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.

How to create wealth from waste and reduce our landfill

Not a pile or rubbish but a rich urban mine of recyclable material. Image: Shutterstock/kanvag

Not a pile or rubbish but a rich urban mine of recyclable material. Image: Shutterstock/kanvag

By Anna Littleboy, Theme Leader, Australia’s Mineral Futures

While Australia’s rich stocks of raw mineral resources have contributed to the nation’s wealth and given us a competitive advantage we are also one of the highest waste producing nations in the world (on a per capita basis).

In 2009-10 we dumped 21.6 million tonnes of household and industrial waste in 918 landfill sites around Australia. Of all the waste we produced we recycled only about half (52%).

But can we do things differently? Can we change our production and consumption patterns to generate wealth from what we currently designate as waste?

The potential exists

Consider e-waste, which is the old TVs, DVDs, computers, household appliances and other electrical goods that we throw away. This type of waste has emerged as one of our fastest growing waste streams but only about 10% is recovered or recycled.

Obsolete computers and accessories shouldn’t end up in landfill when they can be recycled for metals and materials. Image: AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Obsolete computers and accessories shouldn’t end up in landfill when they can be recycled for metals and materials. Image: AAP/Alan Porritt

But e-waste devices also include valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold, palladium and other rare materials which means they are also ending up in landfill.

By 2008 we had already sent some 17 million televisions and 37 million computers to landfill, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

But if 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually could be recycled we could save 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.

Another way of looking at this is to compare gold yielded from an open pit mine with that from discarded electrical goods. Mining yields 1 to 5 grams of gold for every one tonne of ore. From the same quantity of discarded mobile phones and computer circuit boards, you can extract 350 grams and 250 grams respectively.

The new urban mines

In a world increasingly addressing issues of sustainability, it’s no wonder that such end-of-life products are now being seen as urban mines – valuable sources of above-ground metals which can be recycled and reused.

That is the concept of the “circular economy”.

There is already some extensive recycling activity in Australia, helped by schemes such as the national Product Stewardship framework which encourages people to reduce waste.

But we still lose significant amounts of valuable and recyclable materials into landfill and park valuable metals in tailings and spoil heaps.

Given Australia is already a global leader in primary resource production from the ground, it is timely to think about how we might also adapt and grow our expertise to mine and process above ground stocks and remain at the cutting edge.

Can we lead the urban mining revolution?

Globally, there is already growing capacity and innovation in recycling.

Some recycling of rubbish is being done, such as at the Visy recycling plant in Brisbane, but we can do more. Image: AAP/Dan Peled

Some recycling of rubbish is being done, such as at the Visy recycling plant in Brisbane, but we can do more. Image: AAP/Dan Peled

New forms of manufacturing and business models are being developed that integrate secondary manufacturing of recycled materials.

So the potential is there to diversify and adapt Australia’s skills and technologies to support the new forms of processing and manufacturing in this circular economy.

Why don’t we do this?

A major challenge lies in the ability to persuade people and industry to see waste products as a resource rather than a liability. We need to create more responsive manufacturing, processing innovation and new business models around recycling.

This will challenge the way we currently operate as a nation and ask us to rethink how we relate to consumer markets around the world.

We can’t keep relying solely on our raw mineral resources. Some commentators are now discussing materials scarcity as a bigger issue than energy scarcity.

This scarcity is driving a move towards a circular economy – one in which the value created by inputs (materials, energy and labour) is extended by enabling a material life that goes beyond product life. So we go from mineral to metal, to product, back to metal and so on.

By understanding such economies and value of how this chain operates in Australia, we can begin to understand, at scale, the barriers and opportunities to more sustainable consumption and production in a resource limited future.

Looking for a new solution

That’s why CSIRO and its university partners led by University of Technology Sydney are today launching the Wealth from Waste Research Collaboration Cluster to do just this.

Too much rubbish - Australia leads the way in waste per capita. Image: Waste Atlas

Too much rubbish – Australia leads the way in waste per capita. Image: Waste Atlas

Although the technological challenges of complex materials processing are fascinating, it is innovative business models that hold the key to unlocking the wealth in our waste.

We also need to understand more about the cultural norms to see what needs changing.

Clean Up Australia found that around 14 million phones sit unused in drawers or cupboards, that’s equivalent to almost one unused phone for every two people in the country.

Although 90% of the materials within a mobile phone can be re-used, globally less than 10% of mobile phones are actually recycled. So why when we already have a solution do we not act to recycle our waste?

The research programme will be about finding new ways of doing things that accommodate our relatively small domestic materials market and challengs the mindset that size matters when it comes to complex materials processing.

If we wish to add urban mining to our global mining reputation then we need to couple research, industry and policy transitions for success in a future where recycling is an integral component of resource productivity, not a niche specialism.

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

Can backpacking flies rescue Queensland’s farmers?

Queensland backpacker: a fruit fly fitted with a micro-sensor.

Queensland backpacker: a fruit fly fitted with a micro-sensor.

By Paul De Barro, Senior Principal Research Scientist and Paulo de Souza, Science Leader – Sensor Networks

Queensland’s fruit and vegetable farmers are under pressure, having lost their main weapon against their main enemy – fruit flies.

Last year, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority banned the use of the pesticides dimethoate and fenthion, used by horticulturalists to keep Queensland fruit fly (also called Q-fly) at bay, after finding that these chemicals pose an unacceptable risk to human health.

Q-fly is the highest priority pest for a range of horticultural industries and can inflict considerable financial losses on producers, both through the money spent on pest management, and in lost production and exports. It affects citrus, orchard fruits, grapes and vegetables, industries that together are worth A$5.3 billion a year. Managing Q-fly costs an estimated A$26 million annually.

But the pesticide ban has opened up the opportunity to develop a more sophisticated – and benign – way to beat the Q-fly.

Bizarre as it might sound, flies wearing tiny radio-tracking backpacks could help by revealing the fruit flies’ movements – and by extension, the best places to release sterile males to reduce the population.

Swarm sensing

Figuring out where insects spend their time, how far they travel and what they are doing has traditionally been very difficult to do in real time. That makes it difficult to develop eradication strategies beyond blanket treatments over wide areas.

But the new micro-tracking technique, known as “swarm sensing”, can reveal this information in unprecedented detail.

As part of a current CSIRO project, we are fitting tiny micro-sensors to 5000 bees in Tasmania, as part of a world-first research program to monitor their movements and their environment.

The ultimate aim is to improve honeybee pollination and productivity on farms, as well as help us monitor for any biosecurity threats, including Colony Collapse Disorder, a global phenomenon where worker bees from a beehive or colony abruptly disappear or die.

Tiny backpacks

The sensors are tiny radio frequency identification sensors that work in a similar way to a vehicle’s e-tag, recording when the insect passes a particular checkpoint. The information is then sent remotely to a central location and we can build a comprehensive three-dimensional model and visualise how the insects move through their landscape.

The sensors are 2.5mm x 2.5mm in size and weigh about 5 milligrams each. A new generation as small as 1.5mm x 1.5mm is being designed; less is more, as smaller sensors will interfere less with the flies’ behaviour.

Micro-sensing backpacks are being fitted to 5000 Tasmanian bees.

Micro-sensing backpacks are being fitted to 5000 Tasmanian bees.

Honeybees are perfect as a starting point for our research, as they are social insects that return to the same point and operate on a very predictable schedule. Any change in their behaviour indicates a change in their environment.

