‘Botox of plastic’ to freeze power costs


The porous structure of metal organic framework materials makes them perfect for storing and separating gases. Image: Flickr / Justus Thane

What do the Real Housewives of Melbourne and plastic have in common? You’ll be surprised to hear that it’s botox.

We’ve developed a new material that prevents plastic from ageing, acting like a shot of botox. And how will that freeze power costs? When applied to plastic lining (like those used in power generators) this ‘botox for plastic’ can clean up exhaust gases much more effectively than existing methods.

We’re not talking small figures here – consider that the current techniques used to separate out raw materials like gases, liquids and solids are extremely energy-intensive, making up a staggering 40 per cent of the world’s energy use each year. According to Dr Sam Lau, lead author, the new ‘botox’ technique offers a solution that will make this separation a staggering 50 times faster.

Dr Sam Lau

This is how it works - at the moment power generators rely on plastic linings made up of tiny holes just one nanometre wide, a tiny fraction of a width of a human hair and for decades scientists have been trying to improve the process by using plastics with larger holes. But these larger openings tend to age very quickly and collapse within a matter of days.

So scientists have been making use of incredibly compact materials knows as metal organic frameworks, or MOFs. These are solid materials with regular honeycomb-like structures – a little like the steel frame of a skyscraper – which can be prepared in the laboratory from organic molecules which form the links between metal atoms. MOFs have the surface area of a football field in just one gram. Combine this with their open sponge-like structures and they are ideal for separating mixtures of gases or for storing large volumes of a gas.

Visual representation of a MOF structure

MOFs combine a cluster of metal ions and organic linkers to form a honeycomb-like structure. Image: Dr Christian Doonan, The University of Adelaide

This means the tiny holes in plastic lining can be made bigger, for longer.

“We found that the density of the MOFs acts like a shot of botox and actually freezes the larger holey structures in place for an entire year. This is a much more environmentally friendly approach and of course translates into huge cost and efficiency savings for the companies who take this up,” Dr Lau explained.

According to Dr Lau, not only does the technique have incredible potential for cleaning up exhaust gases from power plants, it could also be used to enhance the purity of natural gas streams, the separation of water from alcohols (a key process in biofuel synthesis) and for dye removal in the textile industry.

This means cost-saving all round which is a win for industry and, ultimately, your hip pocket.


Media contact: Liz Greenbank, Liz.Greenbank@csiro.au, +61 3 9545 8563 or +61 408 778 189

Aboriginal people – how to misunderstand their science

Painted Aboriginal face

We still have so much to learn about Aboriginal history and culture. Image: Shutterstock / John Austin

By Ray Norris, Chief Research Scientist, Astronomy & Space Science

Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilisation rescued them in 1788.

How did we get it so wrong?

Australian historian Bill Gammage and others have shown that for many years land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximise productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils, now exploited and almost destroyed by intensive agriculture.

In some cases, Aboriginal people had sophisticated number systems, knew bush medicine, and navigated using stars and oral maps to support flourishing trade routes across the country.

They mounted fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy.

Engraving of Galileo

Australian aborigines knew more about tides than Galileo Galilei (engraving from about 1662). Image: Shutterstock / Iryna1

Only now are we starting to understand Aboriginal intellectual and scientific achievements.

The Yolngu people, in north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, long recognised how the tides are linked to the phases of the moon.

Back in the early 17th century, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was still proclaiming, incorrectly, that the moon had nothing to do with tides.

Some Aboriginal people had figured out how eclipses work, and knew how the planets moved differently from the stars. They used this knowledge to regulate the cycles of travel from one place to another, maximising the availability of seasonal foods.

Why are we only finding this out now?

We owe much of our knowledge about pre-European contact Aboriginal culture to the great anthropologists of the 20th century. Their massive tomes tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements.

They say very little about Aboriginal understanding of how the world works, or how they navigated. In anthropologist Adolphus Elkin’s 1938 book The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them he appears to have heard at least one songline (an oral map) without noting its significance.

[…] its cycle of the hero’s experiences as he journeyed from the north coast south and then back again north […] now in that country, then in another place, and so on, ever coming nearer until at last it was just where we were making the recording.

How could these giants of anthropology not recognise the significance of what they had been told?

The answer dawned on me when I gave a talk on Aboriginal navigation at the National Library of Australia, and posed this same question to the audience.

Afterwards, one of Elkin’s PhD students told me that Elkin worked within fixed ideas about what constituted Aboriginal culture. I realised she was describing what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn referred to when he coined the term “paradigm”.

