Peering deep into space and making red blood cells – not at the same time!

In the studio on Sunday the 23rd of October were Dr Shane, Dr Alicia, Dr Adam and myself, Dr Krystal

Do mobile phones cause cancer? The newest and biggest study on mobile phone users and cancer has found no evidence for increased risk of tumours in the brain or central nervous system with mobile phone useage. The study, published in the British Medical Journal, followed more than 350,000 mobile phone users for over 10 years, providing the best evidence to date that there is no link between cancer and mobile phone use.

When will there be a vaccine against malaria? The leading vaccine in development is currently being tested in clinical trials and has shown to decrease the risk of severe malaria by 45% in African children. This quite a low level of protection for a vaccine, but considering that there are more than 250 million cases of malaria each year, this vaccine could play an important role in reducing death and disease.

Are teenagers’ brains always the same? Research from a team at University College London has shown that intelligence can rise and fall throughout teenage years. Changes in IQ happened alongside changes in brain structure throughout adolescence, suggesting that this is a crucial period of development for young minds.

How do pandas digest all that bamboo? Analysis of panda poo has helped solve the mystery of how panda bears digest the tough fibers present in bamboo. Bacteria in the digestive system of pandas (and detected in their poo) produce enzymes that breakdown the cellulose fibres present in bamboo, allowing these bears to enjoy their herbivore diet.

Can we ever repair spinal cord injuries? A new cell transplantation technique is being trialled in humans to see if Schwann cells taken from the peripheral nervous system could be used to repair damaged nerves in the spinal cord. This procedure uses a patient’s own cells for the transplant, and avoids the problems of organ rejection and does not rely on controversial approaches such as using embryonic stem cells.





Our guest in the studio today was astrophysicist Professor Rachel Webster, from the University of Melbourne. Her research harnesses the effects of gravitational microlensing, to look up into the sky and search for objects located far far away from earth. This astronomical effect was predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which predicted that light from a distant star would bend when it goes past a massive object in the sky. Microlensing acts like an additional lens on the telescope, magnifying the light signal and allowing scientists to peer 10 to 100 times further into space. Professor Webster is also setting up a new school’s telescope program in Melbourne, which will see 10 brand new “all singing all dancing” telescopes given to high schools who wouldn’t nrmally have the resources for this type of equipment. This three year project aims to have viewing nights at schools around 6 times a year, so that students can see and think about what’s happening in the universe.

Today was my first show back in the studio for about eight weeks, as I’ve been in the UK learning how to make red blood cells from adult stem cells – and it was amazing! The process starts by using adult stem cells that circulate in the blood, and taken from normal adult blood donors. red-blood-cells

Around a million of these stem cells are put into a petri dish, and fed with a complex mixture of chemicals that provide all the signals to instruct the stem cells to grow and morph into red blood cells. My favourite part was about two weeks into the experiment when the cells started expressing the hemoglobin, the oxgyen-carrying molecule which is red, and so the cells started to turn pink! And why was I doing all this? Well, I’m a malaria researcher, and malaria lives inside red blood cells in the body. Using this stem cell approach I can make designer homes for different types of malaria like Plasmodium vivax, which prefers to live in young red blood cells.

The way medical research is funded in Australia has been shown to be an expensive and somewhat random process. A study by Professor Nic Graves, a health economist from the University of Technology Queensland has shown that the total cost of the $350 million dollar National Health and Medical Research Council grant process was $47.9 million, with most of this cost being the time spent by individuals preparing and reviewing submissions. This insight into the inefficient nature of the grant system is very informative for the upcoming strategic review of health and medical research in Australia.

Science stories and a glass of wine!

Did you know that the US National Football League has a brain bank? This week Dangermouse told us about a research project, funded by the NFL at Boston University, that is examining footballer’s brains post-mortem for signs of damage associated with repeated trauma to the head. Of the twelve players who have donated their brains to research to date, signs of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was found in all twelve. This may have serious implications for player’s health and the way concussion injuries are managed.

It was a sad week in science for climate scientists hoping to gain data from new Earth-observing satellites. Dr Shane told us about the Glory spacecraft which was designed to look at small particulate matter in the atmosphere called aerosol particles and determine their effect on the Earth’s climate. However the launch was far from glorious, as a section of the craft failed to detach and the satellite did not reach orbit. This is the second time a spacecraft designed to collect climate information has crashed and burned. In 2009 the Orbiting Carbon Observatory which planned to accurately determine where carbon dioxide is emitted and absorbed across the Earth also plummeted into the ocean soon after launch. Not that we want to inspire conspiracy theorists, but the amount of data generated from these probes would have been incredible and now these opportunities have been lost.

