The spice is right: how curry and the cloud may improve Alzheimer’s testing

By Carrie Bengston, James Davidson and Olivier Salvado

Mmm . . . lovely! A hot Indian curry is simmering away on the stove on a wintry night. The smell of spices fills the kitchen. One of the spices is turmeric, from the ginger family. Its vibrant yellow colour comes from the compound curcumin which is finding a use in clinical tests for Alzheimers disease (AD).

Who knew? Soon everyone will! We’re presenting our research this week at a major conference in Copenhagen, AAIC2014.

Indian curry in a dish

Curry night! The golden yellow spice turmeric contains curcumin – a key ingredient of a new eye test for Alzheimer’s

A clinical trial of the spice-infused eye test is being led by our own Dr Shaun Frost and team, with WA’s Edith Cowan University, US company NeuroVision Imaging, and the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation in Perth. Several hundred volunteers have taken part. They include healthy people, mildly cognitively impaired people and patients with AD. It’s all part of the Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle study of Aging (AIBL)

The trial asks volunteers to come along to two visits for retinal fluorescence imaging, ie an eye scan. This is quick and painless. Patients sit in front of a specialised camera and a photo is taken of the retina at the back of their eye.

Patient having eye scanned by researcher

Dr Shaun Frost takes a photo of the back of a patient’s eyes, not for Instagram but for a clinical trial

Between visits, volunteers eat some curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques, the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimers, and fluoresces. The plaques (if there are any) show up in the eye scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured. The data is then used to calculate a special number for each patient, a retinal amyloid index (RAI), and compared between healthy, mildly cognitively impaired and AD patients.

Bright spots showing Alzheimer's plaques in retinal scan

Amyloid plaques, a sign of Alzheimer’s, show up in retinal scan as fluorescent spots as curcumin binds to them

Encouragingly, as we announced this week, early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, retinal imaging may be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of AD. Combined with results of cognitive tests and other markers it could help doctors diagnose AD more confidently.

Eye scans like this also find plaques when they’re smaller than the ones in brain scans, potentially finding signs of AD earlier – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear. If diagnosed, AD patients could start treatment sooner and have regular eye scans to see which treatments work best for them.

Brain imaging on the cloud

From curry to the cloud. More research presented this week is about more accurately interpreting brain images sometimes used to diagnose AD.

To get a brain scan, a patient lies on a bed in a large machine like a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Positron Emission tomography (PET) scanner. These machines record a series of images through the brain, which are then visually checked by a radiologist who compiles a report for the patient’s doctor.

This visual inspection can be subjective, tedious and time consuming. But recent advances in scientific computing and machine learning allows systems to accurately measure features of the 3D scan, such as brain size or concentration of a tracer molecule, that support a diagnosis.

Using these techniques, a new trend is emerging for improving radiologists’ productivity. Scanners and specialised medical software can report quantitative values and compare them to the values expected for normal, healthy patients – just like blood test results from a pathology lab do.

Our researchers, led by health imaging specialist Associate Prof Olivier Salvado, have just released a new cloud computing application, MILXCloud, that automatically delivers standardised radiology reports.

brain surface showing the concentration of a radioactive dye imaged by PET scan

Our new software, MILXCloud, automates brain scan analysis and reporting on the Cloud

Users will be able to upload a PET scan and within 15 minutes be emailed a one page quantitative report showing a diagram of the brain with colour coded values compared with what’s normal. This data will help support diagnosis by the radiologist and enhance delivery of eHealth services.

Whether it’s curry or the Cloud, the future of Alzheimer’s detection sure looks bright.

Media: Andreas Kahl  |  0407 751 330  |

Women can help bridge the ‘valley of death’ in science innovation

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

By Cathy Foley, President of Science and Technology Australia

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 and my time as NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year draws to a close, I have been thinking about diversity in the workplace, and in particular, the relationship between diversity and innovation.

Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.

We don’t have to look far from our own backyard to see examples of this. The rapid global expansion of wireless communications is in part possible because of the now widely acknowledged work by John O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO. Wi-Fi is now estimated to be used in more than 3 billion devices worldwide.

Given the huge benefits that innovation can bring – economically and socially – we should be doing everything we can to encourage environments where this type of thinking and practice can thrive. One of the most effective ways to do this would be achieve gender balance in our innovation system.

The gender balance

There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender-balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.

Reports also suggest that advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP) and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education. Surely this can only be a good thing.

So where exactly are we at? As a nation we have achieved great things. Last year Australia was named the country with the highest quality of life in the world, according to the OECD better life index.

The gender gap

But we still have considerable work to do in many ways, including closing the gender gap in the workplace. The World Economic Forum has reported that in 2013 Australia continues to sit at 24th in closing this gap – just above Ecuador and Mozambique.

Australia still has only 17.6% representation of women on ASX 200 boards (as of 14 February 2014), and almost a quarter of boards of the ASX 200 still do not have any females at all.

Women working in science remain hugely underrepresented in leadership roles and some areas of physics and engineering have as little as 5% female participation.

The Australian Businesswomen’s Network says that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men. Despite this, a US study has found that female-owned companies are less likely to attract private investment compared to male-owned companies.