The paradigm problem

According to Kuhn, all of us (even scientists and anthropologists) are fallible. We grow up with a paradigm (such as “Aboriginal culture is primitive”) which we accept as true. Anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is dismissed as irrelevant or aberrant.

Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human”. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified.

As late as 1923 Aboriginal Australians were described as “a very primitive race of people”.

Not so primitive

Cave painting

Aboriginal culture is more than just cave painting and artwork. Image: Kitch Bain

The prevailing paradigm in Elkin’s time was that Aboriginal culture was primitive, and Aboriginal people couldn’t possibly say anything useful about how to manage the land, or how to navigate.

So an anthropologist might study the Aboriginal people as objects, just as a biologist might study insects under a microscope, but would learn nothing from Aboriginal people themselves.

Even now, the paradigm lives on. In my experience, well-educated white Australians, trying so hard to be politically correct, often still seem to find it difficult to escape their childhood image of “primitive” Aboriginal people.

We must overcome the intellectual inertia that keeps us in that old paradigm, stopping us from recognising the enormous contribution that Aboriginal culture can make to our understanding of the world, and to our attempts to manage it.

As Thomas Kuhn said:

[…] when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.

Still to learn

In recent years, it has become clear that traditional Aboriginal people knew a great deal about the sky, knew the cycles of movements of the stars and the complex motions of the sun, moon and planets.

There is even found a sort of “Aboriginal Stonehenge”, that points to the sunset on midsummers day and midwinters day. And I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal astronomy.

So in the debate about whether our schools should include Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons, I argue that kids studying science today could also learn much from the way that pre-contact Aboriginal people used observation to build a picture of the world around them.

This “ethno-science” is similar to modern science in many ways, but is couched in appropriate cultural terms, without expensive telescopes and particle accelerators.

So if you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Animating life: bringing science to the YouTube generation

Animation screenshot

Distilling serious health issues – such as inflammatory proteins (in purple) in type 2 diabetes – into easy-to-understand concepts is made easier using animation. Image: WEHI tv

By Seán I. O’Donoghue, OCE Science Leader

Telling science stories often involves explaining complex interactions between a cast of molecular “actors”, on a set smaller than the wavelength of light, so scientists are increasingly using animation to communicate such stories to the broader public.

This is part of a global shift in how knowledge is communicated, reflected in the rapid rise of online video content – more than 1 billion people view videos on YouTube each month.

It is important that key scientific discoveries and insights are communicated well in this new medium, especially when they can lead to improved health outcomes. However, creating enduring animations is not easy or cheap – it requires a high level of scientific accuracy and production value.

Last week, three such biomedical animations were unveiled in Melbourne – but before you marvel at the animations, let me walk you through how they were produced.

Creating social, sharable science

In 2011 I met Emmy and BAFTA winning medical animator Drew Berry from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne.

Drew uses principles from data visualisation and cinematography to create stunning biomedical animations designed not only to communicate complex science to the general public, but to inspire engagement and enthusiasm about cutting-edge biomedical research.

There is only one Drew Berry, but many compelling stories that need to be told. In 2012, together with Kate Patterson from the Garvan Institute for Medical Research in Sydney, we hatched a plan to train three new biomedical animators based in different Australian institutes (WEHI, Garvan, and CSIRO).

Thus, our project – called VizbiPlus – was born.

Our next task was to select the remaining apprentice biomedical animators. Drew’s criteria were clear: first and foremost, we looked for people with both a strong background in biology as well as a passion for communicating science visually. Pre-existing skills in animation or storytelling were of secondary importance.

Kate Patterson. Image: Naveid Ali

Kate Patterson. Image: Naveid Ali

We then went to top scientists in each institute and asked: what are the most compelling stories emerging from your research that the public needs to know? The topics were all of strong national significance, and ranged from well-known issues (such as Alzheimer’s) to rapidly emerging fields, such as the role of epigenetics in cancer.

Each animator then began work on an initial story from their institute. They had 12 months to familiarise themselves with the technology – software such as Autodesk Maya, Blender and Adobe After-Effects, which are tools commonly used by Dreamworks and Pixar. They also had to get the science right, which involved close engagement with researchers and extensive review of scientific literature.

Below are the first three animations – three more are due later this year.

1. The hungry microbiome

This animation focuses on resistant starch, a specific kind of dietary fibre. Many people already know fibre is healthy, and the animation gives us a lucid visual explanation of why, focusing on how resistant starch feeds our gut microbiome and how this benefits our health.