I was intrigued by a curious case of the plague, where a US laboratory scientist was killed by his own research bug. The plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, which was routinely used in the lab had been genetically weakened so that it could not efficiently acquire iron. As iron is essential for the bacteria to survive, the lab strain of plague was thought to be harmless. So how did it kill the researcher? Unfortunately the scientist had an undiagnosed genetic condition called hemochromatosis, where the body has an increased uptake and storage of iron, which was probably enough for the bacteria to regain its virulence.







“Science isn’t perfect, but rather like democracy, the cure for it is usually more of it, not less”. This brilliant quote is taken from our guest, Stephen Luntz’s recently published book “Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Fieldguide to Australian Scientists“. This eclectic collection of science stories grew out of Stephen’s “Cool Science” column and attracted the interest of CSIRO publishing. With intriguing titles such as “Do kangaroo’s have friends?”, ” There’s a moth in my chocolate” and “The stunt physicist”, each short section gives a unique insight into one scientist’s research and also their personal story. I would highly recommend this accessible and interesting book to anyone with an interest in science, particularly students who want to know more about what life as a scientist is really all about. Available for purchase online, as an ebook or from Readings and Dymocks bookstores.

I was really excited to be in the studio with Dr. Xavier Conlan to talk about the intersection of two of my favourite things – Science and Wine. According to Dr. Conlan “Wine is an excellent sample to deal with” and he is part of a team of scientists at Deakin University, who are studying the chemical fingerprints of wine. Using advanced chromatography techniques, the group are able to separate out and identify the complex mixture of chemicals present in a wine that are unique to its origin. The scientists then challenged a group of wine buffs to a tasting duel; Who could most accurately identify wines from two distinct wine regions – the Coonawarra versus the Bellarine Peninsula. Surprisingly only 6/10 wine experts could accurately diagnose the origin of wines based on tastings as compared to a greater than 90% accuracy for the scientific analysis. This technology has a wide range of applications, such verifying the origin of high-end wine for investment purposes, or detecting cork taint. Another intriguing discovery was the way in which the molecular profile of wine changes over time. In a vertical tasting of wines over a range of vintages, Dr Conlan’s research has shown that while the complexity of the taste may increase as a wine ages, chemically it gets simpler. This may enable producers to chemically define the exact moment when a cellared wine is at it’s best for drinking. Here’s to science – cheers!

This year marks the ten year anniversary of the publication of the first full draft of the human genome. This project was the culmination of over fifteen years of work, involving twenty sequencing centres in six countries, and costing almost $US3 billion. I am amazed by the rapid acceleration of sequencing technology over the last ten years, now an entire genome can be sequenced in less than a week, at a cost just under $US10,000. These amazing advances have facilitated large collaborative international programs such as the 1,000 genomes project, and the International HapMap project to study human genetic diversity. The advances promised by the publication of the human genome may not have been completely realised within one decade, but as the human genome enters its teenage years, I am excited to see where it will take science next.

On Wednesday the 9th of March – that’s this week – Professor Terrence Sejnowski will deliver the 2011 Graeme Clark Oration: “The Computational Brain” at Melbourne Convention Centre. Registration is free, so get along to learn about the workings of the brain and what the future holds in terms of building artificial brains.








This week our music tracks were:The Waifs

“In the battle of sun vs curtains, sun loses and we sleep till noon for free” by woodpigeon

“Tree by the river” by Iron and Wine

“Take it all in” by The Waifs

We are living in a bacterial world

In the studio on Sunday the 29th of May were Dr Shane, Dr Alicia, Dr Ray and myself – Dr Krystal.

There is a lot of public concern over the safety of nanoparticles, particularly in pregnant women due to the possibility that these particles may cross the placenta and effect the baby’s development. There is clear need for more research into how nanoparticles behave in the body and this week Dr Ray reported on a study published in Nature Nanotechnology that examined the ability of nanoparticles with different diameters to cross the placenta of pregnant mice. The study showed that it is the size of the nanoparticle that is significant, as 70 nanometre silicon particles or 35 nanometre titanium dioxide nanoparticles were able to reach the foetus when injected into pregnant mice. However larger nanoparticles of 300 and 900 nanometres did not cross the placenta and could not reach the foetus. It is hoped this research will help clarify the size cutoffs required for nanoparticle safety.

