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,

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!


Delivery day for this 3D printed bike

3D printed bike

Sam’s new 3D printed sweet ride.

By Angela Beggs

Today we joined designer Sam Froud at his studio to chat about the highly anticipated delivery of his new bike.

But it’s not just any bike that has had Sam eagerly waiting the postman; it’s one of the first ever 3D printed bikes – with parts manufactured by our 3D printing experts.

You may recall prototype #1, which we brought to you earlier this year.

Sam Froud has joined forces with the same bike company, Flying Machine, to come up with this gem, dubbed Prototype #2.

They contacted us, and once again, we used our 3D printer to make a sweet set of lugs, the small metallic components that join the tubular frame of the bike, for the two-wheeler.

The new 3D printed parts make for ‘infinite flexibility’ and generally give riders a better cycling experience.

Sam’s bike was on display all weekend at the Design Matters event in Melbourne, part of Melbourne International Design Week 2014.

Sam definitely knows design matters, especially when it comes to 3D printing bikes.  Check out our chat with Sam and watch his first ride.

Lighting up lives, literally.

When Dr Scott Watkins, one of our flexible solar cell experts, arrived in India last week, the task at hand was a very special one. He’s helping to shed light on the people of Bangalore – the country’s third most populated city.

Scott is working with the team from Pollinate Energy, a ground breaking group, whose mission is to provide solar lights to India’s urban poor.

Pollinate, founded in 2012, has a rapidly expanding team of ‘Pollinators’, local young entrepreneurs who can now grow a solid business selling solar lights to members of the community on low-cost payment plans.

Typically, kerosene lamps are used in villages to give light after dusk, however there are environmental and health issues associated with this type of lamp. Since Pollinate began, they’ve managed to save 111,572 litres of kerosene, not to mention almost 6,000,000 rupees that this kerosene would have cost.

Helping a family get a solar-powered light for their home for the very first time.

Helping a family get a solar-powered light for their home for the very first time. Photo credit: Megan Aspinall.

Scott, who was part of the team that created Australia’s largest printable solar cell last year, has ventured abroad to take part in a project to determine the impact of the new lights in the communities of Bangalore. Already, in week one, he’s come across some truly incredible stories of people whose lives have been improved by the project since its conception last year.

On his blog, Scott talks us through one of his first encounters with a community member who has one of the new lights.


Photo credit: Megan Aspinall.

“I spoke with a man one night who had been living in a tent in the community for over 20 years. He has two young boys and they used to have travel to a relative’s house to occasionally read at night,” Scott said.

“Since buying the solar-powered light over a year ago the boys have been able to study at home and the father was so proud to tell me that his boys were both now ranked first in their class. The older one, aged about 10, loves science,” he added.

Inspired by the blackout which hit India last year and left millions of people without light, the Pollinate group have now overseen the introduction of 4,500 systems reaching over 20,000 people.

At CSIRO, we’re part of the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC). VICOSC brings together over 50 researchers across Victoria who are conducting research into new materials and processes to enable the production of flexible, large area, cost-effective, reel-to-reel printable, plastic solar cells. Our work is also supported by the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovolatics, ACAP, a research consortium that is focused on developing solar technologies in Australia and through international partnerships.

Get behind Scott Watkins and follow his blog to get all the updates on the Bangalore mission with Pollinate – we think it’s seriously inspiring stuff.

Explainer: What are vector-borne diseases?

By Fiona McFarlane

When one thinks of deadly animals, the likes of sharks, snakes and spiders probably come to mind. But there’s one pesky little critter that takes the cake, and believe it or not, it’s the mosquito.

Small but deadly: the Asian tiger mosquito is one of the world's deadliest pests.

Small bite, big threat: the Asian tiger mosquito is one pest you don’t want to mess with. Image: Susan Ellis.

Mozzies are responsible for more than one million deaths each year worldwide – that’s more than one hundred times the deaths caused by sharks, crocodiles and box jellyfish combined.

Mosquitoes are best known for carrying malaria, a ‘vector-borne’ disease that around 3.4 billion people – or half of the world’s population – are at risk of contracting.

Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, are one of the world’s leading causes of death. So it’s no wonder the World Health Organization is focusing on the prevention and control of vector-borne diseases on this year’s World Health Day.

But what are they exactly, and do we need to worry about them here in Australia?’

What are vector-borne diseases?

Vector-borne diseases are caused by disease-producing microorganisms that are transmitted by blood-sucking mosquitoes, ticks and fleas known as vectors. When a vector bites another animal or human, it may transmit pathogens and parasites that can cause serious illness and even death.

The most deadly vector-borne disease, malaria, caused an estimated 660, 000 deaths in 2010. But the world’s fastest growing vector-borne disease is in fact dengue fever, with a 30-fold increase in incidence during the last 50 years. In fact 40 per cent of the world’s population is at risk of developing this disease.

With the globalisation of travel and trade, unplanned urbanisation and environmental challenges like climate change, the spread of vector-borne diseases is expected to increase around the world. We’re now seeing diseases such as dengue and West Nile encephalitis emerging in countries where they were previously unknown.

Malaria distribution across the globe. Image: BASF

Malaria distribution across the globe in 2010. Image: BASF

On the home front

Australia is in the fortunate position of not being home to some of the more serious vector-borne diseases like yellow fever, malaria, West Nile encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis and Rift Valley fever.

If you live in north Queensland chances are you will have heard of outbreaks of dengue fever transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti. But you probably haven’t heard of Chikungunya – another virus transmitted by mosquitoes that causes severe joint pain and fevers for weeks, months and sometimes years.

While the virus is not here in Australia, 126 Australians caught Chikungunya after travelling to Indonesia, India, Malaysia and PNG during 2013 – that’s an increase from 19 cases reported in the previous year.

Other vector-borne diseases such as Ross River fever and Murray Valley encephalitis are already in Australia and are being closely monitored to reduce the spread and impact of on our people.

What are we doing about it?

A red blood cell infected with malaria parasites (blue). Image: NIAID.

A red blood cell infected with malaria parasites (blue). Image: NIAID.

Our scientists are well aware of the need to take action and be prepared. They are looking at ways to reduce the transmission of these viruses, develop more effective surveillance and intervention strategies and provide Australians with early warnings of new or exotic diseases.

Recently, we opened a new insectary for the study of vector-borne diseases at our very own Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong Victoria, which houses colonies of mosquitoes. Having access to this facility will allow us to assess the ability of Australian biting insects to transmit dangerous exotic viruses.

We are also investigating the factors that influence how vectors behave in the environment and what viruses they carry. This will help improve our understanding of the virus-vector-host interaction and disease transmission.

Another point of interest is how mosquitoes and other insects develop immunity to the diseases they carry and investigating how we might increase their immunity to stop the transmission of disease.

On the maths front, our mathematical experts are using complex algorithms to predict where mosquitoes might invade and how our resources may be best deployed to fight them. They are also undertaking scoping projects to assess new and innovative approaches to mosquito control.

Other members of the team are working with the Australian National University to reduce the risk of eastern Australia being overrun by the Asian tiger mosquito, also known as the BBQ stopper, which carries diseases like dengue fever and Chikungunya.

While the risk of new and exotic diseases – and the vectors which carry them – reaching Australian shores is very real, our research will continue to help keep Australia safe from harm.


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