So when we model their movements, we will be able to recognise very quickly when their activity shows variation and identify the cause. This will help us understand how to maximise their productivity, as well as monitor for any biosecurity threats.

Tackling the Q-fly

Meanwhile, back in Queensland, instead of studying an insect that is vital to our food supply, we are faced with one that threatens it. So we are bringing the same technology to bear on the problem of Q-fly.

Our sensor technology will be used in combination with our sterile insect technology (SIT) research, where we are working with government and industry to develop a male-only line of sterile Q-fly.

We believe that our SIT offers an environmentally-friendly, sustainable and cost-effective approach to controlling this noxious pest.

SIT is a scientifically proven method for suppressing or eradicating fruit fly populations and managing their potential impacts in horticulture production areas. It has already been used with great success around the world and in South Australia to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly. However, the development of male-only sterile Q-fly will be a world first.

Our sterile insect technology could be the key to eradicating the Q-fly. Click to view full size.

Our sterile insect technology could be the key to eradicating the Q-fly. Click to view full size.

Despite all our knowledge of fruit flies, we do not actually know where they go to reproduce. When you are looking to deploy sterile male flies to disrupt the mating cycle, this information is a critical piece of the puzzle.

By releasing fruit flies with “backpacks” that can track their movements, we will be able to answer that question, which will assist us in targeting where to release the sterile Q-fly males. We will also find out how to better deploy traps and baits, so that we can improve their effectiveness, while reducing the costs of management.

This will also help farmers in currently pest-free areas to protect their produce. While these areas have not needed to use treatments before sending their fruit and vegetables to interstate or international markets, they face increasing risk as Q-fly incursions are happening more frequently, threatening the ability to maintain pest-free zones.

Future developments

The next generation of sensors will generate power from insect movement, store the energy in batteries being developed at CSIRO and will have some tracking capability to follow their movement in real-time. Among other things, we also want to understand insect behaviour under different weather conditions.

That would truly represent a game-changing opportunity, allowing us to track and record thousands of insects in their natural habitats, in relatively remote areas.

Queensland is no stranger to swarms of backpackers – but this time, it’s a little more high-tech.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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

Australia’s part in 50 years of space exploration with NASA

Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex has played a major role in exploring space.

By Dave Williams, Group Executive Information Sciences

Who can forget the hit movie The Dish and Australia’s role in beaming the first live television pictures of man’s first landing on the moon?

Well, the filmmakers did play with the truth a bit but it did show Australia’s long history of working with NASA on space exploration.

This week CSIRO with NASA are celebrating more than five decades of working together on space exploration through the Deep Space Network, known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. CSIRO operates this facility on NASA’s behalf.

When it all began

Australia has been an integral part of every deep-space mission NASA has flown, going back to 1957 when it ran tracking facilities at Woomera. In 1962, CSIRO Parkes telescope supported NASA’s Mariner 2 mission.

The CDSCC control room back in 1969.

The CDSCC control room back in 1969.

The 1960s saw three space-tracking stations built in the Australian Capital Territory – the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla in 1964, a second station at Orroral Valley in 1966, and a third, at Honeysuckle Creek, in 1967.

Why the ACT? It combined a field of view essential to the missions with a relatively “radio-quiet” environment for receiving signals and proximity to a major city.

It was actually Honeysuckle, supported by Tidbinbilla and CSIRO’s Parkes telescope, that brought to the world the sight and sound of Neil Armstrong taking that first momentous step onto the Moon.

As NASA’s programs evolved, the functions of the Honeysuckle and Orroral Valley stations were wound up or merged into those of Tidbinbilla, and the two former stations were closed.

A single 26m antenna at the CDSCC in 1965

The station operated a single 26m antenna at the CDSCC in 1965.

Tidbinbilla was brought on air in December 1964 to support Mariner 4 which flew by Mars in July 1965. As the signal was very weak the station asked the civil aviation authorities to divert any aircraft that could come between Mars and Tidbinbilla at the time of closest approach.

Is that a UFO?

At the critical time, when Mariner 4 had gone behind Mars, the direct phone from Canberra Airport rang and the station was asked if it was experiencing interference from a UFO! The offending object was later identified as a weather balloon.

Mariner 4 was quickly followed by Surveyor 1 which was sent to the Moon to check out the surface in preparation for the lunar landings.

The 70mm antenna at CDSCC.

The 70m antenna is the largest steerable parabolic antenna in the Southern Hemisphere.

As a satellite moves away from the Earth a deep-space tracking station is used for controlling the direction and rate of travel as well as receiving data from the satellite.

Tidbinbilla is one of three such stations worldwide that collectively run the satellites. The others are in California and Spain, near Madrid.

Along with the images of the first moon walk the Deep Space Network has received amazing views from the surface of Mars, and the first “close-ups” of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It sends commands to the Mars rovers and receives data from some of NASA’s space telescopes.

Over the lifetime of the facility NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has funded the operating costs of more than A$800 million. NASA is currently investing A$110 million to add two more antennas to the station’s current three.

That Curiosity on Mars

In August 2012 the Canberra station had prime responsibility for guiding the landing on Mars of a car-sized robotic rover, Curiosity.

The complex sequence of events in the landing had never been practised, only simulated: the landing is known as the “seven minutes of terror” by all involved.

Millions of people around the world watched the live coverage. At Tidbinbilla, the public packed out the visitors centre to hear a commentary of the landing, as one stage after another was successfully completed.

As the touchdown signal came through, the live feed from the US showed the mission team erupting into joy. And then there was Curiosity’s first image, showing the rover was alive. All this came through the Canberra station.

Technology advances

Some 50 years ago, the blurry black and white pictures of Mars from Mariner 4 showed us that that planet had large craters. Today we can study rocks the size of blueberries and watch video of dust devils on the Martian surface.

We’ve found water on the Moon and even on Mercury, seen the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan and volcanoes on pizza-faced Io. We’ve measured the super-winds on Saturn, five times faster than an Earthly hurricane.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which downloads via the Deep Space Network, has found more than 3,600 possible planets. Most of their solar systems are very different from ours.

The next step

Next year, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto.

An artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto in 2015

An artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto in 2015. Image: NASA

It is already more than four billion kilometres from Earth and radio signals take eight hours to make a return journey.

As it flies by Pluto, it will send back the first close-up images of that dwarf planet — and yes, they will come through the Canberra tracking station.

Then the spacecraft will go on to study Pluto’s neighbours in the Kuiper Belt, a crowded but little-known region of our solar system – once again pushing the limits of exploration.

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

A flexible approach is needed for Australia’s electronics industry


A blue phosphorescent organic light-emitting diode, or OLED.

By Scott Watkins, Stream Leader, Thin Film Solar Cells

Australia’s manufacturing industry could be given a welcome boost if it takes advantage of some of the latest research here and overseas to create ultra thin and flexible electronic devices.

Just last week, the University of Washington announced the thinnest ever light emitting diodes (LEDs), based on 2D semiconductors that are only three atoms thick – that’s 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

This research, as well as our own work on flat, atom-thin semiconductors, is helping to realise incredibly thin electronic devices that can bend, flex and even wrap around your arm.

This continually evolving field of flexible electronics promises to deliver products that are shaped, formed and coloured in ways that bear little resemblance to today’s rigid devices. Think roll-up TV screens, wearable devices and paper-thin solar cells as part of our everyday lives.