The recipe for success

If the nexus of women, science and business is the recipe for success in innovation, then how do women, science and business meet?

Equity, diversity and the lost opportunity of not capturing the full human potential are important arguments for having more women involved in science, technology and business.

But I have a new reason. As the traditional “social organisers” women bring a lot to the table. Business and science success is all about relationships and networking. You have to meet to do business.

Take the science world as an example. On average it takes about 20 years for a discovery to develop into a product. This has been an international rule of thumb. Everyone wants this to happen faster.

When you look at the reason for the delay, it is often when the development gets caught up in what is often called the “valley of death” or a black hole in the commercialisation process which can add years to transitioning time. Translating a discovery in the science lab to the engineering and development, then finally securing industry adoption can be a tortuous process.

What women can do

Women can offer a great deal in making that link as years of social conditioning means that it comes naturally to us.

Could the gender gap be a factor holding back the transition of science to industry, leading to missed opportunities? The diversity that women bring as scientists, technologists, engineers and nascent entrepreneurs might be the answer.

If women’s participation is a demonstrated element for business success and innovation is the essential ingredient for businesses to flourish, then why have we not embraced the opportunity to boost the role of women in science and business? Perhaps if we did we would witness greater translation of research to industry and our economic success would grow even more.

So at the end of a year thinking about what needs to change if we are to grow our economic and social prosperity, I think that increasing the participation of women in science, technology and business (big and small) is critical if Australia is to continue to have world leading quality of life, close the gender gap and have internationally competitive businesses.

Economic and social prosperity depends on change. This is one change we need to make now.

Cathy Foley is one of the keynote speakers at the Open Space free event today at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm 20/2/14.

Cathy Foley is affiliated with CSIRO. She is Chief of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering where she has worked for 29 years.

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

Why we ♥ science

As many spend big this Valentine’s Day on roses, chocolates and novelty balloons – $791.4 million is expected to be spent nationally – we think that love is all you need. Over the past few months, we’ve had a summer romance-of-sorts with some of Australia’s brightest young minds. We’re talking about our vacation scholarship program, where about 200 undergraduate students spend their summer working on research projects across the country, from searching for black holes with our Parkes radio telescope to helping develop CO2 absorbent polymers.

This week, a group of our summer students got together for our annual Big Day In at the University of New South Wales, where they presented about their summer research. The student who took out the top presentation prize, Fletcher Talbot, worked on a gesture recognition system for the Museum Robot, or “M-Bot”, which roams the galleries of the National Museum of Australia. Fletcher created 40 custom hand gestures the M-Bot can detect.

Move, robot.

Fletcher’s gesture recognition system in action.

The students also took the opportunity to declare their love for science. “I love Science because it’s a way of understanding the world,” and “I love Science because it’s really innovative, it’s always changing and it’s really dynamic.” Check out the video below.

Video transcript available here.

Why do you love science? Let us know in the comments.

And happy Valentine’s Day.

Here’s more information on our scholarship programs and careers with us.

Our gang of teen geniuses

It’s 1984. Shoulder pads, Walkmans and  Macs were all the rage… and so were the Sci-Five. Well, at least in ‘science circles’ they were, as they battled it out for the BHP Science Prize.

They were our answer to a superhero gang, in that adorable-geeky kind of way. There was Geraldine who discovered a new species of goanna, and casually kept a two-metre pregnant python in her room. Then there was Tim who spent his life intimately studying wild duck behaviour, and Lindy who experimented with the effects of common drugs on mice. Darren was a budding physicist who came up with his own explanation for the “red-shift” of distant galaxies, and Robert designed a computer-based system for tracking boomerangs.

Here they are in action.

Back then the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards were Australia’s most prestigious school science awards – and not much has changed today. The Awards recognise the innovation and creativity of our youngest and brightest sparks.

Now in their 33rd year, the entries are just as inspiring as those of the Sci-Five. Here are just a few.

Jake's Swirlesque glove in action

Jake’s Swirlesque glove in action.

The force is strong with Swirlesque

Imagine if you could turn on a light or play a DVD with the wave of your hand. Jake Coppinger’s Swirlesque glove lets you do just that.

It detects hand gestures, allowing us to control a range of devices like smartphones, computers, televisions and lightbulbs with the simple flick of a wrist.

To use Swirlesque you simply put the glove on, launch the app on a smartphone and press a button to connect via Bluetooth to the phone. The buttons in the Android app control the operation mode, which selects what gestures are assigned to.

Check it out in action.

Ben built his first mini bike out of spare BMX parts.

Ben built his first mini bike out of spare BMX parts.

On yer bamboo bike

Over 100 million bicycles are manufactured worldwide each year – that’s about twice the number of motor vehicles. They only use 2 per cent as much energy as cars per passenger-kilometer, but they are typically made from expensive, heavy metals like steel.

Ben Beagley wants to change this. Using the spare bamboo in his garage, he designed and constructed an organic, lightweight bamboo bike.

This is a much cheaper alternative to the traditional bike that uses the strength and flexibility of bamboo to replace heavy, industrial metal components.

Saving our troubled waters

Liam's project could be they key to reducing waste in our waterways.

