondering if it’s worth investing in a rainwater tank?
Now with a new interactive tool we helped develop called My Climate, residents of Melbourne’s City of Port Phillip can do their own internet-sleuthing to answer these questions. What’s more, this could kick-start a trend that would see residents around the country taking more responsibility for these types of decisions.
My Climate uses thermal mapping taken from aerial flyovers and seven temporary weather stations to show land surface temperatures, winter heat loss, rainfall and the solar potential of all buildings in the region.
Working with the City of Port Phillip and Monash University, we originally developed My Climate to inform urban planning decisions. It didn’t take long to realise how useful the data would be to the whole community.
“With this data you can calculate the most appropriate solar system for your home, where it would best be located and how much it could potentially save you in electricity costs and Co2 emissions. You can also measure rainfall and calculate the cost of improving your ceiling insulation,” Port Phillip Mayor Amanda Stevens says.
“If thermal imaging shows your neighbour’s home is cooler than yours, it may mean they have better insulation, or cool air from their air-conditioner is leaking outside the home.
“This easy-to-use tool has the potential to add real value to people’s homes and on a larger scale can help tackle the impacts of climate change.”
Dr Mahesh Prakash and his group from our Digital productivity Flagship helped develop the analytics and software component of the interactive tool. He says his team is now looking to expand My Climate to include other layers of information such as natural hazard hotspots and optimum tree coverage. He would also like to see it rolled out to other Councils.
Explore the My Climate tool on the City of Port Phillip website.
As you may know we are big fans of 3D printing. Whether it’s helping a horse, supporting sleep suffers or producing a personalised pen, we have a lot of time for a disruptive technology that might be the biggest tech innovation we’ve seen in decades. So we were pretty chuffed to spend some time with a 3D printing guru.
The guru in question is Chad Henry, a research scientist from our manufacturing team. Hailing from the United States, Chad brings a unique charisma and enthusiasm to our labs in Clayton, Victoria.
In order to find out a more about the man behind the printer, we put a few questions to Chad about his work and his life outside the lab.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy that there is such a breadth of applications for metallic 3D printed components. Learning about the details of new potential uses, in order to best utilise the technology is interesting.
What does your job entail on a week to week basis?
Lots of interaction with companies interested in metallic 3D printing to explain the technical details and costs of it, all in order to search for successful applications for them. The other part is running projects, where we are always learning new things.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Because I helped design and make it, when the JSF F-35 went full speed down the runway and took off for its first-flight, that was quite a career highlight. But you could argue that the successful landing was more important.
What is the biggest challenge you’re grappling with in your role at the moment?
Large OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that manufacture metallic components and integrate them into systems that result in high value products are few and far between in Australia. It’s these kinds of companies that are putting money into metallic 3D printing over in the US and Europe. Plus, the Australian industry is risk averse. All of this is makes the uptake of expensive new technologies challenging.
If you were at a casual dinner party, how would you respond if someone asked what you do/research?
I deliver metallic 3D printing technologies to companies to ultimately help the country, as I am partially government funded. Sometimes that takes a little R&D to get things just right, so then we can develop and execute projects that have a positive return on investment for the company.
What are some common misconceptions about 3D printing?
It’s easy to do. It’s inexpensive and good business cases are abundant. Design optimisation doesn’t really matter.
What is the coolest thing you’ve ever printed in 3D?
Noting that cool is different from useful, I would say minimal surfaces (do an internet search if you need to – it is an interesting one) and mathematical based art.
What is the next big step for this technology? Good question. I’ll state two: 1) CAD software that makes taking advantage of the design freedoms inherent with 3D printing, and 2) driving down the cost. Both are important, already underway, and will continue to improve with time.
What was your first job?
Metallurgical Engineer at Bell Helicopter. This was in the late 90’s and we were 3D printing lost wax for investment castings then.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Sports Equipment Tester, analyser and designer. I am an OK athlete and I have an engineering mindset. I think I’d be good at it.
What hobbies do you have outside of your work?