The animation’s companion website includes more than 90 minutes of additional video material, and shows which foods are particularly rich in resistant starch. This message is especially important to Australians: our country has one of the world’s highest rates of colorectal cancer, and lack of resistant starch in our diet is believed to be one of the major causes.

2. Cancer is not one disease

This video reveals why curing cancer is so difficult by showing us the multitude of different mistakes in DNA that can lead to cancer.

It features an interview with a patient with pancreatic cancer, lucidly explaining the urgent need we have as a society to improve patient outcomes, and pointing towards genomic sequencing of cancer as a promising new clinical research direction.

3. Inflammation and type 2 diabetes

This animation focuses on how obesity can lead to inflammatory responses that damage our bodies, leading to type 2 diabetes and other diseases.

Remix and reuse

To encourage wide dissemination and re-use of the animations, both within the scientific community and the general public, we’re releasing the full-resolution movies under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

To further encourage engagement with people not reached via traditional science communication channels, the VizbiPlus Challenge provides additional visual assets related to the animations, and we’re inviting the creative community to submit artwork inspired by the science presented in these animations.

We’re already received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the animations from colleagues and the general public worldwide. This experience has convinced me that, as scientists, we shouldn’t aspire only to inform the public about our work – we should set ourselves the larger goal of getting people inspired by and engaged with science.

Seán I. O’Donoghue receives funding from the Inspiring Australia initiative of the Federal Government.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Are you a sucker or a chewer?

By James Davidson and Pamela Tyers

How do you eat your Easter chocolate? Do you suck it or chew it? Does your tongue smear the inside of your mouth as the chocolate melts, or does it get chomped by your back teeth then sent down your throat?

It’s true, some of us suck and some of us chew. Whichever process we use to break down food in our mouth, it affects the taste sensation.

Flavour is released through the movement and time taken for taste components to hit our taste buds. Those taste components include salt, sugar and fat. If we know how to place those tasty bits into foods so that they achieve maximum delicious flavour before we digest the food, we then know how to use less of the unhealthy ingredients because our inefficient chewing means that we don’t taste much of them anyway.

For example, bread would taste unappetising if too much salt was removed out of it, but science can help us understand how to remove some of the less healthy components out of foods while retaining their familiar, delicious taste.

The life and times of a creme egg. How do you eat yours?

The life and times of a creme egg. How do you eat yours? Image: Flickr/Mark Seton

Enter our new 3D dynamic virtual mouth – the world’s first – which is helping our researchers understand how foods break down in the mouth, as well as how the food components are transported around the mouth, and how we perceive flavours. Using a nifty technique called smooth particle hydrodynamics, we can model the chewing process on specific foods and gather valuable data about how components such as salt, sugar and fat are distributed and interact with our mouths at the microscopic level.

We’re using it to make food products with less salt, sugar and fat and incorporate more wholegrains, fibre and nutrients without affecting the taste.

It’s part of research that will help us understand how we can modify and develop particular food products with more efficient release of the flavour, aroma and taste of our everyday foods.

And it’s good news for all of us. Eighty percent of our daily diet is processed foods – think breakfast cereals, sliced meats, pasta, sauces, bread and more. So, creating healthier processed foods will help tackle widespread issues such as obesity and chronic lifestyle diseases.

In fact, our scientific and nutritional advice to government and industry has so far helped remove 2,200 tons of salt from the Australian food supply, and reduced our population’s salt consumption by 4 per cent.

Oh…and we’ve also used the virtual mouth to model just how we break down our Easter chocolate.

As the teeth crush the egg, the chocolate fractures and releases the caramel. The chocolate coating collapses further and the tongue moves to reposition the food between the teeth for the next chewing cycle. The caramel then pours out of the chocolate into the mouth cavity.

With this virtual mouth, variations to thickness of chocolate, chocolate texture, caramel viscosity, and sugar, salt and fat concentrations and locations can all be modified simply and quickly to test the effects on how the flavours are released.

Now that’s something to chew on. Happy Easter!

Media contact: James Davidson, 03 9545 2185, james.davidson@csiro.au

Ancient viruses sound scary, but there’s no need to panic

As long-frozen parts of Earth thaw, it’s inevitable that old viruses will be unearthed. What risks do they have to humans? Image: Gerolf Nikolay/Flickr, CC BY-NC

As long-frozen parts of Earth thaw, it’s inevitable that old viruses will be unearthed. What risks do they have to humans? Image: Gerolf Nikolay/Flickr, CC BY-NC

By Jennifer McKimm-Breschkin, Virology Project Leader

You may have seen recently that scientists recovered and “revived” a giant virus from Siberian permafrost (frozen soil) that dates back 30,000 years.