Liam’s project could be they key to reducing waste in our waterways.

When you live in the world’s driest inhabitable continent, it’s important that clean rainwater goes into our drainage systems without picking up pollutants like litter, chemicals and sediments.

Liam Grieve has looked at whether wetland plants could be effective at removing these nutrients from waterways, leading to a cleaner, healthier environment.

He set up experiments running nutrient-enriched water through three simulated wetland environments, and discovered the plants could effectively filter nutrients from the water.

To infinity and beyond

The space race might be well and truly over, but that’s not stopping Jack Allison. Combining his love of electronics and physics, he has investigated a new way to revolutionise space exploration.

The sky is the limit for Jack, winner of his school Pedal Prix series in 2013.

The sky’s the limit for bright spark Jack Allison.

Jack has designed and created an enhancement to help improve the performance of rail guns – also known as electrically powered projectile launchers – to demonstrate their potential for launching spacecraft into orbit.

He built a test rig and light-gate to measure the effect of this enhancement at different voltages, and looked at how the projectile responded magnetically when fired.

You can hear their full stories and more in the video below.


The winners will be announced at Melbourne’s ZINC on Tuesday 4 February from 11am AEDT. Head to BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards for more information.

Media: Huw Morgan. P: +61 8 8303 8857 M: +61 417 834 547 E:

Be good to your brain

Today marks the start of Dementia Awareness Week 2013, a national campaign to raise the profile of the many different forms of dementia, from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s disease.

More than 300,000 Aussies are estimated to be living with dementia – a figure which is set to almost triple by 2050. So how can we help lower our risk in the future?

Experts from Alzheimer’s Australia say we need to understand the connection between our physical health and our brain health. As we get older, it’s important that we take care of both our bodies and our brains.

It's true what they say - a healthy body is a healthy mind. Image: Shutterstock.

It’s true what they say – a healthy body is a healthy mind. Image: Shutterstock.

Serious chronic illnesses like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, plus risk factors including depression, obesity and sleep are all associated with cognitive decline. If left unchecked, these conditions can increase our risk of developing a range of debilitating diseases including dementia.

So while there may not be a cure, we can help reduce our risk of dementia by maximising our brain health and managing our blood sugar, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body weight.

Learn more about our work in the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.


Dementia Awareness Week runs from 16 to 22 September. Head to Alzheimer’s Australia for more information.

Media: Andreas Kahl, T: 08 8303 8888 M: 0407 751 330

A Deadly night to remember

It’s not often we get to dress up and hit the red carpet, so when it happens we like to brag about it.

Last night we took to the Sydney Opera House to celebrate the 19th annual Deadlys. These prestigious awards recognise the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across a range of fields in our community.

Our Chief Executive tries her hand at photobombing.

Our Chief Executive tries her hand at photobombing.

While it was a nice excuse to rub shoulders with superstar Jessica Mauboy and photobomb RedFoo from LMFAO, that’s not why we were there.

This year a new award was added to the Deadlys – the inaugural Deadly Award for Indigenous Scientist or Science Project of the Year – and we were chuffed to be sponsoring it. The award recognises the significant contributions made by Indigenous people working in science roles or science projects.

Nominations were received from members of the public and five finalists were selected by a panel of deadly experts.

And the winner is: Gerry Turpin.

Gerry is an ethnobotanist at the Australian Tropical Herbarium in Cairns. He is working with our researchers and a range of other organisations to develop an Indigenous driven tropical ethnobotanical centre, known as TIEC.

The TIEC is the first of its kind in Australia and will help Traditional Owners in tropical Queensland apply their Indigenous environmental knowledge for cultural use on-country.

A big congratulations to Gerry and all of this year’s winners.

Maths at the zoo

By Carrie Bengston

You might not realise, but we use maths in nearly all of our daily activities. Every time we check the weather, use the internet or travel anywhere, maths plays a part. On a larger scale, maths can even be used to protect our flora and fauna from invasive pests. Our Biosecurity Flagship Director Dr Gary Fitt explains.

Zoos are a great place to visit but we don’t want Australia to become one. Image: Shutterstock.

Zoos are a great place to visit but we don’t want Australia to become one. Image: Shutterstock.

Q: You’ve said we don’t want Australia to become a zoo. What do you mean?

A:  Zoos have collections of animals from all around the world. While they’re fun to visit, we don’t want Australia to become one. Australia already has its own magnificent native flora and fauna. We’re an island continent and our wildlife really is unique in the world.

Take the Gouldian Finch for example. I’ve just spent a week in the Kimberley region of WA observing and counting these spectacularly colourful little birds. These endangered species are found nowhere else in the world but northern Australia. It would be tragic if they were lost from nature because of the introduction of a pest or disease.

With the world so connected by air and sea, the risks are real that Australia could become a zoo of introduced species alongside a reduced set of native ones.

It’s not just animals either – our plants are unique too. Botany Bay, where Captain James Cook landed, is named after the science of plants because so many unusual plant specimens were collected there by Joseph Banks. Unfortunately, our bushland today can become a new home for invasive plants, like the garden escapees lantana and privet.