Given the exciting possibilities, we can expect intense consumer demand for flexible electronics products. The market will be big and pervasive, estimated to grow from A$16 billion last year to A$77 billion in 2023.

This huge market represents a major manufacturing opportunity for Australia. It’s now up to us as a country to step up and play our part.

What are flexible electronics?

Flexible electronics are just that: flexible. It’s this feature that has the potential to change the way we do things.

Two of the most promising areas for flexible electronics are thin film solar cells and revolutionary new displays known as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs).

OLEDs are already found in mobile phones and even in curved televisions. They are now moving into lighting, allowing us to take advantage of large panels that emit uniform light, rather than point sources such as bulbs.

In Australia, the combination of R&D and design is already shining a light on the incredible possibilities OLEDs offer. Andy Zhou, a design graduate from Monash University, worked with CSIRO scientists to develop the Pendant Plus, a flat, flexible light that showcases the potential of this technology.

Just as OLEDs can convert electricity into light, similar devices can convert light into electricity: organic solar cells.

What’s most exciting about this technology is that the absorbing materials (and even the electrodes that go on top of them) can be embedded on surfaces using conventional techniques such as screen printing. Just as 3D printing is set to change the way we manufacture many objects, printing of solar cells on demand is fast becoming a reality.

What role can Australia play?

Australia has a number of highly respected research groups working on thin film solar. Many of these groups are closely linked to research on traditional, silicon-based solar cells and rely heavily on chemistry.

The consortium of researchers that I am a part of recently installed a new printer that allows us to print solar cells the size of an A3 sheet of paper – the largest in Australia.

We’re working towards using these solar cells in products such as small advertising displays and portable lighting. We’re also developing materials and processes that will allow us to integrate them directly into building materials such as windows or steel roofing.

Further down the track, new advances such as perovskite-based solar cells are raising the possibility that printed solar could compete with more traditional cells on efficiency and cost.

Kick-start an industry

For Australia, printed solar cells are just one product that could kick-start a local flexible electronics industry.

Solar cells printing.

Printing solar cells by the roll.

We’re working hard to partner with many different companies to bring together end-users, component manufacturers and designers to create a flexible electronics ecosystem.

The companies positioned to take advantage of this opportunity will be involved in printing, coating, plastic forming and electronic integration as well as roofing, window and tile manufacturers.

There are even some auto suppliers that have begun to investigate how they might use flexible electronics for internal lighting. It is these businesses that diversify into new game-changing areas that will be best placed to tackle the challenges Australia’s manufacturing industry is currently facing.

Looking overseas, successful business models for flexible electronics in Europe, Germany, the UK and the US rely on clusters of small to medium enterprises (SMEs), each contributing a specific component to the final product. Australia’s rich SME sector is perfectly suited to this approach.

The danger for Australia is that if we wait until these technologies are truly “off-the-shelf” then it is highly likely that the “shelf” will be located overseas.

So the next step for Australia is for companies, industry groups and government to get together and talk about how to develop this capability for flexible electronics and foster a local skilled workforce.

We have the opportunity to take ownership of this for our manufacturing future. Let’s get on a roll.

Scott Watkins works for the CSIRO’s Flexible Electronics group which has received funding from the Australian Research Council, Australian Renewable Energy Authority, Victorian Government (DSDBI and Energy Technology Innovation Strategy), Idemitsu Kosan, Bluescope Steel, Innovia Securities and the Department of Industry (Australian Government).

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

Digital tools for a better, more sustainable health system

Finding ways to deliver high-quality care at an affordable cost to the nation is just as important as finding cures for diseases. Image: DWaschnig/Flickr

Finding ways to deliver high-quality care at an affordable cost to the nation is just as important as finding cures for diseases. Image: DWaschnig/Flickr

By Sarah Dods, Research Theme Leader, Health Services

It seems that almost every politician, health economist, policy expert and health-care worker has a different take on the state of the nation’s health system and ways to make it more sustainable. But notably absent from the debate so far is the role of technology.

So, how can digital innovation improve the health system’s bottom line?

Rising health costs

We know that Australia’s health system, in its current form, is not sustainable. Treasury projections show that we currently spend more than 20% of all government tax revenue on health, and that if current trends continue, this will rise to 40% by 2043.

State government expenditure is even more dire, currently at 40%, and rising to 100% in the same period. Over the past ten years, health-care spending has risen faster than the growth of our gross domestic product (5.4% vs 3.1%) and in 2012 health overtook retail as Australia’s largest employment sector.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

The drivers of this growth are an ageing population that is living longer but not in good health, increasing rates of chronic disease (such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and asthma) that require long-term health management, and increasing expectations around medical advances and what our health system can treat.

For my grandparents’ generation, the expectation for failing hip joints was a pair of walking sticks and self-management. Today, we expect hip replacement surgery, and new hips. The social outcome today is much greater, but there is an economic cost that we need to acknowledge.

The exact maximum proportion of our national budget that can sensibly be spent on health is still up for debate, however it is clear that this limit is in sight. So, economically speaking, what are the alternatives?

Keeping a lid on spending

One approach is to look for new sources of funding into the system. Individuals already fund nearly 20% of health-care expenses through out-of-pocket payments. The current proposal of GP co-payments is one way to increase this.

But when people can choose how they interact with the health system, they will generally opt the lowest-cost option (to them) that meets their needs. So, if they have to pay to visit their GP, then they are more likely to go to the emergency department at their nearest public hospital as an alternative – at much higher cost to the health system.

Raising the out-of-pocket costs of primary care could drive more patients to emergency departments. Image: Ragne Kabanova/Flickr.

Raising the out-of-pocket costs of primary care could drive more patients to emergency departments. Image: Ragne Kabanova/Flickr

A second approach is to look at how the system spends the current funding, and whether it is possible to improve what is achieved with the current budget. The best places to seek these improvements are the parts of the health system with the biggest expenditure, which are hospitals (40%), and medical services (18%).

Savings could be found through efficiency gains (doing the same things, but in smarter ways), better utilising lower cost parts of the health-care system that meet patients needs, and by changing operating models (doing smarter things to get desired outcomes).

Technological solutions

There is a growing collection of technological solutions that started as research to demonstrate their clinical safety and economic value, and are at, or rapidly moving towards, early roll out.

Big data analytics can predict who, when and why patients arrive at hospitals. These tools can predict emergency department arrivals and how many will need admission, and days when there will likely be insufficient beds available to meet these needs.

This kind of forecasting enables hospitals to move from reactive planning (need a bed now), to proactive planning for emergency department and elective surgery needs, and look to reduce waiting times, improve bed usage, and reduce staff stress levels along the way.

Decision-making around how patients are discharged from hospital is equally important, including understanding and overcoming the barriers that keep people in hospital after they are clinically ready to go.

Patients with chronic diseases, for instance, are high users of our health-care system. For some of these patients, there is growing evidence that their needs may be better met – clinically and economically – through guided self-care at home using broadband communications.

In rural areas, broadband can also improve access to essential health services, enabling better early diagnosis and treatment of conditions before they become major and require hospitalisation. CSIRO is helping to deliver specialist ophthalmology (eye care) services, for example, to remote communities in Southwest Western Australia and the Torres Strait Islands.

Janice from Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, measures her blood oxygen with the help of her husband and carer Bill. Her health stats are sent via a telehealth device to a local diabetes nurse who checks on her daily.