The researchers raised concerns that drilling in the permafrost may expose us to many more pathogenic viruses. Should we be worried about being infected from the past? Can human viruses survive in this permafrost environment and come back to wreak havoc?

First, we need to examine the properties of viruses.

Not only is the recently-discovered virus old, but it is extremely large. Viruses are normally so small that between 5,000 and 100,000, placed side by side, would only measure 1mm.

An ultrathin section of a Pithovirus particle in an infected Acanthamoeba castellanii cell. Image: Julia Bartoli and Chantal Abergel, IGS and CNRS-AMU

An ultrathin section of a Pithovirus particle in an infected Acanthamoeba castellanii cell.
Image: Julia Bartoli and Chantal Abergel, IGS and CNRS-AMU

But this giant virus is about 10 times larger, and only around 500 would fit in 1mm.

The virus is elongated with a fringe around the outside, and a novel geometric hexagonal like “cork” structure at one end. It was named Pithovirus siberica, based on the Greek word pithos for a large storage container for wine or food.

Viruses themselves are not alive, but in order to reproduce, viruses need to infect a live host. Usually viruses can only infect a specific type of host, which may be bacteria, protozoa, plants, animals or humans – only rarely does the same virus infect more than one species.

The scientists had previously found similar large viruses from water. Those viruses infected amoeba, a simple single-celled organism.

When looking for large viruses in the permafrost they thought amoeba would again be a likely host, so they mixed the permafrost soil samples with amoeba, and saw the amoeba dying, indicating that they were infected with the ancient virus.

Breaking down a virus

Simplistically, a virus is like a bag of genes. The genes contain the necessary information to make thousands of copies of that virus once it enters the host cell.

Image: Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Image: Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Most viruses are very unstable outside their host, lasting only a few hours to a few days in the environment. In addition to UV exposure, the drier and warmer it is, the faster their loss of viability. If the virus does not find a new host to infect fairly rapidly it will degrade, and no longer be infectious.

Because viruses are fragile, they’re normally stored frozen at -70C in laboratories, but they also need to be rapidly frozen and rapidly thawed to stop them degrading.

Even at -20C they are not stable, so in the permafrost environment they are likely to have been exposed to drying conditions prior to freezing, and possibly multiple cycles of slowly freezing and thawing, which would also lead to degradation of many viruses.

Not only do viruses infect specific hosts, but even their means of entry into that host is specific. Some viruses infect by the respiratory route, some via ingestion and others by direct contact with bodily fluids.

For a virus to infect us from this ancient permafrost they would need to infect us by the correct route.

So what should we be worried about?

It is more likely that a virus posing any threat to humans would be found protected in a mummified body rather than in the environment.

The dumbbell-shaped structure inside smallpox contains viral DNA. Image: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library

The dumbbell-shaped structure inside smallpox contains viral DNA. Image: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library

Scientists a few years ago found a Siberian family buried in a single grave dating from around 300 years ago. Their common grave suggested there had been an epidemic which rapidly killed the family, and smallpox was the most likely culprit.

They successfully isolated some fragments of some of the genes of smallpox virus, but there was no evidence of intact genes, and thus no intact virus. And this was only 300 years old compared to the 30,000 years for the amoeba virus.

Influenza is another virus which may have been around since early Egyptian times. Samples from the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918 have also provided an insight into how influenza virus fares over time.

Back in 1997 tissue samples were taken from a body which had been buried since 1918 in the permafrost in Brevig Mission, Alaska.

While scientists were again able to find many fragments of influenza virus genes, there was not a set of complete genes found. Piecing all those fragments together allowed scientists to synthesise the 1918 pandemic virus in the laboratory, but no intact virus was recovered from the body.

Should we be concerned about other prehistoric viruses? The peksy little influenza virus that circulates every winter is currently a much greater threat than these ancient giants.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Baking bread by the numbers

Whether it’s sourdough, seeded rye, gluten-free or plain old white, there’s nothing like tucking into a fresh slice of bread. And it’s little wonder this age-old staple tastes so good – experts have been perfecting the art of bread making for thousands of years.

If we had to name who’s involved in bread making, most of us would probably identify the baker, the farmer who grows the wheat and maybe even the miller who grinds the wheat into flour. But how many people would think of the humble statistician? Dr Emma Huang would – and she’s eager to prove their worth in the process.