Australia is home to some of the world's most unique and precious wildlife, just like the Gouldian Finch. Image: Cheryl Mares.

Australia is home to some of the world’s most unique and precious wildlife, just like the Gouldian Finch. Image: Cheryl Mares.

We don’t want invasive animals, plants or even micro-organisms from other parts of the world coming in and getting a foothold. Australia’s ecosystems would change forever, affecting health and agriculture. We need to protect our own biodiversity as much as we can. Our biosecurity research is key to that. It’s in our interests and future generations’ interests to get that right.

Q: You’ve enlisted mathematicians and statisticians to work on this research. What do they bring to the field of biosecurity?

Biosecurity is in a sense a game of probabilities. In this game the mathematical sciences are critical in two ways.

The first is to do with risk. Maths can help us determine the chances of a particular pest arriving and surviving in Australian environments, often in the face of uncertainties. By better understanding the risks and pathways, we can optimise investments in the right kind of surveillance systems. For instance, some of our projects quantify the riskiest pathways of entry in Australia, while others look at where to focus surveillance in ports.

The second is to do with response. Once a pest has arrived here, how do we get rid of it or limit its spread? We need to choose strategies that have the greatest chance of success. Once implemented, we need to know whether those methods are working.

Image: Cheryl Mares.

Maths and stats play a vital role in protecting Australia from invasive pests. Image: Cheryl Mares.

By making decisions based on statistical inference from the available data, rather than gut feel or vested interests, we can help policy makers and operational Biosecurity players better target funds for response. Maths is also important for modelling the life cycle stages of invasive species which might be most vulnerable to biological control.

Q: It’s Canberra’s centenary year. How has research in Canberra contributed to our understanding of bioinvasion and biosecurity?

A: Canberra is and has been home to some of Australia’s most famous research into invasive pests.

Canberra was where the ANU’s Frank Fenner worked on myxamatosis with CSIRO’s Ian Clunies-Ross and Macfarlane-Burnett. Mid-last century, they famously injected themselves with the myxoma virus, brought in to control the country’s rabbit plague, to prove it wouldn’t infect humans. 

For years, our work has played a vital role in controlling 'those pesky wabbits'.

For years, we’ve been helping to control ‘those pesky wabbits’.

The introduction of myxamotosis was a big step forward in controlling a pest that had devastated huge areas of farmland and was costing millions in lost production. We’re continuing our work here to improve the effectiveness of the next generation rabbit biocontrol agent, calicivirus.


September 12 – 13 is the Biosecurity and Bioinvasion workshop in Canberra. Our experts are discussing how maths is essential in protecting Australia from the threat of pests and diseases as part of the International Year of the Maths of Planet Earth.

Robots, radar and exploding gummy bears

As part of National Science Week, the Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies – affectionately known as QCAT – is inviting members of the public to a special Open Day to celebrate 20 years of research in Pullenvale.

Showcasing the amazing science and technology developed at the centre, the day will include shows from CSIRO Education, as well as demonstrations, displays and discussions on technologies that are transforming Australia’s industries.

Meet Dr Rob from TV’s SCOPE science show, talk to our experts about the latest innovations in energy, mining and robotics, see the labs and discover what amazing work is going on in your neighbourhood.

Dr Rob

Dr Rob will be doing some ‘scien-terrific’ experiments for all the family to enjoy… gummy bear beware! (credit: courtesy of SCOPE, Channel Ten)

QCAT’s Executive Manager, Dr Michael Brünig, says Australia’s best and brightest scientists are eager to share their knowledge and experience with the community.

“From developing the world’s biggest robot to the world’s most accurate underground longwall coal mining guidance system, research coming out of QCAT has been at the forefront of Australia’s innovation for the past two decades,” said Dr Brünig.

“We want everyone who visits the Open Day to help us celebrate this milestone by leaving with at least one ‘wow’ moment. Whether that happens by talking to our researchers, watching Dr Rob blow up a gummy bear or touring labs by remote control with our robot, there is sure to be a ‘scien-terrific’ experience for everyone.”

Robots to delight: check out the aerial drones being developed on site.

Robots to delight: check out the aerial drones being developed on site.

Highlights include:

  • Science shows for all the family at 11.30am, 12.30pm and 1.30pm
  • Stealth robots and unmanned aerial vehicles
  • 3D mapping and clever navigation systems
  • Public lectures in the auditorium
  • Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) hypersonic research
  • Displays from Rio Tinto Alcan and Metso Process Technology and Innovation
  • A chance to win one of seven Raspberry Pi® mini-computers that you can code at home.

For more information visit

What: Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies Open Day
When: 10am to 3pm, Saturday 17 August 2013
Where: 1 Technology Court, Pullenvale 4069 (located at on the corner of Moggill Road and Bainbridge Drive, Pullenvale)

Important information for visitors: QCAT is an industrial research facility and so for safety reasons, visitors are advised to wear closed footwear (i.e. no thongs, clogs or sandals).

About the Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies

The Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies (QCAT) is Australia’s largest integrated research and development precinct for the resources and associated advanced technology industries.

Officially opened in 1993, QCAT was established as a cooperative venture between CSIRO and the State of Queensland as a centre of excellence in mining research, iron ore and coal processing, energy research, autonomous systems and social science.