Janice from Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, measures her blood oxygen with the help of her husband and carer Bill. Her health stats are sent via a telehealth device to a local diabetes nurse who checks on her daily.

At CSIRO, we are also exploring the options to take patient prediction tools to the next level: whether forecasting can also predict health deterioration. This would enable simpler, earlier medical intervention, saving the social and economic cost of a visit to hospital.

The health system is going through a profound generational change in the transition from paper to fully electronic records. The computational standard SNOMED CT is emerging internationally as the tool that will enable these records to exchange detailed, precise concepts and information.

Figuring out how to implement and manage the complexities of the standard across the many non-standard (and often text-based) health record systems is a research challenge in itself. But once implemented, the potential for big data analytics, machine learning and decision support will result in higher quality and safer patient care, as well as enormous efficiency gains in reporting, health business systems, and population health.

Australia is rightfully proud of our record of medical research achievements. But there is a strong case to refocus a significant part of our investment in clinical research towards building an equally strong capability in health-care services research.

Finding ways to deliver high-quality care with good patient outcomes at an affordable cost to the nation is just as important as finding cures for diseases.

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

Health Check: why kids don’t like vegies and how to change it

Sometimes vegetables end up everywhere except where they’d do most good. Image: Evan Long/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Sometimes vegetables end up everywhere except where they’d do most good. Image: Evan Long/Flickr, CC BY-NC

By David Cox, Group Leader, Sensory and Behavioural Sciences

So little Harry won’t eat his vegetables? Well, he’s not alone. Poor Harry is just protecting himself from the danger of alkaloid toxins – although he doesn’t actually know this.

At the tender age of four, Harry is neophobic (fearful of new things) and facing “the omnivore’s dilemma”. The dilemma is that humans need to eat a variety of foods to grow healthy and strong but there are lots of foods out there that our sense of taste tells us might be poisonous.

There are good reasons for this because some bitter plants, for instance, contain alkaloid toxins. But some bitter components of foods, particularly in vegetables, are good for us.

So avoidance of bitterness is innate because it’s associated with toxins – and it results in children rejecting vegetables.

Widening Harry’s palate

Children only have an innate preference for sweet foods because of their association with dietary energy, and only learn to like salt early in life (at about four months of age).

But they need to learn to like bitter and sour foods too. In Brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale, for instance, compounds such as glucosinolates and phenolics that contribute to the tastes bitterness and sourness are the same as those that contribute to their “healthy characteristics – the inhibition of carcinogenesis.

Luckily, for Harry, he has his family around him. Mum is a trusted source of information about what’s right and what’s wrong, and the gatekeeper of the food supply.

The trouble, of course, is that mum can’t face another temper tantrum over a Brussels sprout. So what to do?

Reaping rewards

Researchers in Australia, including me, and the United Kingdom have found ways of getting Harry to eat his vegetables.

The study I was involved in included a group of four- to six-year-old neophobic children. We found exposing kids to vegetables about eight or nine times over two weeks and offering them a non-food reward for tasting them resulted in a significant increase in liking vegetables, compared to just exposing them to the food.

For example, every time a child tasted a vegetable, she got a sticker to put on a chart. This kind of reward provides positive reinforcement, and the display and self-monitoring of achievement. All this is stuff is known to reinforce behaviours.

The frustration of a young man trying to protect himself from alkaloid toxins and suchlike. Image: sean dreilinger/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The frustration of a young man trying to protect himself from alkaloid toxins and suchlike. Image: sean dreilinger/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The UK research echoed and supported these findings.

Models of behaviour

Parental role modelling is important too and more work is needed to provide parents with the skills to deal with refusals. This includes improving parents’ belief in their ability to prevail in certain situations. This belief plays a major role in how people approach goals and tasks.

But does it even matter? Won’t Harry just grow out of it?

It’s true that, at four years of age, Harry has hit his neophobic peak and things might get better through gradual exposure and learning what’s safe.

Things will also change as eating vegetables becomes associated with pleasant outcomes, such as having a nice meal with friends and family. The conviviality associated with the consumption of a formal meal is thought to unconsciously increase the liking for the foods eaten.

But it’s tough because there aren’t too many immediate benefits from eating vegetables and it’s a waste of time telling him they’re healthy.

We know that taste perception rather than health information has the biggest influence on liking brassica vegetables among adults. So learning to like his vegetables early on is important because it’s going to influence what Harry eats for the rest of his life.

The importance of persistence

Loving eating vegetables at an early age could set Harry up for a life of low energy dense, high micronutrient rich diets that are going to help his weight and may protect him against chronic diseases.

So don’t give up. Exposure to a wide range of tastes in a pleasant eating environment, and watching his mum and dad eat vegetables will all help.

And when Harry’s younger sibling is still in the womb, it will probably help a lot if mum eats her vegetables because research shows flavours travel through the amniotic fluid to the growing foetus and influence food acceptance soon after birth.

So investing in their own healthy eating helps mothers save dinner table battles months or years later. Fathers, who are likely to be worse at protecting their health, should also take heed and become the right kind of role model for their children by eating vegetables too.

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

Emergency services benefit from a high-speed world without wires

What’s left of homes after bushfires swept through Warrandyte, in Victoria, in January. Image: AAP Image/Joe Castro

What’s left of homes after bushfires swept through Warrandyte, in Victoria, in January. Image: AAP Image/Joe Castro

By Ian Oppermann, Director, Digital Productivity and Services 

When disaster strikes – such as January’s bushfire in Victoria or the recent cold spell that froze much of north America – it’s vital for emergency services to get the latest information.

They need to access real-time data from any emergency sites and command centres so they can analyse it, make timely decisions and broadcast public-service updates.

CSIRO thinks it has a solution in its high speed and high bandwidth wireless technology known as Ngara, originally developed to help deliver broadband speeds to rural Australia.

The organisation has announced a licensing deal with Australian company RF Technology to commercialise Ngara so it can be used to allow massive amounts of information to be passed between control centres and emergency services in the field.

There is already interest from agencies in the United States and it’s hoped that Australian agencies will soon follow.

Squeezing more data through

The technology will package four to five times the usual amount of data into the same spectrum. This will allow emergency services to send and receive real time data, track assets and view interactive maps and live high definition video from their vehicles. It’s a step in what has been a long journey toward an ambitious vision.

For years, the vision of the communications research community was “connecting anyone, anywhere, anytime” – a bold goal encompassing many technical challenges. Achieving that depended heavily on radio technology because only radio supports connectivity and mobility.

Over the years we designed ever more complex mobile radio systems – more exotic radio waveforms, more antenna elements, clever frequency reuse, separation of users by power or by spreading sequence and shrinking the “cell” sizes users operate in.

A research surge in the late 1990s and 2000s led to a wealth of technology developed in the constant drive to squeeze more out of radio spectrum, and to make connections faster and more reliable for mobile users.

This radio access technology became 3G, LTE, LTE-A and now 4G. Europe is working on a 5G technology. We’ve also seen huge advances in wireless local area networks (WLAN) and a strong trend to offload cellular network data to WLAN to help cope with the traffic flowing through the networks.

Demand for more keeps growing

Despite this, the data rate demands from users are higher than what mobile technology can offer. Industry commentators who live in the world of fixed communication networks predict staggering growth in data demand which, time tells us, is constantly underestimated.

Many connections required.

Many connections required.

