Keeping us connected – wirelessly

By Nola Wilkinson

Dr Iain Collings decided early in his career that wireless communications was hot. Fascinated by the prospect of transferring information without wires or optic cables, he saw its huge potential to change our daily lives – and wanted to be a part of it.

The whole world is into cool electronic devices. Our growing appetite for smartphones, iPads, GoPros and FitBits has produced a huge new market – and wireless data transfer is essential for these devices.

What’s more, the more we use them, the faster our demand for higher rates of data transmission grows. Iain has focused his work on the use of multiple antennae to vastly improve the rate of transmission of data wirelessly. As he points out, this is fundamental to meeting the ever-growing global consumer demand. Watch this video to find out more.

The last refuge of our endangered species

Australia’s protected area network is the backbone of our national response to biodiversity threats. In public ownership, Australia has some 550 national parks and state conservation areas covering over 28 million ha – an area that’s about the size of Victoria and Tasmania combined. There are also 70 marine parks and reserves covering 310 million ha of Commonwealth waters – an area about the size of Queensland and Northern Territory combined.

But do these reserves cover the full range of ecosystems in Australia? Are they large enough to maintain species diversity, natural interactions and evolutionary processes? Do they allow plants and animals to move through the landscape in the ways they need to? Will these reserves still provide protection to our most vulnerable species during times of stress, such as a changing climate?

These are the questions that need to be considered in the planning and design of Australia’s protected area network. With over 60 per cent of Australia privately owned, it’s becoming increasingly evident that we won’t meet our conservation targets if we rely on public funding and public land alone.

In the fifth video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Andy Sheppard talks about the role protected areas play, how the network is designed and what the major challenges will be into the future:

To find out more about the management of Australia’s protected areas, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at the tools we use to restore and manage threats to Australia’s biodiversity. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.

Australia’s astronomy future in a climate of cutbacks

Parkes radio telescope

What future for the Parkes radio telescope amid the CSIRO cutbacks? Image: Wayne England

By Lewis Ball, CSIRO

The future looks very bright for Australian radio astronomy but it was somewhat clouded earlier this year when CSIRO’s radio astronomy program took a dramatic hit in the Australian federal budget.

CSIRO has cut its funding for radio astronomy by 15%, down A$3.5 million to A$17 million for the 2014-15 financial year. The result will be a reduction of about 30 staff from the plan of just three months ago.

The cuts will impact most heavily on CSIRO’s in-house astronomy research, on the operation of the Parkes radio telescope – instantly recognisable from the movie The Dish – on the less well known but tremendously productive Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri and on the Mopra Telescope near Coonabarabran, all in New South Wales.

The Australia Telescope Compact Array.

The Australia Telescope Compact Array. Image: D. Smyth

About two-thirds of ATNF’s staffing reduction will be effected through not filling planned new roles, most prominent of which was to be a CSIRO “SKA Chief Scientist”. A third of the reduction will be through involuntary redundancies. Eight staff across sites in Sydney, Parkes, Narrabri and Geraldton have already been informed that their roles are expected to cease.

The speed of implementation of such a substantial funding reduction forces swift action. This has unsettled staff and the broader astronomy community, but it hasn’t changed the broad direction of CSIRO’s astronomy program.

World leaders in radio astronomy

Australian scientists and engineers are world leaders in radio astronomy, both in understanding our universe and in developing some of the most innovative technologies used to gain that understanding, and have been for 50 years.

CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) has been integral to the discovery of the first double pulsar system (a long-sought holy grail of astronomy), the identification of a previously unknown arm of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and the invention of Wi-Fi now so embedded in everyday communications.

For the past decade CSIRO has been steadily changing the way it operates its radio astronomy facilities. CSIRO’s highest priority is the pursuit of science enabled by the development of an innovative new technology that provides an unprecedented wide field of view.

This uses “Phased Array Feeds” (PAFs) as multi-pixel radio cameras at the focus of dishes. PAFs are being deployed in the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), in Western Australia, which will be the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky.