Along with CSIRO, QCAT also houses the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and commercial tenants Applied Mining Technologies Pty Ltd, BHP Billiton Carbon Steel Technical Marketing Group, CET Group, GeoTek Solutions, Metso and Rio Tinto Alcan Queensland Research and Development Centre.

QCAT has over 380 workers on site, making it one of the largest centres of employment in the region.

Art and science cross-pollinate

Meet the people who collaborated with artist Eleanor Gates-Stuart on StellrScope. You can click on the images to read their experiences of the science-art collaboration.

Eleanor is our science art fellow, and she created StellrScope for her Centenary of Canberra Science Art Commission.

You can see the 3d-interactive artworks she created in the StellrScope exhibition at Questacon this August.

You can also see her work this month at Hot Seeds at CSIRO Discovery.

Science meets art at StellrScope

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These beautiful artworks were created by Eleanor Gates-Stuart, CSIRO Science Art Fellow. She created them for StellrScope, her Centenary of Canberra Science Art Commission.

In StellrScope Eleanor explores the story connecting the Canberra region to wheat, which is Australia’s major food crop. The region has been a focus of wheat research from the times of pioneer wheat breeder William Farrer to today’s research at CSIRO.

Eleanor’s art is on display at the StellrScope exhibition at Questacon this August. StellrScope features video, print and installation artworks, so you can interact with the works and experience layers of biological information about wheat.

You can see some of Eleanor’s other work at Hot Seeds at CSIRO Discovery, which is also open during August.

Preventing a pathway for pathogens

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By guest blogger Professor Peter Doherty

Photo of the tail of three planes

Image: caribb/Flickr

It’s no big secret that we’re citizens of an increasingly globalized planet where ideas, information, goods and services get around very fast. One of the downsides of this brave new world is that the same is true for pests and pathogens.

The security services, customs officers and quarantine regulations/officials protect Australia from such invasions as much as possible, although given the volume of trade and human movement, stopping bad things at the borders can only be part of any effective strategy.

There’s also a need for continual environmental monitoring to make sure that nothing dangerous slips through which could compromise Australia’s agricultural industries, wildlife and natural environments.

When it comes to biodefence against invading viruses, bacteria, insects, plants, marine parasites (on the hulls of ships) and so forth, we have layers of operation that function both at the Federal and State level.

This is, of course, where the wonderful high security CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) comes into its own, providing the essential diagnostic tools and facilities for safe studies of deadly viruses in animals that are unique to the South-east Asian region.

Photo of the exterior of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria

Apart from its service to the veterinary world, AAHL has also pioneered studies of bat-borne viruses like Hendra and Nipah (active to the North-West of Australia) that can transmit to people from infected horses and pigs respectively. These are classic cases of the “One Health” view CSIRO takes that stresses the intimate interplay between animal disease and human disease. Apart from the Henipaviruses, AAHL also has the facilities that allow CSIRO researchers to study the avian influenza A viruses, that are a looming threat to both domestic poultry and people.

An artificially coloured electron micrograph of the new-SARS like virus – now known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – which has caused an ongoing outbreak of respiratory disease and has spread from the Middle East to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Tunisia.

An artificially coloured electron micrograph of the new-SARS like virus – now known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – which has caused an ongoing outbreak of respiratory disease and has spread from the Middle East to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Tunisia. (click for full size image)

The new CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship pulls together research capability from across CSIRO together with a broad range of collaborating centres and groups. Sharing information is vital for such activities.  Clearly, Australia cannot afford to have “silos” and artificial barriers that in any sense compromise our biological security. Of ongoing concern are the hi-path variants of the avian influenza H5N1 viruses that continue to circulate in wild and domestic birds (and occasionally infect and kill people) in the countries to the north-west of Australia. While we’ve avoided that particular threat so far, the situation requires constant monitoring.

Another threat is the recently emerged H7N9 avian influenza virus and MERS, a novel coronavirus in the Middle East.

I’ve said nothing about plant, insect and fish pathogens, but there are many diseases of key species, such as bees, trout and salmon that we have so far managed to keep at bay.

The new CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship is a great step in the right direction, and we need to continue doing all that we possibly can to ensure the long-term health and wellbeing of all the life forms that inhabit our extraordinary and unique country.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Author

Photo of Peter Doherty

Peter Doherty trained initially as a veterinarian and shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning our immune defence against viruses. He published the non-fiction book “Sentinel Chickens: What Birds Tell Us About our Health and our World” in 2012, and his new book “Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know” will be available in Australia from October.

Follow Peter on twitter: @ProfPCDoherty

Controlling ‘those pesky wabbits’ on land and in water

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By Michelle Beltrame, Ken McColl and Tanja Strive

‘Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, we’re wesearching viruses’.

If Elmer Fudd is the arch-enemy of Bugs Bunny, then it’s safe to say that we’re not only the arch-enemy of the European rabbit, but the fish known as the ‘rabbit of the waterways’ – the European carp.

We’re arming ourselves with viruses with the aim of keeping these two invasive species in check and to help protect Australia’s economy and environment. This strategy is called biological control (‘biocontrol’ for short) – using disease to tackle invasive pests.