Conditions causing chronic pain have a huge impact on people’s quality of life, and currently available pain killers often have serious side-effects with varying pain-relief effectiveness in different people. This week chemistry researchers have synthesised a new drug called conolidine, which is present in a tropical flowering plant used in traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic and Thai medicine. Condoline is difficult to purify from plants in large amounts and the multi-step chemical synthesis of the drug has produced enough of the molecule for biological testing. Interestingly condoline is a very potent pain-killer but acts differently to opioid drugs, like morphine. The idea that condoline is acting in a different part of the brain has opened up a whole new pathway for pain-relief drugs.

Targeting drugs to reach the brain is a tricky business, and a challenge for designing new therapies for conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The brain is protected by a specialised lining called the blood-brain barrier that controls the traffic of molecules in and out. Dr Alicia told us of a new approach using a targeted antibody to trick the brain into taking its medicine. The antibody has two arms; the first arm allows the antibody to cross the blood brain barrier by targeting the transporters that normally take up iron, and the second arm of the antibody inhibits the enzyme that produces amyloid-beta and prevents the formation of new plaques in the brain. This double action antibody approach may be useful for designing drugs for other brain disorders, such as Parkinsons Disease.





Our first guest, on the phone today, was Professor Kate Auty who is the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria. Her office produces the State of the Environment report, which comes out every five years and includes not only how Victoria’s environment is changing, but how people perceive and respond to these changes. As part of her role Professor Auty travels all around the state to visit and consult many rural communities. Interestingly in her travels Professor Auty says that climate change denial is neglibile in Victorian communities and that the public is very active in combating and adapting to climate change. Her office values face-to-face communication of the science of climate change and sees a strong role for local governments and community groups in providing detailed climate knowledge.







Our second guest, in the studio, was Dr Blair Trewin a senior climatologist with the National Climate Centre, a section of the Bureau of Meteorology here in Melbourne. Dr Trewin’s research involves the development of long term datasets that tracks whats happening in our climate over time. Instrumental weather measurements have been recorded for around 150 years in Australia, and measure temperature and rainfall, as well as humidity and cloud cover. Another of Dr Trewin’s roles has been co-ordinating the World Meteorological Organization’s global climate statement for 2010 and 2011. It was an interesting year in 2010, being the equal hottest year globally, and having some quite dramatic events such as the heatwave in Russia and the floods in Pakistan. With so many guests from the Bureau of Meteorology this month, I’ve started looking at the weather in a much more informed way!

Aside from the Madonna song, it has often been said that we are living in a bacterial world. Traditionally scientists have studied bacteria as individual organisms, but there is a growing recognition that bacteria actually live together in quite sophisticated communities, known as biofilms. By communicating and co-operating bacteria can better respond to environmental stresses, including resisting antibiotics and disinfectants. Within a biofilm, bacteria communicate using a system of cell-to-cell signalling, known as quorum sensing. The leads to the development of specialised cells within the population that do different jobs within the biofilm, kind of like bees in a hive. This has changed the way bacteria are percived, living in a co-ordinated way that is more like a multi-cellular organism than a collection of individual cells.


Medical Research Week 2011

In the studio on the 5th of June for Einstein A Go-Go were Dr Shane, Dr Andi, Dangermouse and myself, Dr Krystal

It’s ASMR Medical Research Week 2011, a week to celebrate the contributions of Australian medical research scientists to making the world a healthier place. From designing new drugs and creating new vaccines, to evaluating approaches to health and understanding disease – medical research is a vital part of it all. Each year the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) runs a series of Medical Research Week events all around the country, including an online quiz for high school students – check it out and get involved! Our guests on today’s show are all medical researchers working on infectious diseases, from a PhD student to a Nobel Prize winner!

Today Dangermouse updated us on a story he discussed in March this year regarding the suicide of a US football player who left a note requesting that his brain be donated to the NFL brainbank. Analysis of the footballer’s brain did indeed reveal signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in regions of the brain involved in mood, memory and cognitive function. CTE is a serious degenerative condition caused by repeated low level impacts to the head, which are common during contact sports. These findings have intensified the debate around the use of protective gear in sports, including whether helmets should be used in AFL.