I am a dad first and foremost. My kids are at a very fun age. I’d rather have dinner with them than anybody. The conversations are certainly candid and all over the place. Additionally, I try to find time for ice hockey, on- and off- road motorcycle track days, home brewing, table tennis, golf, and I have recently gone surfing a few times.
What advice would you give to somebody looking to follow your career path?
Have load-case and stress analysis capability and the knowledge to apply it to component design, along with the necessary CAD skills to then make it electronically.
What is the most funny/unique/odd situation you have experienced in your time at the CSIRO?
I have a 3D printed fish anchor (used to affix GPS devices) on my desk that was in a shark for some time before being removed. It has remnant organic tissue on it. Thank you CMAR (CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research). They learned a lot about sharks.
If you had infinite resources, what research/experiment/project would you like to work on?
Two things: 1) Getting real-time non-destructive evaluation capability into metallic 3D printers. There are multiple benefits that would result from this, and 2) Further developing large scale metallic 3D printing. Let’s just print the whole airframe.
Which song or band best captures your job and why?
I don’t know… let’s see… the vast majority of people seem to love 3D printing, but they don’t necessarily know the technical details or science behind it, so it just seems like magic. Maybe the magic is partly why they love it. Surely there are songs along that topic line. OK, I got it… how about, “You sexy thing (Do You Believe in Miracles?)” I mean, 3D printing is pretty sexy, right?
One final thought from our 3D guru – a piece of pub trivia, or a nice fact to unleash upon unsuspecting dinner guests
People should know that 3D printing isn’t an overnight sensation. It has been in development for well over two decades.
And finally, just because it is a little pet peeve of mine, I’ll share a quick piece of advice. First though, let me say that by itself, it won’t make you sound like you know what you are talking about, but it will certainly help you “not” sound like you “don’t” know what you are talking about. Got it? OK … here it is … Regarding 3D printing of metals, the process is fusion (i.e. melting).
Just as we don’t all have the same tastes or preferences for football codes or teams – or even genres of music or flavours of ice cream – so too we don’t all have the same tastes or preferences when it comes to science.
Last year the CSIRO released the results of a major survey into public attitudes towards science and technology, and found four key segments of the population that view science in very different ways:
A: Fan Boys and Fan Girls. This group is about 23% of the population and they are very enthusiastic about science and technology. Science is a big part of their lives and they think everyone should all take an interest in it.
B: The Cautiously Keen make up about 28% of the public. They are interested in science and technology, but can be a little wary of it. They tend to believe that the benefits of science must be greater than any harmful effects.
C: The Risk Averse represent about 23% of the population. They are much more concerned about the risks of science and technology, including issues such as equality of access. Most of their values about science are framed in terms of risk.
D: The Concerned and Disengaged make up 20% of the population. They are the least enthusiastic and least interested in science and technology. Many of them don’t much trust it. They believe the pace of science and technology is too fast to keep up with and that science and technology create more problems than they solve.
If you are reading this article you are probably an A – and have self-selected to read the article as something you are interested in. But that is one of the problems: most audiences of science communications activities self-select from the As.
Interesting the disinterested
The research builds upon several other earlier surveys and its findings complement a 2014 survey designed by the Australian National University and conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Inspiring Australia program.
This survey segmented Australians on the basis of how frequently they interacted with information about science and technology. It found that only half of the population could recall listening to, watching or reading something to do with science and technology, or even searching for science and technology information, at least once a fortnight. Also, 14% had much less frequent interactions with science and technology information.
So, while Merlin Crossley is quite right that we are increasingly well served by high-quality science communication activities, rather than simply needing even more, we believe we need a broader spread of activities, designed for different audiences who have different attitudes to science.
With science communication activities growing, the Fan Boys and Fan Girls have never had it so good. There are great science stories almost everywhere you turn, if you’re interested in those stories, of course.
But the CSIRO data showed that as many as 40% of the Australian public were unengaged, disinterested or wary of science – little changed since a similar Victorian government study in 2011.
So the growth in science communication is not necessarily growing its audience. To do that we need to align our science communication messages and channels with those that the disengaged and disinterested value.