We’ve even stretched our ability to name the volume of data flowing through networks: following terabytes we have exabytes (1018), zetabytes (1021) and yottabyes (1024 bytes) to describe galloping data volumes.

Beyond that, we run out of prefixes, but we’ve not run out of ideas to generate more data or new devices to connect to a network.

A few more serious problems arise from all of this traffic flowing through the world’s networks. The first is the “spectrum crunch”. We have sliced the available radio spectrum in frequency, time, space and power. We need to pull something big out of the hat to squeeze more out of the spectrum available in heavy traffic environments such as cities.

The second is the “backhaul bottleneck”. All the data produced in the radio access part of the network (where mobile users connect) needs to flow to other parts of the network (for example to fixed or mobile users in other cities).

Network operators maintain dedicated high capacity links to carry this “backhaul” traffic, typically by optical fibre or point-to-point microwave links. This works well when the backhaul connects two cities, but less well when connecting the “last mile” in a built-up urban environment.

When the total data volume which needs to be moved in terms of bits-per-second-per-square-metre rises into the range requiring backhaul capacities and is mobile, then some clever dynamic backhaul technology is needed.

As more of us carry yet more devices, and continue to enjoy high quality video-intensive services, we will keep pushing up our data rate demands on mobile networks. In theory, there is no known upper limit on the amount of data an individual can generate or consume. In practice, it depends on available bandwidth, the cost of data and the ability of devices to serve it up to us.

We have seen amazing progress in mobile data rates over the past decade. This trend will need to continue if we’re to keep pace with demand.

A new solution

To address the burgeoning data demand, and building on a strong history in wireless research, CSIRO has developed two major pieces of new technology – Ngara point-to-point (backhaul) and Ngara point-to-multi-point (access) technology. (Ngara is an Aboriginal word from the language of the Dharug people and means to “listen, hear, think”.)

How Ngara works (click to view full size).

How Ngara works (click to view full size).

The latter Ngara technology solves several big challenges over LTE networks through its “narrow cast” beam forming transmissions and smart algorithms which can form a large number of “fat pipes” in the air, reducing energy wastage of the radio signal, and increasing data rates and range.

It also enables wireless signals to avoid obstacles like trees, minimises the need for large chunks of expensive spectrum and allows agencies to dynamically change data rates where and when needed during an emergency.

In Australia we are looking at a field trial of Ngara in remote and regional communities to deliver critical broadband services such as health and education.

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

Proteins to plastics: chemistry as a dynamic discipline

More than just beakers and Bunsen burners, chemistry extends across many areas. Image: *USB*

More than just beakers and Bunsen burners, chemistry extends across many areas. Image: *USB*

By Andrew Holmes, CSIRO Fellow

This article is part of  the Australia 2025 series.

Chemistry is the most central of scientific disciplines and underpins the physical, material and biological world. Opportunities are abundant in the field of chemistry, as most major advances take place at the interface of two or more disciplines and chemistry sits at the core of trans-disciplinary research.

Most scientific research and development is collaborative and global. For Australia to continue to be a prosperous nation, post the mining boom dividends, we must create wealth through invention and innovation, and we must view this national wealth creation through invention and translation as a global enterprise.

Chemistry started saving lives when pharmaceutical drugs were invented. A catastrophic threat from disease in the future will be presented by the strains of pathogens developing resistance to antimicrobial drugs.

A safe and prosperous Australia will be one in which we redouble our efforts to invent new antibiotics to kill common bacteria as well as the drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis that are emerging. It is not too fanciful to imagine a new class of antibiotic using a delivery system that enters bacterial cells carrying a built-in warhead that explodes and shatters the cell wall, destroying the bacterium.

Many cancers are influenced by the way key proteins interact in living organisms. In the future we can expect to continue seeing the development of anticancer drugs consisting of molecules that inhibit certain protein interactions.

This is a completely new approach in the fight against cancer, as is the use of delivery systems based on specialist polymers; these can carry the toxic anticancer drug specifically to the required point of action where they recognise tumour cells that can be destroyed on release of the drug while leaving other non-tumour cells unaffected.

Image: Flickr/El Bingle

Image: Flickr/El Bingle

Response of cancer cells to chemotherapy varies from individual to individual. Now it is possible to sequence the human genes of individuals, and this is heavily dependent on analytical chemistry techniques in combination with biological approaches.

The ability to carry out genome sequencing cheaply and effectively will depend on the invention of new techniques for reading the genetic code on long chains of DNA. One promising approach is the use of protein nanopores or custom-synthesised porous macromolecular systems whose pores allow only DNA chains to be threaded through.

As each base on the DNA passes through the pore it is “read” by inbuilt optical or electrical nanodetectors/transistors that allow the chain sequence to be recorded fast and efficiently.

Acquisition of these vast quantities of data and the ability to correlate the information with disease states in humans will depend on the close interaction of chemists with statistical biologists and bioinformaticists (so chemists will need a good mathematics training as well).

These are the kinds of contributions that chemistry will make to health care in Australia provided we invest now in training and pathways for ideas to be converted into commercial products.

Next generation electronics

In my own field of polymers, chemistry in combination with physics and materials science has revolutionised the way in which we think of plastics.

There is now a whole emerging field of “plastic electronics” in which specialised plastics (the so-called semiconducting polymers) can replace the traditional semiconducting materials such as silicon to serve as transistors, and as the active material in flat panel displays (TV screens, laptop and smart phone displays) as well as numerous other “smart” devices.

These materials are already in some of the largest colour TVs seen last year at the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.

Image: Flickr/robpegoraro

Image: Flickr/robpegoraro

It will not be long before we are able to print flexible solar cells (just as we print another great Australian invention, the polymer banknote) that can be sewn into clothing to serve as cheap portable power sources for recharging mobile devices.

It is my dream that large area arrays will eventually provide substantial amounts of renewable electricity for our nation.

Returning to transistors, just imagine a flexible plastic inner helmet lining full of transistors that can detect and monitor brain function in real time when a sportsperson (such as a Test cricketer or AFL player) receives a severe and damaging blow to the skull.

We won’t be merely waiting to carry them off the field when they cannot say which day it is. We shall know instantly which parts of the brain may not be functioning properly after the injury. This is the field of flexible electronics that chemists will invent.

There will be applications that will be life changing, just like the change in our lives that happened with the emergence of mobile devices in the past ten years. With appropriate investment and a calculated risk Australia can become a “Master of the Universe” through clever chemistry.

What are the technologies that traditionally have made Australia wealthy? Historically we have been a strong agricultural nation. Good agriculture depends on many factors including soil and climate conditions. Chemists will continue to invent safe and efficient herbicides and pesticides, but these will in the future be integrated with genetically modified organisms so that the specific threat will be defeated without interfering with the surrounding ecosystem.

The mining industry has dominated recent Australian exports. Extraction of the key chemical elements from ore bodies employs the “froth flotation process” initially developed in Australia and researched by surface scientist Sir Ian Wark from CSIRO.

However, all mining industries employ vast quantities of water. My vision for the future of chemistry is to develop a water-free mining industry (as well as other chemical manufacturing) that employs solid state chemical separation processes perhaps in combination with supercritical fluids such as carbon dioxide or other benign solvents.

Energy and efficiency

Image: Flickr/Status Frustration

Image: Flickr/Status Frustration

That brings us to the topic of energy. Burning carbon-based fuels to generate energy would not be so bad if we could capture the resulting carbon dioxide efficiently and convert it back into hydrocarbon products such as methane and diesel.