Dr Andi has been reading “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” by Michael Pollan, which discusses the science of contemporary nutrition. The advice in the book addresses confusion regarding what you should and shouldn’t eat with short easy to remember rules. Dr Andi particularly liked “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves” and “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food”. Importantly the author finishes with the recommendation that you break the rules once in a while!

Dr Shane spoke about a serious situation in Italy where scientists are on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people who died in the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009. The seismologists were members of a commitee that have been accused of supplying misleading information to the public in the days leading up to the quake. Statements such as “there is no danger” and “the situation looks favourable” resulted in many people being unprepared and not taking precautions before the quake hit. This is a case where poor science communication had serious consequences, and the outcome of the trial has implications for many scientists who issue statements concerning public safety.


Our first Medical Research Week guest was Professor Julie Bines from the Royal Children’s Hospital who is working on a new rotavirus vaccine. Rotavirus infection can lead to severe gastroenteritis and is a major killer of children under the age of 5 in developing nations. The discovery of rotavirus and the development of an effective vaccine is a great story of Australian science that’s transformed healthcare world wide. Initially it was thought that bacteria were responsible for most gastrointestinal illness, however a team of Melbourne scientists indentified rotavirus as a major cause of disease. The research team also found that there were some strains of rotavirus found in children in Melbourne who didn’t get sick and went on to develop natural immunity to rotavirus. This harmless rotavirus strain protected children against infection with more severe disease causing versions of the virus. These observations lead to the development of a rotavirus vaccine that is now given to children at 6-8 weeks of age as part of their immunization programme. The new rotavirus vaccine Professor Bines has developed can be given at birth, to provide newborn babies protection against rotavirus in the earliest stages of life.

An outstanding researcher in his field is Nobel Laureate Barry Marshall, who joined us on the phone, out standing in his field on his farm in Western Australia. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2005 for the discovery that a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, was the cause of stomach ulcers. Previously it was thought that stomach ulcers were caused by stress H pylori DJand increased stomach acid, and it took more than a decade for the research on H. pylori to be accepted by the medical community. Famously, Barry Marshall drank a culture of H. pylori to demonstrate that this bacteria caused gastritis. Now in Australia and all over the world stomach ulcers are treated and cured using antibiotics, leading to the disease being almost been wiped out in many countries. Professor Marshall is the ASMR Medallist for 2011 and is currently touring the country, speaking with scientists all Australia. His advice to young researchers is that “Science is not a democracy” and that if your data shows you are correct, you have to have the confidence that your idea is right. The long road of research can revolutionise medicine!

Our final Medical Research Week guest was PhD candidate Liz Zuccala from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute who studies the way malaria parasites invade red blood cells. Malaria lives, grows and multiplies inside these cells, bursting out and re-invading new cells every 48 hours. The role of red blood cells is to carry oxygen to all the tissues of the body, travelling through small and narrow capillaries, some of the smallest spaces in the body. The red cell has an amazing structure, with a strong and flexible membrane that allows it to squeeze through capillaries, then spring back into shape. To invade a red blood cell the malaria parasite manipulates the cell’s membrane by injecting its own proteins into the cell and actively pushing itself inside. Liz’s research uses microscopy to study the interaction of the malaria parasite with the dynamic red cell membrane and to see what’s happening in real time. Invasion is essential for the survival of malaria and being able to block this process using drugs or vaccines may lead to new tools in the fight to eradicate malaria.

As a special medical research question Dr Andi asked all of our guests “What is your favourite internal organ?” Professor Julie Bines chose the gut, as did Professor Barry Marshall. As a cell biologist Liz Zucala chose the red blood cells, though she did concede that the circulatory system would also suffice. I like the spleen – how about you? Please comment below!


“The Rumbler”: Can you feel it New York?

In the studio on Sunday the 11th of June were Dr Shane, Chris KP and myself, Dr Krystal.

Life threatening fungal infections are an unexepected consequence of the Joplin tornado that struck Missouri last month. Chris KP told us that rare fungal infections, called mucormycosis, are being reported in the wake of the tornado and have already claimed one victim. The tornado caused massive destruction and upheaval of the natural environment, which may have released fungal spores from the soil. Also deep tissue infection can occur in wounds from flying debris lodged in the skin, leading to rapid tissue necrosis.