ASKAP telescopes in WA

High-speed radio astronomy surveys will be possible thanks to the PAF receivers (green chequerboard at top of the quadrupod) on the ASKAP telescopes in Western Australia.

ASKAP is in the early stages of commissioning. It is just now starting to demonstrate the new capabilities obtainable with a PAF-equipped array.

ASKAP is an outstanding telescope in its own right but is also a pathfinder to the huge Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This enormous project will build the world’s biggest astronomy observatory in Australia and southern Africa. It’s also the most expensive at a cost of around A$2.5 billion.

Cutbacks at The Dish

To resource these exciting developments, CSIRO has been reducing costs and staffing at its existing facilities, including the venerable Parkes Dish. This is a painful but necessary process. The most recent funding cuts will result in more pain.

Astronomers will no longer have the option of travelling to the Compact Array to operate the telescope to collect their data. They can run the telescope from CSIRO’s operations centre in Sydney, or from their own university, or from anywhere in the world via an internet connection.

Astronomers who use the Parkes telescope have been doing this for the past year after a very successful program to make the 50-year-old dish remotely operable. That is pretty amazing for a machine built before the advent of modern computers.

Parkes telescope

The Parkes dish gets the remote treatment.
Image: John Sarkissian

For many decades Parkes staff have swapped detector systems or “radio receivers” in and out of the focus cabin, the box at the tip of the tripod that sits about 64 metres off the ground. Each receiver operates at different wavelengths and offers quite different types of science.

It seems likely that CSIRO will offer just two Parkes receivers for at least the next six to 12 months, since it will no longer have the staff needed to swap receivers. Similar reductions in the capability of the Compact Array will also be needed to fit within the budget.

The future

While the current changes are painful, the future is incredibly exciting. The direction of Australia’s astronomy is described in the Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy for 2006–2015. It identifies participation in the SKA and access to the world’s largest optical telescopes as the two highest priorities for Australian astronomy.

We are making progress on both fronts, despite some significant challenges. The process to develop the plan for the next decade is well in hand under the stewardship of the National Committee for Astronomy.

Phased arrays are also at the heart of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), another innovative SKA precursor that has been in operation for a little over a year.

ASKAP and the MWA are located in the Murchison region of Western Australia, chosen because it has a tremendously low level of human activity and so astonishingly little background radio noise.

This radio quietness is the equivalent of the dark skies so important for optical astronomers. Less noise means astronomers are better able to detect and study the incredibly weak radio signals from the most distant parts of the universe.

This freedom from radio interference is a unique resource available only in remote parts of Australia and is essential for ASKAP, MWA and much of the science targeted by the SKA.


Prototype of the more sensitive second-generation PAFs to be deployed on ASKAP undergoing tests in Western Australia in August 2014.
Image: A. Hotan

The wide fields of view of ASKAP and the MWA enable unprecedented studies of the entire radio sky. Astronomers will measure the radio emission of millions of galaxies and complete massive surveys that for the first time will connect radio astronomy to the more mature field of optical astronomy.

Mapping the sky with EMU and WALLABY

The two highest priority projects for ASKAP are called the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) and the Widefield ASKAP L-Band Legacy All-Sky Blind Survey (WALLABY).

Both will survey millions of galaxies and together they will trace the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and massive black holes to help us explore the large-scale structure of the universe.

The MWA is already producing great science targeted at the detection of intergalactic hydrogen gas during what’s known as the “epoch of reionisation” when the first stars in the universe began to shine.

With the SKA we aim to understand what the mysterious dark matter and dark energy are. We may also provide another spin-off such as the Wi-Fi technology, which came from CSIRO efforts to detect the evaporating black holes predicted by Stephen Hawking.

Advances in data-mining or processing techniques driven by the astonishing data rates that will be collected by the thousands of SKA antennas deployed across the Australian and African continents might provide the most fertile ground of all, illustrating once again the long-term benefits of investing in cutting-edge science.

Lewis Ball has received funding from the Australian Research Council. CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science receives funding from a variety of government sources, and from NASA/JPL.