These are the two grand challenges for chemistry. Chemists are working on capturing carbon dioxide from flue gas emissions using amine-trapping agents to form carbamates, but we have a long way to go. This has to be 100% effective and the resulting product has to be able to release the carbon dioxide into a suitable storage without consuming too much energy.

Then we have to invent ways of turning the carbon dioxide back into methane. This requires hydrogen and a superb catalyst or electricity because in terms of an energy scale carbon dioxide lies at the bottom of Mount Everest and methane is on the top.

The hydrogen will have to come from using sunlight (photochemistry) and a catalyst to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Humankind has not yet solved this, although Nature does it through photosynthesis, surprisingly not very efficiently, but certainly well enough to have sustained life on earth for billions of years. Some challenge for chemists but we will do it!

We will only achieve these ambitions if we also recognise the need to inspire young people in a broad-based science education with an opportunity to become practising chemists.

This is part of an article that was originally published on The Conversation. Read the full article.

Should we be preparing for an El Niño in 2014?

El Niño could stoke more extreme bushfire weather. Image: James975/Flickr

El Niño could stoke more extreme bushfire weather. Image: James975/Flickr

By Wenju Cai, Principal Research Scientist, Wealth from Oceans Flagship

Recently speculation has been rife that the end of 2014 will see an El Niño event — the change in Pacific ocean and atmosphere circulation that is known to produce drought, extreme heat, and fire in Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest statement predicts that Pacific Ocean temperatures may approach El Niño levels by early winter, but the jury is out beyond the end of this year.

Given the catastrophic effects El Niño can have, should we be getting prepared anyway?

An El Niño for 2014?

A small number of models have predicted an El Niño later in the year. But these models generally suffer from what scientists call an “autumn predictability barrier”. During the southern hemisphere autumn it is hard to distinguish the development of an El Niño from background variability.

But a recent high-profile paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adamantly predicted an El Niño later this year, using a new framework that explores how ocean temperatures are connected between the equatorial Pacific and other regions. The paper claims to overcome the autumn predictability barrier, quoting a 70% success rate in simulating prediction of historical El Niño events.

Preparing for the worst

To better ready ourselves for an El Niño event, we need to know what the impact might be. El Niño affects our lives in many ways.

One important consideration is Murray River, which supports economic activities estimated at tens of billions of dollars each year, including our irrigated agriculture and water supply in regional areas.

El Niño can also happen in conjunction with other climate cycles. When an El Niño coincides with the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole, there is usually a dramatic reduction in annual inflow.

A prediction of an El Niño will trigger consideration of water allocation by our water managers, taking into account of the need for environmental flow to ensure the long-term health of the river.

Another consideration is drought, which has a direct impact on our ecosystems and farming communities. Our farmers are very skilled in using El Niño prediction information. They use the information to decide what crops to plant and level of cropping activities. Sometimes it is better not to grow anything, to limit losses.

An incorrect prediction can be costly too. So our farmers make ongoing decisions using updated information (normally on a monthly basis). From time to time they will need help to get through tough times, and so our federal government needs to budget for drought relief.

A further consideration is extreme weather. More heatwaves, bushfires and dust storms will have an impact of human health, infrastructure, and emergency services. For example, our senior citizens are most affected by heat stress.

In the week of the recent January heatwave in Victoria, the number of deaths more than doubled. It’s a common-sense matter of getting well prepared to ensure relief is available when needed. If a cooler is needed, it is too late to install it after you hear the weather forecast.

Global warming: loading the dice

This year, and in summer 2013, southeast Australia experienced significant and unprecedented heatwaves, both associated with bushfires. These kinds of events usually take place in an El Niño year.

In fact, an average El Niño increases the global mean temperature by 0.1C. One example is the extreme El Niño of 1982-83, in which a string of heatwaves preceded the Ash Wednesday bushfires, amid severe drought conditions.

But 2013 and the summer just past were not a result of El Niño. In fact these record-breaking heatwaves occurred at a time when the increase of global surface temperatures has slowed, although regionally temperatures continue to increase. Inland Australia — the source of heat in south east Australian heatwaves — continues to warm.

The reason for the slowdown in the rising global surface temperatures is another ocean and atmosphere cycle: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Currently in a negative phase, the PDO is encouraging heat to be stored in the ocean thanks to changes in trade winds. Likewise, during a positive PDO, less heat is stored in the ocean, which can enhance the effect of El Niño as in the 1982-83 event.

So there are a range of scenarios depending on a number of different climate cycles. Imagine this one: global warming continues unmitigated by a “hiatus”, and then an El Niño or extreme El Niño occurs. Such an alignment of warming, positive PDO and El Niño is likely to occur several times over the next 20 years. While we can’t predict exactly when the PDO might shift to a positive phase, we might expect the current negative phase to last another four to five years.

If we didn’t like what we experienced in 2013 and early 2014, we’re unlikely to enjoy this worst-case scenario. Heatwaves will be not only more frequent, but hotter too. The associated drought would eventually break, but it will be longer and more severe. Are we ready?

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

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.

Most Australians overestimate how ‘green’ they really are

More than half of Australians say they recycle for mostly environmental reasons. Image: Shutterstock/spwidoff.

More than half of Australians say they recycle for mostly environmental reasons. Image: Shutterstock/spwidoff.

By Zoe Leviston, Research Scientist

Most Australians overestimate how much they are doing for the environment compared to others, and are more concerned about water shortages, pollution and household waste than climate change, a new CSIRO survey reveals.

Taken over a period of July to August last year, it is the latest in a series of annual national surveys on Australians’ attitudes to climate change involving more than 5000 people from across urban, regional, and rural Australia. (You can read about past survey results here and here.)

More than 70% of people said they thought climate change was an important issue, which has remained consistently the case since we first asked this question in 2010.

However, compared to many other issues including health, costs of living and other environmental issues such as drought, we found that climate change was considered to be much less of a concern.

Biased towards ourselves

The way we perceive ourselves and others can influence how we respond to contested issues, including climate change. However, these perceptions are subject to cognitive biases or distortions as we attempt to make sense of the world around us.

Misperceptions about what others think about climate change extend to misperceptions about what others do.

One of the questions we asked people in this latest survey was what they were doing in their everyday lives to respond to climate change, and why.

For example, did they always recycle their household waste, had they installed solar panels, or had they changed their diet? The results are shown below.

What environmental actions people said they were doing in their everyday lives.

What environmental actions people said they were doing in their everyday lives.

When we added up all the actions people said yes to (regardless of why they were doing them), we found a normal distribution of responses: a few people did not much of anything; quite a lot of people did a moderate amount; and a few people did a great deal.

We then asked our respondents this question: “How much do you think you do compared to the average Australian: a lot less, a little less, about the same, a bit more, or a lot more?” Here’s what they said.

How much environmental action the survey respondents thought they took, compared with an average Australian.

How much environmental action the survey respondents thought they took, compared with an average Australian.

So how good were our 5000 respondents at guessing how they compared with others? To find out, we cross-referenced what people said they did with their estimates of how they compared with an average Australian.

Just under one-quarter (21.5%) got it about right: regardless of how many actions they performed, their assessment of where they stood in relation to other people was fairly accurate.

The same amount (21.5%) were what we might call “self-deprecating”: they undervalued their comparative performance.