Periodic Table



2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, and I was excited to see two new elements added to the periodic table this week. The new heavy elements with atomics number 114 and 116, previously known as ununquadium and ununhexium, have been synthetically created and characterised. Proposed names include flerovium for 114, named after Soviet nuclear physicist Georgy Flyorov and moscovium for 116, after Moscow. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has only one rule: the elements name must end in “ium” – what are your suggestions?

In astronomy news Dr Shane told us about a new kind of ultrabright supernova discovered by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. Currently there are two broad kinds of supernovae 175872main_sn2006gy_main_330including Type Ia which occur when small, dense, white dwarf stars draw material in from neighbouring sister stars and then explode; and Type 2 that result from the explosion of massive stars, dozens of times larger than our sun, that collapse in upon themselves. However the newly detected supernovae don’t fit the profile of either category. The new supernovae are extraordinarily bright, they don’t contain signature supernova elements such as hydrogen, iron or calcium and their signal fades at a very different rate to normal. This discovery could mean re-writing the textbooks to include a new class of supernova.

A hot topic in the media is the question: Do mobile phones cause cancer? Last week the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC), an advisory board for the WHO, released a statement saying radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, such as those given off by mobile phones, have been classified as Group 2B agents. I wanted to know exactly what this meant. There are four IARC categories: Group 1 is for substances that are carcinogenic to human, such as tobacco, asbestos and alcohol. Group 2 has two sub-groups: Group2A for things that “probably” cause cancer, such as the human papilloma virus, and Group 2B for things that “possibly” cause cancer, which now includes mobiles phone usage. Group 3 is for substances not classifiable, where there is no information that they cause cancer, such as flourescent lights and tea. And things that probably don’t cause cancer are in Group 4. Surprisingly this category contains only one member, caprolactam, that has been officially certified as probably not carcinogenic. So what’s the evidence for mobile phone usage being associated with an increased risk of cancer? There are only a limited number of studies, but two of the largest investigations, the Interphone study and the Danish study have found NO increase in the risk of brain tumours with the use of mobile phones. However the IARC statement makes reference to one past study that showed an increased risk, but didn’t provide a reference – a clear case of citation needed. So based on this limited evidence, radiofrequency electromagnetic fields joined the IARC Group 2B list, along with bracken ferns, coffee, being a dry cleaner and talcum powder, as something that may possibly cause cancer, but for which there is limited evidence in humans to suggest they are carcinogenic.

Dr Jennifer Henry, Director of Life Sciences at the New York Academy of Sciences rang in with all the news and views from the Big Apple. Apparently the people of New York are not paying attention to the sirens used by ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Many of these alarms use high frequency sounds which can be difficult to hear and don’t travel well through solid surfaces, such as the external panels of cars. The NYPD has conducted research into the use of low frequency siren sounds, and has installed a new device called “The Rumbler” into police patrol cars.Each vehicle has 2 sub-woofer units installed to create a siren sound that can be felt as well as heard. With a vibration range of 200 feet, this boom box siren causes the steering wheel to vibrate, and the rear view mirror to shake in nearby cars, creating a siren sound that you can see, hear and feel. Brilliant to see the NYPD looking to science for solutions!





In June many of us turn to over-the-counter medications to sooth our winter cold and flu symptoms. Chris KP had a look at a few of the most common active ingredients in these remedies to see just what they do. Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant that causes blood vessels to constrict. Less blood flow in the constricted vessels means less fluid enters the nose, throat and sinus linings, which decreases inflammation and mucus production. Paracetamol, a common painkiller, inhibits the activation of one of the bodies main pain receptors, the nociceptor. Codeine is a member of the opioid family that is converted to morphine by your body. It acts to block pain signals in the central nervous system. Menthol, one of the key ingredients in vapour rub, is a local anesthetic that also triggers cooling receptors. Of course one of the best treatments for the symptoms of cold and flu is staying in bed under your doona and getting some rest.


Premature babies: Where are they now?

In the studio on Sunday the 26th of June were Dr Shane, Dr Adam, Dr Melissa, and myself, Dr Krystal.

In response to a strong misinformation campaign being run to undermine the work of Australian scientists, Science and Technology Australia have launched the “Respect the Science” campaign.


Their aim is promote the way in which science works to create a body of evidence that establishes knowledge as beyond reasonable doubt. I really like the videos featuring scientists from the University New South Wales talking about the process of having an idea, testing it, having the research reviewed by fellow scientists, and coming to a consensus about what the results mean.