The battle of the rabbit

Black and white photo of rabbits clustering around a small waterhole

This photo was taken under controlled conditions during myxoma virus trials on Wardang Island off South Australia in 1938 (click for full size image). Photo: M W Mules/CSIRO.

The European rabbit is a serious threat to agriculture and biodiversity in Australia. Myxoma virus, released in 1950 and Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD), released in 1996, have proven the only effective means to significantly reduce rabbit numbers. The benefits to the agricultural industries of these two biocontrol viruses are estimated at $70 billion.

The European rabbit was brought to Australia onboard the First Fleet in 1788, but only became a major pest in 1859 when 24 wild rabbits were released by a wealthy Victorian grazier keen on the sport of hunting, and, …well… they bred like wild rabbits! Soon millions of rabbits were competing with Australia’s livestock for feed and were damaging the environment and threatening our native animals.

Our predecessor, CSIR, conducted initial trials of myxomatosis that ultimately resulted in the release of the virus in 1950. It was the world’s first successful biocontrol program of a mammalian pest, taming a scourge that had threatened Australian agriculture and environment.

Lionel Bull, Chief of the CSIR Division of Animal Health and Nutition, releasing the first infected rabbits as part of the myxoma virus trial. (click for full size image)

Lionel Bull, Chief of the CSIR Division of Animal Health and Nutition, releasing the first infected rabbits as part of the myxoma virus trial. (click for full size image)

The initial release of myxoma virus led to a dramatic reduction of Australia’s rabbit population – killing 99.8 per cent of rabbits that caught the infection in some areas. Because the virus is spread by mosquitoes, it had its greatest impact in the highest rainfall areas but didn’t work as well in arid zones where mosquitoes can’t survive.

By the late 1950s, resistance to the myxoma virus was starting to build up in Australia’s rabbits. The virus became less effective and rabbit numbers increased, but not to pre-1950 levels.

RDC was first discovered in China in 1984 and soon after in other countries in Asia, Europe and in Mexico. The viral disease affects only European rabbits, and its discovery offshore alerted scientists to a potential new biocontrol for wild rabbits in Australia.

The introduction of calicivirus in Australia in 1996 again reduced rabbit numbers drastically, but it had greater impact in the arid zones and least impact in the higher rainfall areas. A few years ago we discovered that Australian rabbits in the higher rainfall areas actually carry a native calicivirus that may provide some immunity to the disease. This benign form of the virus is very similar, so we suspect it’s acting as an imperfect natural vaccine against the more virulent strain.

Calicivirus and myxomatosis are still having an impact, but over the years their effectiveness has declined. As a result, we’re currently researching different caliciviruses in Australian wild rabbits, and their interactions with RCD to help determine potential future implementations for rabbit biocontrol.

Curbing our carp numbers

Photo of carp jumping out of water

A European Carp. Image: Dirk-Jan Kraan/Flickr

Carp is a pest associated with the poor health of our rivers and wetlands. The fish was first introduced to Australia more than 100 years ago and is now rampant in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Image: sophietica/Flickr.

Koi Carp. Image: sophietica/Flickr.

We’re currently investigating a disease called cyprinid herpesvirus-3, also known as koi herpesvirus (or KHV), as a potential new biocontrol agent to help eradicate carp from Australia. The virus first appeared in Israel in 1998, and spread rapidly throughout much of the world, although not to Australia or New Zealand. It causes high death rates in common carp and in the ornamental variety of carp known as koi carp. No other species of fish, including goldfish, are known to be affected by it.

We’re conducting our research within the world’s most sophisticated high containment facility within the CSIRO-Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), where we’re undertaking rigorous tests to determine the virus’ suitability for controlling carp.

We’ve identified that CyHV-3 does kill Australian carp, and it kills them quickly, and current research has shown that the virus doesn’t affect native Australian or any other introduced species of fish.

Over the next few years we’ll continue to test the susceptibility of other fish species to CyHV-3 and address questions regarding the safety of possible widespread distribution of the virus, both for humans and for other animal species

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Authors

Photo of Ken MccollDr Ken McColl, Research Scientist at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Geelong.

Ken is a veterinary virologist and pathologist specialising in the research and diagnosis of diseases of aquatic animals. For the past few years, Dr McColl’s major interest has centred on the possible use of koi herpesvirus (KHV) as a biological control agent for carp in Australia.

Photo of Tanja StriveDr Tanja Strive, Research Team Leader, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences.

Tanja is a molecular virologist, and her current research focuses on various aspects of the biological control of vertebrate pest species, in particular rabbits. Key projects investigate: a) the interactions of different co-occurring rabbit pathogens in the field and the implications for rabbit control, b) the molecular virulence mechanisms of rabbit calicivirus, c) the selection of suitable virus strains for successive and ongoing field releases, and d) The evolution of rabbit caliciviruses as a model system for emerging diseases.

Battling pests by the numbers

Biosecurity Series

By Simon Barry



Effective biosecurity protects Australia’s environment and industries, but managing risk is an uncertain business. That’s why we need statistics.