But more than half our participants (57.1%) were “self-enhancing”: they tended to overestimate how much environmental action they were compared to others.

Research tells us that it’s not just the environment where we tend to think we’re better than others.

The “better than average effect” describes our predisposition to think of ourselves as exceptional, especially among our peers. The effect reflects our tendency to think of ourselves as more virtuous and moral, more compassionate and understanding and (ironically) as less biased than other people.

In a famous example, when people were asked to assess their own driving ability relative to peers, more than three-quarters of people considered themselves to be safer than the average driver.

How important is climate change?

When we asked people how important climate change was, just over 70% of people rated it as “somewhat”, “very”, or “extremely” important. That importance rating has remained unchanged when we first asked this back in 2010.

But this year we also asked people to rank the importance of climate change relative to a list of 16 general concerns in society, including health, the cost of living, and the economy. When framed in these relative terms, climate change was ranked as the third least important issue.

How people ranked a list of general and environmental concerns.

How people ranked a list of general and environmental concerns.

Similar to previous years, we found the majority of respondents (81%) think the Earth’s climate is changing, and people are more likely to think that human activity is the cause (47%) as opposed to natural variations in temperature (39%). When we look at repeat respondents (those people who participated in more than one of our surveys), we find no significant changes since 2010, although there was a very slight increase in the small proportion of people who say they “don’t know”.

Other changes have been slight, but noteworthy. There has been an increase in the levels of responsibility individuals feel to respond to climate change. People have also become more trusting about information from environmental and government scientists.

Zoe Leviston does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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


Take a look at our video exploring the key findings of the survey:

Nanosafety: we’re on the case

Nanosafety research ensures everyday use of nanoparticles – such as sunscreen – stays safe. Image: Flickr/Eliya

Nanosafety research ensures everyday use of nanoparticles – such as sunscreen – stays safe. Image: Flickr/Eliya

By Maxine McCall, Research Leader: Nanosafety

Nanoparticles — or nanomaterials, as they are often called — are chemical objects with dimensions in the range of 1-100 nanometres (nm).

Particles this tiny are hard to imagine, but it may help to think that a 1nm nanoparticle could fit up to 80,000 times across a human hair.

Nanoparticles occur naturally in the environment, such as in clay, milk, and in volcanic ash and sea spray.

Manufacturers also make nanoparticles for use in a range of everyday products.

  • The surfaces of your fridge may hold silver nanoparticles to stop bacteria growing
  • Sunscreen applied as a clear film to your skin may contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles to provide broad-spectrum sun protection
  • The frame of your new bicycle may even contain carbon nanotubes to make it stronger and lighter than older bikes.

Nanoparticles are intriguing to scientists because the properties of a chemical — such as silver or zinc oxide — in nano form can be very different to a larger particle of the same chemical.

This is because surface properties dominate in the nano form (due to higher surface area). It’s the internal composition that defines the properties of larger particles. This difference opens up a range of new uses for that chemical.

What are the benefits of nanomaterials?

Nanotechnology research. Image: Flickr/Brookhaven National Laboratory

Nanotechnology research. Image: Flickr/Brookhaven National Laboratory

The prevalence of manufactured nanoparticles is increasing.

New developments have led to significant advances across a broad range of electronic, medical and environmental applications (among others).

Nanoparticles may be more conductive, stronger or more chemically reactive than larger particles of the same substance.

This means smaller amounts of the chemical in nano form can achieve the same effects, making a product cheaper – or the same quantities may be used to create an enhanced product.

What are the potential risks?

The same properties that make nanoparticles promising for new manufacturing opportunities may also present new risks to us and our natural environment.

Normally, new chemicals and their commercial use would be assessed by one or more of a number of regulatory bodies within Australia. But if a chemical in traditional form has already been assessed, it may not require further scrutiny by regulators if it is made in nano form. That’s the case even though the two forms of the same chemical may have quite different properties.

It is this “slipping through the cracks” that has raised some concerns in the community about the large-scale use of untested nanomaterials.

Assessing the risks associated with manufactured nanomaterials is never easy or straightforward. Unlike traditional chemicals, the classification of the properties and potential risks of nanomaterials is not based on composition alone.

Rather, it is a complex function of a number of properties, including particle size, shape, surface area, surface coating and even how tightly the particles are clumped together.

Adding to the challenge, many of these properties can change with time and through use as the nanomaterials move through a complex system, such as our own bodies or a waste-treatment plant.

What safety research is being done?

In 2007 the Working Party for Manufactured Nanomaterials, in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), launched an international programme to test 13 different types of manufactured nanomaterials that were in the early stages of commercialisation.

Click to view full size

Click to view full size

OECD member countries were invited to comprehensively test these nanomaterials for their physical and chemical properties, their fate and transport in the environment, and their potential toxicities in a range of biological systems.

Australia took part and tested a number of zinc oxide, cerium dioxide and silver nanoparticles. The CSIRO was a major contributor to the Australian effort.

This international effort gave clarity on the types of nanomaterial properties needed for toxicity assessments, and developments on how to make those measurements. While these are important steps forward, more work still needs to be done before such measurements will be routine.

The timeline to achieve this is tight, especially for Australian companies that export internationally. New regulations will be in force this year in Europe that require mandatory labelling of certain nano-containing products.

This is by no means a simple task. It is not easy to find — let alone count and measure sizes of — these very tiny particles in complex products. This makes it tricky to determine whether they are even captured by the definition of “nano” and hence require labelling.

At present, CSIRO’s nanosafety team is investigating:

  • nanoparticles in sunscreens
  • the environmental effects of nanoparticles added to fuels for combustion engines
  • whether nanoparticles eaten by freshwater animals are excreted or retained and then transported up the food chain
  • whether nanoparticles are produced in bush fires.

Ongoing research in this area is both relevant and vital to the future of Australian manufacturing.

Maxine McCall coordinated the Australian Consortium that participated in the OECD program to test manufactured nanomaterials. Through CSIRO, the Consortium received funds from the Australian Government under its National Enabling Technologies Strategy and its International Science Linkages program.

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

Health Check: is it safe to cut mould off food?

Mouldy cheese

Good news for vintage cheese lovers. Image: TheeErin

By Tom Ross, University of Tasmania and Ailsa Hocking, CSIRO

The short answer is that it’s a lot safer than not cutting it off.

Some moulds make and release poisons, called mycotoxins, into the food that could, over time, make you very sick. Why they do it is not especially well understood but that doesn’t make it any safer.

Some mouldy foods should simply be discarded (ideally, to compost). For others, though, you can salvage and use the unaffected parts without exposing yourself to a health risk. That’s good if your mouldy food is an expensive, vintage cheddar cheese!

The life of moulds

Moulds are fungi. They’re related to mushrooms, and the yeasts we use to make bread, or convert sugars to alcohol. They are heterotrophs, meaning they can’t make their own food (unlike plants). Instead, they degrade complex organic molecules in their environment into smaller molecules they can absorb to meet their energy and nutrient needs.

In nature, mould’s ability to break down detritus (waste) ensures that dead matter doesn’t accumulate. It also enables the release of minerals that are chemically tied up in detritus to the plants that need them for their primary production.

Moulds are single-celled organisms and, individually, are microscopic. When water and nutrients are available (such as in semi-perishable foods) they grow in number: to procreate, mould cells simply make copies of all essential cell components, and then divide into two new (genetically identical) “daughter” cells.