Do humans have the ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field? Many animals like turtles, birds and bees have proteins called cryptochromes that allow them to sense magnetic fields. Humans also have a cryptochrome protein, and when transferred into flies, the human crytochrome protein enabled flies to sense magnetic fields. This is the first evidence that the human protein can function as a sensor, but as humans generally aren’t aware of magnetic fields, it suggests that we lack other crucial components in the detection pathway.

One of the biggest breakthrough in genetics has been the arrival of cheaper and faster sequencing technologies. This makes it possible to sequence a patient’s whole genome and brings the field of personalised medicine a whole lot closer to. An exciting study this week used whole genome sequencing to identify the underlying genetic cause of a disorder known as dopa-responsive dystonia. The sequencing identified a new gene involved, and this changed the approach to the treatment of the patient. This informed diagnosis resulted in a greatly improved quality of life for the patient involved. A demonstrated success for personalised medicine showing how advances in technology can directly improve health outcomes.


Our first guest in the studio was Alice Burnett, a PhD candidate from the Murdoch. Her research looks at the long-term health effects of premature birth in teenagers who were born in the early 90′s either before 28 weeks or with birth weights under 1kg. Some of these babies missed out on almost a third of gestation, a crucial time for the development of many organs, including the brain. This study asks whether pre-term birth leads to more anxiety and depression in teenagers and if there any differences in the regions of the brain involved in these conditions, in those who were born premature. Being able to identify what factors most strongly predict whether premature babies will have difficulties like anxiety and depression later in life will help design better interventions and treatments.


Our second guest on the show was Jacquie O’Brien from Communications at Zoos Victoria, who shared the news that the Palm Oil Bill has passed through the senate. The unsustainable production of palm oil leads to habitat destruction throughout South East Asia, threatening the survival of animals such as orangutans, tigers and elephants. Zoos Victoria’s “Don’t palm us off” campaign has been asking for mandatory labelling of products containing palm oil, so customers can make informed choices about avoid palm oil products. In other exciting zoo news, children under 16 can go to the zoo for FREE during the school holidays, public holidays and weekends. A perfect opportunity to check out the nocturnal animal action of “Wild Nights” at Werribee Open Range Zoo.

Dr Adam has recently returned from his overseas travels in India and Bhutan, where he visited some of the most biodiverse parts of the world. However he was struck by the differences in the approaches to conservation in these countries. While there are only 1700 Bengal tigers left in India, per square km, there are six times more Bengal tigers in Bhutan. Bhutan has developed a biodiversity action plan whichew070511c reflects the people’s traditional reverence for nature, combining ancient beliefs with modern environmental science. Also in Bhutan tigers live at high altitudes in habitats that are not threatened by encroaching agriculture, as food is mainly grown in the valleys. This is in stark contrast to India, where humans and livestock have infiltrated almost all natural tiger habitat areas. There is also a lucrative poaching industry for tiger pelts in India, which represents the most serious threat to tiger populations. A combination of education and political will is needed to save the Bengal tiger!

Carbon tax, synchrotrons, rivers and marathons!

In the studio on Sunday the 17th of July were Dr Shane, Dr Alicia, Dr Fiona, and myself, Dr Krystal.

Following a discussion on our facebook page, Dr Shane asked the Einstein A Go-Go crew to consider the following questions:

1. Is climate change real and is it caused by humans?

2. Has the population of Australia accepted point 1?

3. Is the correct response to climate change for Australia a carbon tax?

4. Will the governments plan help mitigate climate change?

Dr Fiona gave a brilliant quote from Australian Chief Scientist Prof Ian Chubb to address point number 1: “After the work of very many scientists over more than 50 years, the views on climate change have converged to the point where the evidence has moved from possible to beyond reasonable doubt.” However there is ongoing debate in Australia about the causes of climate change. A CSIRO survey of 5,000 people earlier this year showed that 83% believed climate change was happening. However only 50% of people surveyed thought that climate change was largely caused by humans, with 40% beliveing climate change was natural.

Whether the carbon tax is a correct response can depend on how you view climate change and what kind of problem you think needs solving. If viewed as an economic problem, the majority of economists support a market based solution, such as a price on carbon. Using economics to fight pollution has been effective in the past and Dr Alicia mentioned the US Acid Rain Program, that lead to dramatic decreases in sulphur dioxide emissions. Dr Shane reminded us that carbon offset programs must be strictly monitored, as some ideas, such as dumping iron in the ocean, can have undesireable consequences.