Australia’s physical isolation has fostered the development of an amazing diversity of unique plants and animals, and has protected us from many serious pests and diseases that circulate around the world.

But we’re also a nation of traders — our prosperity is built on the import and export of goods and services.

With trade, however, can come exotic pests and diseases that have significant impacts on agriculture, the environment and economy.

In Australia’s history, a number of iconic examples are etched in the national psyche.

Rabbits were introduced into Australia several times, beginning with the First Fleet in 1788.  Once established, they multiplied rapidly reaching plague proportions last century.  They, in combination with introduced red fox and feral cat populations they support, are suspected of being the main cause of species loss in Australia.

The cactus prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) was introduced to Australia to start a cochineal dye industry.  It spread quickly and at its height infested 24 million hectares of farmland with severe impacts on our agriculture.

A prickly pear site before treatment with Cactoblastis cactorum (click for a comparison of before and after)

A prickly pear site before treatment with Cactoblastis cactorum (View a comparison of before and after)

While the community narrative is often framed around fear of invasion and potentially catastrophic consequences, the policy challenges are more complex and diffuse.

Decision makers need to assess risks of importation of different goods and materials against their possible benefits.  They need to design surveillance systems to manage unacceptable risks; to certify that our exports are pest free; to predict their spread and impact when incursions of pests occur.

All of this is done against a backdrop of uncertainty.

Which species will successfully establish can be difficult to predict – impacts of exotic pests in agricultural systems may be predictable in some circumstances, but their environmental impacts are more uncertain.  The linkage between biosecurity, trade and market access means that stakeholders may have a vested interest in the process. And the data required to predict accurately how successfully pest species establish here are limited or in most cases thankfully non-existent, so secondary sources, such as observations in other countries need to be used.

This is where statistics helps inform our decisions.

Statistics deals naturally with uncertainty and explicitly considers one of the most fundamental scientific questions: What can we logically infer about the world based on limited data?

It can support the development of established methodologies, such as assessing biological control agents, but it also opens up the possibility of using other existing and new data streams such as citizen-science collected data and genomics.

When these are combined with new algorithms and high performance computing, a range of exciting new opportunities arise that mean we’re better placed to tackle these issues than ever before.

For example, we are using these new computational informatics approaches to analyse whether or not red foxes have been eradicated in Tasmania.

Photo of red fox

European red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Image: Liz Poon/CSIRO

Hard data is limited to a handful of fox carcasses discovered by members of the public, some footprints, a skull, DNA extracted from fox scats (poo) and blood found at the site of a chook pen raid from an unsighted predator.

As of 2010, the distribution of fox DNA-positive scats suggested a widespread fox population.

We’ve analysed the fox sighting data using a new statistical method known as approximate Bayesian computation, which uses computers to simulate millions of different plausible scenarios for the introduction and growth of the fox population.

Our analysis of the data up until 2013 provides different conclusions — that the introduced fox population is most likely extinct, or small and probably demographically weak.

Rather than worry us, the conflict between this result and the analysis based on scats is a healthy one and will drive research efforts to reconcile these differences.

We’re also using statistic to monitor the risk of pests and diseases which threaten Australia’s honeybee industry and many horticultural industries that rely on bees for pollination.

Australia is one of the only countries free of the mite Varroa destructor.  Varroa has had a huge impact on global beekeeping as bee populations overseas have been decimated. Thankfully, it has yet to reach Australia and here is a need for early detection so that eradication could begin.

A European honey bee prepupa with varroa mites

A European honey bee prepupa with varroa mites

We are using shipping data from the Lloyds registry and interception data on exotic bees and bee pests from Australian quarantine officers to resolve the relative risk of different overseas locations and the reduction of this risk due to journey duration.

Effective biosecurity will continue to be important in maintaining the efficiency of Australian agricultural industries and to protect the environment.

These two examples demonstrate how mathematical and statistical sciences play a key role and Australia is well placed to innovate in this area.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

We’re hosting  A Planet at Risk: Bioinvasion and Biosecurity workshop in Canberra in September. Visit the website for more details.

About the Author

Photo of Simon BarryDr Simon Barry is Program Leader of Environmental Informatics, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship.

Simon uses his expertise in modelling and monitoring methodologies to lead research projects with the aim of helping environmental resource managers and stakeholders understand what resources we have, their quality and how to manage them for sustainability.

The maths behind a zombie apocalypse

Could maths help us prepare for a zombie apocalypse? Image: Pedro Vezini.

Could maths help us prepare for a zombie apocalypse? Image: Pedro Vezini.

By Carrie Bengston

What would happen if zombies invaded the planet? World War Z tells the story with Brad Pitt and a much bigger film budget than we have.

But it will hearten you to know that a team in Canada has actually crunched the numbers for a zombie apocalypse. They created a mathematical model for zombie infection, suggesting that only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario.

The take home message from the maths? Hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em often.

Maths can help us explore all kinds of real and hypothetical scenarios. You might not think it, but maths is vital in understanding the complex and dynamic planet we call home.

This was made clear last week at Mathematics of Planet Earth Year: The Conference, where over 200 people gathered to hear what maths is telling us about our precious planet.