Statistical genius (er, geneticist) Emma Huang (second from left) is crunching the numbers for a better loaf of bread.

Statistical genius Emma Huang (second from left) is crunching the numbers for a better loaf of bread.

Emma is a statistical geneticist working with our Computational Informatics and Food Futures teams. She spends her days searching through thousands of genes for the few that affect yield and disease resistance in wheat.

By understanding the complex genetics of cultivated plants like wheat, Emma is helping farmers select the best crop varieties needed to produce the perfect loaf of bread.

“The impact of statistics in bread making starts well before preheating the oven. Statisticians are crucial in implementing efficient experimental design to compare different varieties of wheat for desirable characteristics,” says Emma.

After completing a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at Caltech and a Doctor of Philosophy in Biostatistics at the University of North Carolina, Emma left the States to join our team in Brisbane.

Here she is using her mathematical expertise to detect regions of the wheat plants genome – or its inheritable traits – that are directly related to enhanced crop performance. This allows breeders to selectively breed specific genes, reducing the amount of time it takes to improve our food supply.

Her goal is to eventually be able to model the entire process of bread making, incorporating the effects of environment and genetics all the way from growing plants in the field, to milling the flour and baking the bread.

Performing some personal culinary research at the world famous El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Spain.

Performing some personal culinary research at the infamous El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Spain.

When she’s not crunching numbers in the name of food, Emma does her own private research into the best cuisine the world has to offer, indulging at world class restaurants like Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca. But fitness freaks don’t fret, she works off the extra calories playing water polo and going for ocean swims.

“Sometimes I think I was destined to be a statistical geneticist. Both my mother and aunt are qualified statisticians, my siblings all studied mathematics at university, and even my fiancé is a statistician!”

Who better to investigate the impact of genetics on our everyday life?

For more information on careers at CSIRO, follow us on LinkedIn.

Big screen premiere for life’s micro marvels

It’s often hard to understand what’s happening inside us, because the processes and phenomena that influence our bodies and impact our health are invisible.

Not being able to understand why we’re sick or why our body is acting the way it does can add to the stress and strain of illness.

But now, a new generation of movie makers are drawing back the curtain, revealing the hidden secrets of our marvellous biology and setting new standards for communicating biological science to the world.

Kate Patterson, Chris Hammang and Maja Divjak on the red carpet.

Animators Kate Patterson, Chris Hammang and Maja Divjak on the red carpet.

Three spectacular new biomedical animations were premiered today during a red carpet event at Federation Square in Melbourne.

The molecular movies bring to life some very complex processes, researched by health researchers and detailed in scientific journals most of us never see. They showcase the work of VIZBIplus – Visualising the Future of Biomedicine, a project that is helping to make the invisible visible, so that unseen bodily processes are easier to understand, which will help us make better choices about our health and lifestyle.

With BAFTA and Emmy award winning biomedical animator Drew Berry as mentor, three talented scientific animators – Kate Patterson (Garvan Institute of Medical Research), Chris Hammang (CSIRO) and Maja Divjak (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) – have created biomedically accurate animations, showing what actually happens in our bodies at the micro scale.

The animators used the same or similar technology as Dreamworks and Pixar Animation Studios, as well as video game creators, to paint mesmerising magnifications of our interior molecular landscapes. While fantastic, the animations are not fantasies. They are well-researched 3D representations of cutting-edge biomedical research.

Kate Patterson’s animation shows that cancer is not a single disease. She highlights the role of the tumour suppressor protein p53, known as ‘the guardian of the cell’, in the formation of many cancer types.

Chris Hammang’s animation describes how starch gets broken down in the gut. It is based on our very own health research about resistant starch, a type of dietary fibre found in foods like beans and legumes that protects against colorectal cancer – one of Australia’s biggest killers. Chris shows us the ‘why’ behind advice to change our dietary habits.

An animated gif for resistant starch taken from the movie, 'The Hungry Microbiome'

‘The Hungry Microbiome’ animates how resistant starch works in our bodies.

Maja Divjak’s animation highlights how diseases associated with inflammation, such as type 2 diabetes, are ‘lifestyle’ diseases that represent some of the greatest health threats of the 21st century.

With our current ‘YouTube generation’ opting to watch rather than read, biomedical animations will play a key role in revealing the mysteries of science. These videos will allow researchers to communicate the exciting and complex advances in medicine that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

Watch all the videos here and be among the first to see these amazing visualisations!



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