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

Fast-tracking access to experimental Ebola drugs

Most agree that if an individual is likely to die and an experimental therapy has a reasonable chance to prevent death, then it should be given. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Most agree that if an individual is likely to die and an experimental therapy has a reasonable chance to prevent death, then it should be given. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

By Glenn Marsh, CSIRO

The current outbreak of Zaire Ebola virus in Western Africa is the largest ever recorded. More than 1800 people have been infected and nearly 1000 people have died. But while drug therapies are close to being available, they may not be ready in time for the current outbreak, even if safety trials are fast-tracked.

Several therapeutic treatments being developed by other organisations are in experimental phases of testing and show great promise in treating Ebola virus infections in animal models. These include antibodies (one of the body’s natural defence mechanisms to fight infections), RNAi molecules (that target the genetic material of the virus) and several more traditional pharmaceutical drugs.

Safety trials

Before being administered to people, each of these new potential therapies would require human clinical trials, starting with a phase I safety trial. In phase I, the products under investigation are administered to healthy volunteers to evaluate how safe the treatments are, including determining a safe dose range and potential side effects. These trials generally involve 20 to 80 individuals.

Phase II trials, used to determine efficacy, are complicated to carry out for rare viral diseases such as Ebola. Traditionally, in phase II trials two groups are treated, the first group receives the treatment or vaccine while the other group receives a placebo, or mock treatment. Evaluating the efficacy of these compounds will only be possible with direct testing during an outbreak.

But during an outbreak, and for ethical reasons, it may not be possible to administer a placebo to one group of people while treating others with a potentially life-saving therapy.

Experimental therapies

ZMapp is a mix of three antibodies, all directed to the Ebola virus glycoprotein (GP), which block attachment and entry to cells, the first step of the virus infection cycle.

ZMapp is produced in a Nicotiana plant, related to tobacco, and is being developed as a treatment for Ebola virus infection by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. along with many other partners. These antibodies are “humanised” monoclonal antibodies, stopping the human immune system from recognising them as foreign.

ZMapp was the experimental therapy administered to the two American medical aid workers infected with the Ebola virus. The medics were working in Liberia, trying to contain this outbreak.

This experimental cocktail of antibodies builds on the success of similar antibody therapies, which have protected macaques from a lethal dose of Ebola virus when administered 24 hours after infection. Media reports indicate the two health-care workers have shown signs of improvement.

ZMapp is not the only experimental therapy to show promise in animal studies in preventing lethal disease for Ebola virus. Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation are currently undergoing a phase I clinical trial of TKM-Ebola, a RNAi therapeutic targeted towards Zaire Ebola virus. This therapy was demonstrated to give 100% protection in macaques from an otherwise lethal challenge of Zaire Ebola virus.

In March 2014, the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), fast tracked TKM-Ebola as a drug for an unmet medical need. However, the phase I clinical trial was recently suspended due to safety concerns, with individuals receiving higher doses developing an inflammatory, flu-like response to treatment.

Due to the relative risk from the disease versus the treatment, in the last week, the FDA has eased the restrictions on TKM-Ebola. This may allow for TKM-Ebola to be used in infected patients.

Liberian children lay flowers in memory of all Liberians who have died of the Ebola virus. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Liberian children lay flowers in memory of all Liberians who have died of the Ebola virus. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Other drugs, which have been shown in the laboratory to be effective against Ebola viruses include BCX4430 and Favipiravir, both of which are nucleoside analogues that block viral RNA replication.

Developed by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc., BCX4430 is a broad-spectrum antiviral that inhibits different many viruses. BCX4430 has been demonstrated to protect rodents from Ebola virus and macaques from Marburg virus, a closely related virus.

Favipiravir, which is in late-stage clinical development for the treatment of influenza, has reduced the severity of disease and risk of death in a mouse model of disease.

Fast-tracking access

So, should these therapies be used now to treat infected people, bypassing clinical safety trials?