Maths helps us accurately measure organism characteristics through 3D phenotyping.

For our young graduate fellows who are test driving a maths research career, the conference was a chance to see the limitless applications of their chosen field. These include an amazing variety of natural and human-organised aspects of planet Earth discussed during the conference.

From understanding climate and weather patterns to identifying pests that threaten our biosecurity using 3D insect imaging, it was evident how important maths is in understanding the many challenges facing Earth today.

Mathematical modelling has even been used to protect people in earthquake-prone areas, promote sustainable dairy farming and watch a virus spread within a plant.

Maths adds a lot of value to our own research too. For instance, our mathematical scientists have contributed to important discoveries about Alzheimer’s disease. Take a look:


2013 is the International year of Mathematics of Planet Earth. Learn more about how maths and stats are helping us understand the challenges of our world.

Human ‘spillover hosts’ sounds like the plot for a Sci-Fi movie

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By John Lowenthal and Andrew Bean

Zoonoses are diseases that have the ability to spread from animals to people, and they include some very well known diseases such as tuberculosis, flu and rabies, as well as some less familiar newcomers such as the Nipah and Melaka viruses.

Electron micrograph image of H7N9 Avian Influenza Virus

Mug shot of a one of the world’s new deadly viruses, A(H7N9).The four blobs in this electron micrograph are the virus.

In recent times zoonoses have accounted for more than 70 per cent of all emerging diseases, including H7N9 and H5N1 avian influenza, SARS, and MERS. What’s interesting is that a great deal of these zoonotic viruses that now pose a problem for humans appear to originate in either bats or poultry.

This highlights our need to understand not just what is happening in the human, but also what is happening in the animal.  Wild animals such as bats and migratory water birds are the natural ‘reservoir’ hosts for many zoonotic infections and little is known about how they carry these viruses without showing signs of disease.

Other animals, including horses, pigs, chickens and even people are ‘spillover’ hosts, meaning they are highly susceptible to these viruses, and infection is usually deadly.

The recent growth and geographic expansion of human populations and the advance of agriculture into wildlife habitats has meant that now, more than ever, there is a greater risk of emerging infectious diseases being transmitted to people from wild and domesticated animals.

In addition, the impact of climate change has resulted in disturbances in eco-systems and a re-distribution of disease hosts and carriers.  Increased global travel means a greater likelihood that new infectious agents will rapidly spread amongst the human population.Infographic of recently emerged infectious diseases

The World Health Organization has warned that the source of the next human pandemic is likely to be zoonotic, and that wildlife is a prime culprit. While the current list of known emerging infectious diseases is a major concern, it is the unknown virus lurking out there, with a potential for efficient human to human transmission that may pose the biggest pandemic threat.

A rapidly spreading lethal airborne zoonotic virus would, of course, be a major concern. You may remember the 2011 movie Contagion, which showed a fast-moving epidemic and the struggle to find a cure and control the panic. The ABC’s Catalyst story Virus Hunters also demonstrates the threat of quickly spreading diseases, and looks at the research our scientists do in the high containment facilities at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

If we want to fight these emerging threats and come out on top, we need to take a different approach to what we have done in the past and integrate medical, veterinary, ecological and environmental research.

This is what we refer to as the One Health approach – a combined approach to animal, human and environmental health, and the idea that we can all benefit from working together to value and solve the health problems of the world and reduce the risk of the next pandemic.

We believe it’s important to study and compare the disease in both the natural and spillover hosts. For example, understanding the differences between the immune systems of domesticated and wild animal hosts and comparing them to people is crucial for identifying the underlying disease mechanisms involved in zoonotic infections, and for developing new strategies for disrupting their transmission to humans.

This has important implications for predicting, preventing and controlling spillover events, and for the development of new therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.

Photo of the exterior of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria

Improving knowledge, prevention and treatment of zoonoses is the focus of the One Health research that we’re undertaking with our national and international partners, and within our unique high containment facility at AAHL– the world’s most sophisticated high containment facility. Focusing our research efforts in this area will assist in facilitating the development and application of effective and sustainable community health strategies. There is a growing view that a One Health approach will be critically important for our preparedness for the next zoonotic pandemic.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Authors

 Photo of John LowenthalJohn Lowenthal is Theme Leader for A One-Health approach to Emerging Infectious Diseases, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship

John’s research is in the area of veterinary health and immunology, including studying the innate immune responses to viral diseases, assessing the ability of immune modulators such as cytokines to enhance resistance to disease and improve vaccine efficacy, using RNA interference to modulate disease-resistance, development of novel therapeutics for zoonotic viruses (H5N1 flu, Hendra virus) and the development of disease-resistant animals.

Photo of Andrew Bean

Andrew Bean is Stream Leader for Animal Biosecurity, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship.

Andrew is an immunologist working to improve animal and human health with a ‘One Health’ approach. He joined CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in 1998 and the emphasis of his work is now on the innate immune response and the therapeutic and immuno-enhancing qualities of cytokines with the potential to improve health. His current research areas include avian influenza, Hendra virus, immune molecules and receptors, developing and assessing antiviral therapy, vaccines and adjuvants and therapeutics.


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