As the whether the plans will mitigate climate change, we agreed that it is good to see action being taken. I like the way Professor Hans Schellnhuber talks not of action on climate change, but of plans for climate protection. Perhaps we should remember some of the public service annoucements from the 1980′s “Do the right thing” and “Be the first to say, do you need a hand?” in the context of this debate!





Continuing in our series of guests from the Australian Synchrotron, Professor Michael Parker joined us in the studio. He’s the head of the Biota Structural Biology Laboratory, St. Vincent’s Institute and uses synchrotron to study proteins and their role in health and disease. The development of synchrotron technology has been revolutionary for medical research, built by physicists, now used by biologists. One area that has particular benefited is protein crystallography, a technique used to work out the three dimensional size and shape of a protein. Knowing the structure of a protein provides information on it’s function; seeing is believing and once you know what a protein looks like, it’s easier to work out what it does! One of the challenges is to get protein molecules to form crystals in the first place, as unlike minerals, most proteins are not naturally found in crystal form. Once produced, the protein crystals are placed in the synchrotron beamline and exposed to a blast of X-ray light. The crystals scatter this light as it hits, and the pattern created is used to determine the shape of the protein molecules, with computer programs using the data to re-construct the protein’s size and shape. Micheal’s work has clinical applications, and his research team has revelaed the structure of 100′s of proteins involved in a number of diseases such as cancer, bacterial and viral infections, and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Michael said that it means a lot for Australian scientists to have access to a synchrotron here. Previously scientists had to travel across the world, to the US, Europe and Japan to get access to synchrotron and conduct experiments. Previously his group had only 2-3 synchrotron trips a year, which also involves significant logistics around transporting the fragile, valuable protein crystals through international customs. However now his team enjoys trips to the Australian Synchrotron here in Melbourne about once a fortnight, meaning research is faster and cheaper, providing information quickly, allowing scientists to work smarter. The Australian Synchrotron is a vital piece of infrastructure for Australian science!

Dr Geoff Vietz from the University of Melbourne is a fluvial geomorphologist, who studies the way rivers change landscapes and how changing landscapes can affect rivers. He studies river and stream health in both rural and urban settings, and is involved in the “Farms, rivers, markets” program. This project looks at water management for both agriculture and the environment and how to “do more with less” water. The challenge in Australian rural environments is planning for both flood and drought scenarios and considering the dynamic nature of rivers, which need both high flows and low flows to remain healthy. In Melbourne, Geoff’s work focusses on the fact that cities often have too much water and this can be best used. Urban environments contain paved surfaces, that are impermeable to water, so rain water that would normally soak into the ground or vegetation creates excess runoff. This water then flows into Melbourne’s streams creating frequent and larger disturbance flows, with up to 400% more water in them at times. These high flows widen and deepen river channels, making urban water ways less diverse environments for supporting plants and animals. The amount of storm water that flows off Melbourne represents a volume around three-quaters of the entire water useage in the city, water that is currently brought into the catchment area. The solution may be to increase storm water harvesting, to trap, retain and re-use. This solution would both increase stream health and assist in satisfying our water supply demands!






The “Run Melbourne” event was held today, a race used by many as a build up for the Melbourne Marathon in October. Dr Alicia looked into the controversial question: Is running a marathon harmful to your health? Running a distance of 42 km puts the cardiovascular system under stress for hours and to complete a marathon requires the body to produce 10-15 times more energy. It’s stressful to the body and there have been sudden death cases of marathon runners. However in the 1970′s exercise physiologist Dr Tom Bassler claimed that running marathons provided protection against heart disease. But the autopsy results of a marathon runner, Jim Fixx, who died of a massive heart attack during a race in 1984 showed a complete blockage of his coronary artery. Further studies by a Canadian group revealed that during a marathon the heart shows signs of increased inflammation and decreased blood supply, but these exercise-induced injures were reversible over time. The overall the advice from medical professionals when it comes to marathon running is “Be Prepared” – Make sure you’ve done enough training, stay hydrated and consult with your doctor if you have any worries about your heart. And congratulations to everyone who participated in “Run Melbourne“

Only one week till radiothon!

