People's Choice Award
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Huntington's disease is a fatal brain disorder that affects over 1,000 Australians, with another 6,000 at risk from the disease. It is caused by a genetic mutation, passed from parent to child, which results in major disruption to normal movement, memory, thought processes and emotions, eventually leading to death.
A research team, lead by Dr Anthony Hannan from Australia's Howard Florey Institute, has found that the onset and progression of the disease can be delayed by providing a stimulating environment to those with the gene. This work has lead to a greater understanding of the interaction between genes and the environment - resulting in far reaching implications for other brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.
The Huntington's disease gene was isolated in 1993, yet little is still known about how the gene mutation (a type of 'genetic stutter') actually causes the disease. Dr Anthony Hannan had the idea that the disease symptoms might be caused by abnormal connections between the neurons in particular parts of the brain. He thought that changing the way these connections were used may change the way the disease progressed.
To test this theory, Dr Hannan and colleagues used transgenic mice - which had part of the human Huntington's gene, which causes the disease, inserted into their DNA with genetic engineering. One group of transgenic mice lived in an enriched environment, having tunnels and a variety of different toys, which were changed regularly, to play with. The other transgenic group had no environmental enrichment at all.
The research showed that, after 18 weeks, 100% of the mice that had no enrichment showed symptoms of the disease. However, after the same length of time, only 15% of the mice that had a stimulating environment had developed symptoms of the disease. This work demonstrated that environmental factors play an important role in the onset and progression of the disease.
Following this discovery, Dr Hannan and his team have gone on to explore how genes and the environment interact in the brain at molecular and cellular levels. Dr Hannan hopes that this will lead to development of a new class of therapeutic drugs, which he has called 'enviromimetics' that may mimic or enhance the beneficial effects of environmental stimulation. Dr Hannan's research has also inspired new occupational therapy programs for families suffering from Huntington's disease.
Dr Anthony Hannan has entered his research in the 2005 British Council Eureka Prize for Inspiring Science.
The increasing number of roads criss-crossing the rainforests of Northern Australia has taken its toll on the native animals that live there. Take the endangered Cassowary and rare Lumholtz's tree-kangaroo, for example, where road deaths are causing a serious threat to species survival. Pipelines, electric power lines and artificial clearing are also causing havoc by fragmenting habitat, and hindering once viable populations by preventing animal movements and thereby restricting genetic diversity.
Scientists from the Rainforest CRC have shown that by building tunnels under the road, and bridges over them, many native animals can resume life as normal.
Building tunnels under roads for native animals to use as crossings is not a new idea, however little was known about how well they worked for rainforest animals. Building hanging bridges over the road to connect adjacent canopies is a new idea and Dr Miriam Goosem and Mr Nigel Weston from the Rainforest CRC have done research to determine just how effective these under and over passes are in saving the lives of native animals.
Dr Goosem worked together with Queensland Department of Main Roads, National Parks and Wildlife and various conservations groups to choose sites for under and over passes on the Atherton Tablelands. The sites were chosen because they provided a unique opportunity to connect isolated parts of the rainforest and were most likely to provide habitat continuity for animals.
Tunnels were constructed under the road, with detailed consideration given to the 'furniture' inside the tunnel to provide protection from predators. The tunnel was floored with local soil, with rocks and logs to provide shelter for small animals and ropes and branches allowed tree-living animals to escape from ground level. For canopy dwelling animals that seldom descend to the ground, a simple rope-bridge was provided so they could cross above the road.
Animal traffic using the under and over passes were monitored by researchers using sophisticated sensors, automatic cameras and simple brushed sand floors to record animal footprints.
The research showed that the under and over passes were effective in reducing roadkill as well as providing habitat continuity, and the design details are now being incorporated into road upgrades throughout Australia.
Dr Goosem and her team have entered their research in the 2005 Sherman Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.