Giving treatments, which are unlicensed and untested in humans, is an ethical issue. Likewise, not administering a potentially life-saving therapy is also problematic. These decisions would have been carefully considered prior to the treatment of the two American aid workers with the unlicensed ZMapp antibody.

In recognition of the difficult ethical issues that arise in this debate, the World Health Organization is meeting to discuss the current outbreak and relevant issues. Much of the debate centres on a popular belief: if an individual is likely to die and an experimental therapy has a reasonable chance to prevent death, then it should be given.

But there are other issues to consider: what if the experimental therapeutic makes the disease worse? And who decides who to treat when only small numbers of doses are available?

Additionally, for many of these experimental therapies, only a small number of doses are currently available to be used for treatment. Many of these therapies would require weeks, if not months, to produce sufficient doses for large scale use.

Although there is currently no end in sight for this outbreak, research and clinical trials of these new therapies for Ebola virus needs to continue. That way, when the next Ebola virus outbreak occurs, there will be licensed options available and the discussion about whether unlicensed drugs should be used will be negated.

Glenn Marsh receives funding from NHMRC.

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

Fighting back against species loss

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 4: Management and Restoration Tools

There are many troubling threats to our native biodiversity in Australia, two of the biggest being the loss and fragmentation of native habitats and the impact of invasive species. Native species also suffer as a result of poor grazing and fire management regimes, over harvesting, pollution and disease.

To add to the problem there is a high level of uncertainty about how best to address the decline in our biodiversity and there are competing demands on the limited resources available to do this work. These factors align to make the decision making process incredibly complex, urgent and high pressured.

On the up side, here in Australia we are well placed to do something about it. A lot of the scientific expertise about managing biodiversity is being developed right here. In the fourth video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Tara Martin talks through some of the ways we’re managing threats to our biodiversity, particularly through the use of new tools to help us make increasingly urgent management decisions:

To find out more about the tools for managing and restoring Australia’s biodiversity, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at how Australia’s biodiversity is tracking. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.

New diet program: The weight is over

Keen to lose weight, but don’t know where to begin? Our dietitians and scientists have developed a new weight loss program designed to reset your habits and kick start you on your weight loss journey.


Following on from the success of the Total Wellbeing Diet, our talented team worked with Probiotec Ltd to develop a holistic program that included meal replacements – catering to people with busy lifestyles, who may have let cooking and meal preparation fall down the priority list.

Oh no, not just shakes, I hear you say! No need to fear, on the Impromy™ program, you can consume whole meals and snacks throughout the day, guided by your trained consultant. While the meal replacements will get you started on your weight loss, the long term aim is to transition you to complete meals based on Total Wellbeing Diet plan.

Designed to help you lose weight quickly and easily in a safe and nutritionally balanced way, ImpromyTM includes:

  • nutritionally enhanced meal replacement products (shakes, bars and soups) in conjunction with healthy high protein meals.
  • a Simply Well recipe book
  • regular face-to-face consultations with an Impromy trained pharmacy consultant
  • health checks and a Smartphone app to keep you on track

Backed by research

Our past clinical trials have provided the building blocks for Impromy™. The program builds on our Total Wellbeing Diet research and how it can be used with smart phone technology in a community pharmacy setting

We recruited 150 people and guided them through the prototype pharmacy program. With both dietitians and non dieticians trained as consultants the results were positive. Participants expressed a high level of acceptance as well as improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight loss.

Find out more

Impromy was developed by Probiotec in collaboration with CSIRO, it is only available through selected pharmacies that have employed trained consultants, locate your local pharmacy here.

To learn about our nutrition clinical trials in (Adelaide only) visit our website.

To read more about the Impromy™ program and our FAQs visit our website: or contact Impromy™ on 1800 608 511


Watch-bees on the job

How much are bees worth to you?

Well, did you know they earn an estimated $4-$6B for Australia every year? Another way to look at it is – what price would you place on cashews, almonds, macadamias, strawberries and avocadoes? Among many others, these crops rely on bees for pollination.  In fact, around one in three bites of the food we eat owe its existence to bees, which is why it is a concern to learn that bee populations around the world are in trouble.