Think of the football analogy mentioned above. A diehard AFL fan is not likely to seek out a rugby union match of their own volition. However, if you want to get them interested in rugby union, you might consider holding a demonstration match at an AFL game. Or even better, recruit AFL players to join one of the teams playing in the rugby union demo match.
More than blowing stuff up
There are many ways to get exciting science communication activities out of the existing channels and onto the Footy Shows and Today Shows of the world. Science communicators could show up at music and folk festivals and other community activities. They could get sports stars and TV personalities and musicians talking about science, much as the Inspiring Australia initiative has sought to do.
And they should think beyond BSU (blowing stuff up) approaches where the “wow” factor is high but longer term engagement is often quite low.
One of the other key findings of the CSIRO study was that the Fan Boys and Fan Girls are further away from the average point of community values than any other segment of the population. This means that Fan Boys or Girls probably have the least idea of what might appeal to the other segments. They know what turns them on, but they are probably only guessing what will work for the other segments.
So they need to recruit members of the other non-science fan segments to help devise science communication activities that appeal to them. For no one is going to understand the Bs, Cs and Ds like they understand themselves (even if they don’t much understand As!).
By Claire Harris
Ahh spiders. For a relatively small creature, they have the power to turn even the bravest among us into a quivering mess – and we include ourselves in that club. At our Sydney office, for example, we have seen dozens of St Andrew’s Cross spiders loitering around our newsblog garden.
Spider numbers change according to the conditions. A hot dry summer is not good for spiders. But also, too much rain can lead to increased fungal infections and more predators out to eat spiders for breakfast.
So what’s happening with all these spiders?
According to Dr Barry Richardson, Honorary Research Fellow at our Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC), they’re everywhere because it’s spider dating season!
“This is the time of year when most young spiders begin their active independent life; males especially moving around looking for mates,” Barry explains.
With all these single spiders out seeking companionship, we’ve been hearing more and more stories from people getting into sticky situations with these amorous arachnids.
One tale from a colleague of ours was enough to send shivers down anybody’s spine. While out jogging, she ran face first into a big web, almost swallowing the web’s resident. Luckily the spider was quick to get away; in fact it leapt off the web, scuttling for its life.
That got us thinking: is it common for spiders to leap off their webs to avoid bumbling creatures like humans?
Barry says that what our colleague observed was normal behaviour.
“Spiders are subject to very heavy predation by birds and wasps (depending on their size). So as soon as they see or feel (through vibrations) something coming they commonly leap to safety,” he said.
“When they land in the litter they curl up, stay still and try to look like a piece of debris. Orb spiders will also often run off the side of their web into the foliage if given the chance. This means they can quickly get back to the web to repair it and capture any lunchtime snacks.”
This behaviour is intriguing enough, but there’s plenty more to be interested in when it comes to spiders. Barry (who is a kangaroo and rabbit expert that took up jumping spiders as a hobby in retirement) also shared these wonderful eight-legged facts:
Have you ever wondered how the world appears to a spider? Spiders are hairy because they mostly ‘see’ the world through minute vibrations in the air and the hairs are part of a very sensitive detection system. They also use vibrations through the ground.
Why do some spiders have big eyes? Because they hunt by sight and their eyes operate as telephoto lenses capable of zooming four times life size. While there are only two big-eyed, hunting families of spiders — the jumping and the wolf spiders — these spiders make up more than half the individuals around our houses and yards.
We are big fans of the insect world, so it should come as no surprise that we look after the world’s largest collection of Australian insects and related groups such as mites, spiders, nematodes and centipedes at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC).
Housing over 12 million specimens (and a team of experts like Barry), the Collection is used by Australian and international researchers, industry, government and university students as a critical and authoritative resource for evolutionary biology, ecology, natural resource management, biosecurity and biogeography. We are constantly adding to the collection, which is growing by more than 100,000 specimens each year.
You can find out more about ANIC here.
Before we go, one last fact.
Some spiders ‘call’ for mates by tapping their feet, waving their legs and vibrating their abdomens to a species-specific pattern. Check out the dancing peacock spiders, only found in Australia, they should prove that not all spiders are frightening.