When moulds divide the two cells stay connected and when they divide again and again, they form a long chain of cells, called a hypha. The hyphae can branch and collectively form a complex matrix called a mycelium that, when big enough, can be seen with an unaided eye. This is the furry growth we can see, for example, on crumpets, berries, jam, tomato paste, cheese, and so on.


Not all moulds on foods will produce mycotoxins, or produce them at harmful levels. Image: Sleepy Gonzales

The growing tips of the hyphae release enzymes into the environment to degrade complex organic molecules into usable nutrients. The tips of the hyphae also release the mycotoxins which are probably released to ward off competitors.

So, wherever the mycelia go in search of nutrients, toxins may also be found. The extent of spread of the mycelium is not always visible, however, and herein lies the problem.

What to do?

Many moulds can grow on, and spoil, our foods. Among those we are likely to encounter on foods in our homes are Penicillium (“cousins” of those used to make antibiotics, or to ripen some cheeses), Aspergillus, and on fruits, Botrytis.

You’re unlikely to experience any immediate symptoms from ingestion of mycotoxin-contaminated foods. Ongoing exposure increases the chances of a range of diseases including include kidney, liver and immune system damage, increased risk of a range of cancers and neurological symptoms; though these worst-case scenarios are rare.

Not all moulds on foods will produce mycotoxins, or produce them at harmful levels, but without a microscope and laboratory its hard to distinguish the dangerous and harmless ones. Given the risk to your health its best to take a very cautious approach to visible mould growth on any food with some exceptions.

A good rule of thumb to judge whether a mouldy food can be “saved” is its moisture content or firmness. Foods with a high moisture content such as cooked casseroles, soft fruit and vegetables, pastes/sauces and soft cheeses can have invisible hyphae growing below the surface and producing mycotoxins.

Mouldy strawberries

Time for composting. Image: Jo Naylor

The same is true for porous foods such as bread and cakes where the hyphae can penetrate. All of these foods should be discarded if you see mould on the surface.

Conversely a cheddar, or a salami, or carrot, that have dense structure are less likely to have extensive hyphal growth away from the visible mycelium. In these cases the mycelium can be cut away (to a centimetre or two depth) and the remaining food consumed with little risk.

The United States’ Department of Agriculture’s website is a good source of advice for dealing with mould contamination on a wide variety of foods.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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

Clarification 25/02/2014:
Cutting away portions of food is not a safe way to deal with other food safety risks such as contamination or bacterial growth. It should not be used on products beyond their use by date or where products have not been stored correctly. And when in doubt throw it out.


CSIRO also produced a range of infographics covering food safety, health tips and recipes. Check out the ‘Be Food Safe’ Health Bite below:

Food safety infographic

An Opportunity for life: finding Mars’ most liveable mud

Opportunity trundles along looking for more evidence of water – and life – on Mars. Image: NASA.

Opportunity trundles along looking for more evidence of water – and life – on Mars. Image: NASA.

By Paulo de Souza, Science Leader – Sensor Networks

Coinciding with ten years of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Project, research published today in Science has found some of the oldest evidence of past water on Mars – and confirmed it was ideal to nurture life.

Found in ancient mudstones at Mars’ Endeavour Crater, the geochemical data collected by the Opportunity Rover shows that water was almost fresh. It would have been, almost four billion years ago, the most liveable mud on Mars.

Opportunity sampled the Matijevic formation – a grouping of fine-grained, layered rocks enriched with clay minerals – and analyses showed they were the oldest Martian rocks, and had the earliest evidence of water activity, the rover has encountered so far.

Back in 2004, Opportunity discovered rich deposits on hematite, jarosite and round concretions we dubbed “blueberries”. That was definitive proof that an ocean flowed on Mars.

However, scientists around the world were sceptical about the suitability for life as that water was probably too acidic. Just as you wouldn’t quench your thirst with a glass of vinegar, this water would not make the kind of mud microbes would be able to live in.

But our results indicate that microbes would have found in that place a delight to live in – not too salty, not too acidic, but just right.

False-colour image of Matijevic formation rocks. They are 3.7 billion years old and contain evidence that fresh water once flowed over them. Image: Science/AAAS.

False-colour image of Matijevic formation rocks. They are 3.7 billion years old and contain evidence that fresh water once flowed over them. Image: Science/AAAS.

Now we just need to see if there were any microbes there, by searching for any fossils that might hint that Mars was once inhabited and not just habitable. The search, and the fascination, goes on.

Centuries of wondering

As a long-term member of the science team guiding research on Mars, I’d like to reflect on what we’re looking for and why it’s worthwhile to keep exploring.

Start by looking at the night sky. Even though we can see just a part of it, the universe has more stars and planets than you could possibly imagine. Yet just a few hundred years ago, we thought we on Earth were at the centre of the universe, putting us in a very special place.

The science done by our first astronomers revealed that, in fact, we were turning around the sun. Later we discovered our sun is just another star, one of many in the universe.

Image: NASA.

Image: NASA.

The first confirmed accounts for another planet beyond our solar system was reported in 1988 by Canadian astronomers Campbell, Walker and Yang. The natural questions we now face are: is there life somewhere else in the universe? Or are we alone?

In the thousands of years since the Egyptians and Babylonians first knew of its existence, the red planet has been an object of study and fascination. More recent perspectives on Mars are also interesting to revisit.

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw “continents”, “seas” and “channels” on Mars through his telescope.

The War of the Worlds novel by H G Wells captured public imagination and its famous adaptation by Orson Welles for radio broadcast in 1938 fooled audiences into thinking Martians were invading us.

More recently still, with the advancement of science, we’ve been in a position to get a more accurate picture of our nearest neighbour. The world of sensors, where my expertise lies, has leaped ahead so we can send compact sensors on spacecraft that gather a wealth of information.

With all this combined international exploration effort, we’ve sent many spacecraft to Mars to study large areas from the air and in minute detail on the ground.

The list of spacecraft reads like a roll-call at school:

Simulated image of Opportunity on ‘Burns Cliff’, Mars. Image: NASA.

Simulated image of Opportunity on ‘Burns Cliff’, Mars. Image: NASA.

All these landers and rovers on Mars’ surface are being supported by a number of orbiters like Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance, Mars Global Surveyor and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

We also have an Indian mission Mangalyaan on the way to Mars today, a number of missions being planned for the future like the rover on 2020, Chinese attempts to get there as well as the lottery for a one-way ticket to the red planet.

Our reason for living

All this exploration was fuelled by the 1996 analysis of the meteorite ALH84001 in Antarctica. This meteorite came from Mars, has carbonate in its chemistry (carbonate needs water to be formed) and has a number of structures that resemble fossilised bacteria.

Since then the traffic on Mars has never been so intense.

But what are we looking for so intensively on Mars? The answer is everywhere on a full-of-life Earth: water.

Even though some landscape features observed by Mars orbiters provide evidence that liquid water might have flowed on the surface of Mars long ago, surface studies like ours look for direct evidence for mineral deposits created by an interaction with water and rock. The gadgetry on the Mars Rovers is designed to carry out these sophisticated geochemical analyses.

Life, as we know it, depends on water to be formed, sustained and to evolve. It does not mean, however, that life somewhere else in the universe might not depend on another substance. It is much easier to look for something we know so well.

Paulo de Souza is a collaborating scientist on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.

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


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