Bees on a frame

Healthy bees at work

Enter Destructive Varroa

Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) is in all beekeeping countries except ours. These sesame-seed-sized mites attach themselves to bees and suck their haemolymph (insects’ version of blood), making the bee more vulnerable to disease. No country has been able to eradicate Varroa once it’s established.

Varroa has been implicated in collapse of bee colonies. Adult worker bees suddenly leave the hive, dying somewhere else. The colony then falls apart. The underlying cause is often unclear, but devastated hives often contain Varroa mite. This may only be a coincidence, but it’s another reason to keep Australia Varroa mite-free as long as possible. Colony collapse has become a major problem – particularly in the US.

The good news is we’re unaffected – so far. The bad news is that when (and it is when, not if) Varroa mite arrives in Australia, local bees haven’t been exposed to it, so they’re extremely susceptible. There have already been a couple of scares in 2012. Varroa-carrying bees were found living in the loading cranes of a ship berthed off Sydney.

Bee pupae infected with Varroa mite

Varroa mite on bee pupae

Australia is currently free of Varroa mite but not of Asian honey bees which is their natural host. We’re already on alert, which is why horticultural industries, the honeybee industry and the Australian Government created a National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, managed nationally by Plant Health Australia.

Unfortunately no amount of surveillance can guarantee pests are kept out, so an early warning system is necessary.

The most likely entry point for Varroa mite is through Australia’s east coast ports, especially from vessels from New Zealand and South-East Asia.

The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program now has 126 sentinel hives. These are hives of healthy European honey bees that are placed at high-risk locations, an average of six per location. These hives are tested every two months using mite-killing chemicals, to provide early detection for Varroa mites and another major honey bee pest, Tropilaelaps mites that could be carried by exotic bees on a ship or in the cargo. Samples of bees are taken from sentinel hives every two months.

But how do they know which ports to put the hives at? Enter data analytics.

The shipping news

Working out the best sites for the hives involved taking multiple data sets containing details on exotic bee interceptions, ships involved, ports of origin, destinations and types of cargo carried.

We used a technique called random effects modelling, a way of drawing out the relevant information when the precise characteristics of the members of the dataset– in this case the cargo, the last country of call and arrival port– are not all the same and difficult to quantify.

We started with shipping data. There is comprehensive information on those vessels that have arrived in Australia, when and from where. We matched this with records of exotic bee interceptions – sometimes on vessels, in machinery, or nesting on the outside of containers at ports.  We then collected maps and aerial pictures of all Australian ports, to produce models of potential bee habitats. To know what to put into the models, we had to find out how far bees can swarm (5km maximum for Asian honey bees and 2km for European honey bees). We also had to learn how long a vessel would need to be in port for bees to find a place to swarm to. If there isn’t enough time for scout bees to find a suitable site or a second set of bees to visit and ‘approve’ it, the colony will not swarm. That’s also assuming it has a queen and is a genuine swarm. This was not always possible to establish with confidence from the interception data.

Some ports with desert or industrial areas nearby ports were ruled out because they have no habitat suitable for honey bees that are within swarming range. This also ruled out ports where the berthing location is relatively distant from the coast.

Data were then assessed to establish what cargo came to the more ‘bee-hospitable’ ports, where the vessels arrived from and how long the voyage had been. Voyages of 300 days or longer were excluded on the basis that the bees wouldn’t survive a trip of that length.

The country of origin and type of cargo are also important considerations. Asian honey bees in particular like to nest in nooks in machinery which is subsequently shipped as cargo. These bees are less keen on – perhaps unsurprisingly – the barren hulls of empty vessels.

Asian honey bees

Asian honey bees

All this information and consideration have combined to produce a surveillance system that is likely to use resources effectively as possible and head off exotic and infected bees before they do any damage.

So, next time you’re enjoying a handful of almonds, spare a thought for the bees that pollinated it and for the data analysis that goes into keeping those bees healthy.


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