In the studio on Sunday the 7th of August were Dr Shane, Dangermouse, Dr Jennifer and myself, Dr Krystal

Only ONE WEEK till the 3RRRFM Radiothon – “Choose your destination“!

A new theory on the formation of the moon has suggested that early earth once had two moons that collided to form one. An ongoing astronomy puzzle has been that the near-side of the Earth’s moon has quite different features to the far-side of the moon. In the early days of our solar system an object the size of Mars collided with the earth and the debris from this impact spun out and became our moon. Researchers from the University of Bern in Switzerland have furthered this idea using computer simulations that suggest this collision actually created two moons, which established their own orbits around the earth, but eventually smooshed together to form the two-faced moon we have today.

Did you know that the gold medals for the London 2012 Olympics will actually be 93% silver and only 1% gold? A pop quiz from Dangermouse also revealed that copper is the major component of the bronze medal, with only the silver medal consisting mostly of its namesake metal.

Dangermouse also reported some unfortunate news; the closure of the Allen Telescope Array in California, which was the largest dedicated facility for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. While this represents a set-back, SETI is not dead but will continue using shared telescope time around the world in a wide spread, smaller scale approach.

STOP THE PRESS: Reports of the death of SETI have been greatly exaggerated: The Allen Telescope Array will go back online!

In the lead up to the “Choose your destination” 3RRRFM Radiothon, Dr Shane has been checking out science all around the world and reported that the Brazilian Government has just announced 75,000 scholarships in science and technology. The “Science without borders” program launched last month aims address skills shortages, and creates opportunities for researchers to study overseas. This comes at a time when the British government is slashing funding for PhDs in physical sciences, undermining training for engineers and scientists in the UK.

Our guest in the studio was our New York correspondent Dr Jennifer Henry, joining us in person, straight from the States. Dr Jennifer is the Director of Life Sciences at the New York Academy of Science, an organisation that aims to support science literacy in the community and connect like-minded scientists. Unlike the Australian Academy of Science, where a select number of prestigious scientists are elected as Fellows each year, the NYAS is open for anyone to join, so that anyone in New York can come and learn about science. The scientific community in New York City is about the same size of that in all of Australia, and the NYAS helps build and maintain networks of researchers across the city, to provide opportunituies for scientists to share their work and find out what’s happening in their own scientific backyard.





As well as being the first Australian to win the Tour de France, Cadel Evans has been a strong anti-doping advocate for the sport of cycling. Standard testing tocatch drug cheats involves screening urine samples for traces of banned substances, or their breakdown products. However this is not very effective for detecting the illegal substances that mimic hormones that naturally occur in the body, like EPO, and testing is hampered by the fact that there’s a large variation in natural resting levels of these hormones in different people. Dangermouse outlined new approach to tackling illegal drug cheats in professional sports, the introduction of an athlete’s biological passport. Blood and urine samples are taken during non-competition periods, over a wide period of time to establish a profile of each athlete’s natural resting levels of hormones and blood parameters. This will then be compared to samples taken during competitions, creating a personalised approach to detecting drug cheats. A significant step in the global fight against doping in sport!

The end of NASA’s space shuttle program has been mourned by many, and in particular, biologists in the field of space biomedicine. The International Space Station (ISS) laboratories have been used for many molecular and cell biology experiments, which have explored the effects of microgravity on genes, cells and whole organisms. Although commercial space shuttles will continue to service the ISS, they may not be able to ensure the safe return of samples to earth. This may represent a new opportunity for innovation, as experiments may need to be both conducted and analysed while in space – maybe we’ll

Thank you for supporting 3RRR!

A huge big thank you from all the Einstein a-go-go crew to all the 3RRR listeners who supported us during Radiothon 2011. We were thrilled that so many of you were able to “Choose your destination” and chose to support 3RRR FM – to keep independent voices on the airwaves.






And if you didn’t get around to subscribing – DON’T PANIC – It’s not too late. You have until 5pm Wednesday 21st September 2011 to sign up and pay up, and then you’ll also be in the running for some particularly awesome prizes.

So thanks to all our regular listeners who renewed to the show, it’s great to have you back, and to our passionate subscribers – we’re passionate about you too! Thanks to our inter-state and overseas subscribers and to our new subscribers, welcome onboard! Make the most of being a part of the 3RRR community and be sure to tune into Einstein a Go Go for your weekly fix of science on a Sunday!