We all know the saying "two wrongs don't make a right." Interestingly, if you look around you, there are many examples to the contrary. For example, engineers know that two unstable systems, if combined the right way, can become stable; chess players know if they sacrifice pieces they can win the overall game; and biologists know that animal species sometimes decline in order to evolve to a higher level of survival fitness.
Australian scientist Dr Derek Abbott has taken this counter-intuitive phenomenon one step further to prove that if you play two losing gambling games one after the other, you eventually win!
Dr Abbott set out by computer simulating two gambling games (A & B) with coins weighted on one side-so they did not fall evenly by chance.
In game A, a player tosses a single weighted coin and bets on each throw. The probability of winning is less than half.
In game B, a player tosses one of two weighted coins with a simple rule added. He plays Coin 1 if his money is a multiple of a particular whole number, like three. If his money cannot be divided by the number three, he plays Coin 2. In this setup, the second coin will be played more often than the first.
Both game A & B are loaded to lose; one to lose badly and one to win slightly but lose overall, with the upshot being that anyone playing these games individually will eventually lose all their money.
Dr Abbott showed that when a person plays either game (A or B) 100 times, money taken to the gambling table is lost. But when the games are alternated, playing A twice then B twice for 100 times, money accumulates into big winnings. Dr Abbott also found that even if game A and B are played randomly, with no order in alternating the sequence, winnings also go up and up.
This is Parrondo's paradox. Dr Abbott with his colleagues showed that the switching between the two games creates a ratchet-like winning effect. (Click here for a picture that might help you understand this phenomenon at work)
Following Dr Abbott's work, many questions are being asked about this new mathematical understanding and how it can help in other areas of research such as in economics, population genetics, control theory, gene dynamics, quantum computation and more.
Dr Abbott has entered his research in the 2005 Skeptics Eureka Prize for Critical Thinking.
Have you ever wondered how to tell the age of a fish? Dr John Kalish is an Australian scientist who has developed a technique that uses the fall-out from nuclear bomb testing to accurately age long-lived fish species.
All fish have ear bones, called otoliths, which continuously grow over their lifetime by laying down bony calcified material at different rates throughout the year (faster in summer, slower in winter). The result is a banding pattern on the otolith, similar to the growth rings of a tree. Scientists have used these bands to determine the age of fish, however, the bands can't always be seen, and are not always deposited annually, resulting in many inaccuracies.
Dr Kalish found that the fallout from nuclear weapons testing during the 1950's and 1960's left a chemical marker, radiocarbon (14C), which could be detected in the otolith. Radiocarbon is produced by natural processes in the Earth's upper atmosphere, but atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons doubled the amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere in less than 10 years. The radiocarbon from the atmosphere is transferred into the ocean.
Previous research had shown that the concentration of radiocarbon in coral increased by 20% between 1950 and 1970 indicating how much radiocarbon from nuclear fallout has moved from the atmosphere to the ocean. Dr Kalish found a very similar phenomenon in otoliths. So, by selecting otoliths from fish that were born during this period of increased radiocarbon and measuring radiocarbon in segments of the otolith formed soon after birth, the fish's true age could now be determined. A scientific instrument called an accelerator mass spectrometer is used to make these measurements.
Over the past seven years, Dr Kalish has used this technique to determine the age of over 30 commercially important fish species including the southern bluefin tuna - which he found live almost twice as long as was previously thought. The research also provided clear evidence that some of the fish we eat live for more than 100 years.
With 25% of fish stocks now overexploited, the sustainable management of our global fisheries has never been more important. Knowing how old fish are is essential for estimating the productivity of fish populations and determining the sustainable level at which they can be harvested.
Dr Kalish's work has been entered in the 2005 Sherman Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.
Dr Peter Tuthill from the University of Sydney has pioneered a new imaging experiment which has revealed stars at their most crucial (and beautiful) stages of life. His work is a fascinating mix of new technology and a few key ideas from the past.
Stars, like people, jealously guard the privacy of important life events. Stellar births and deaths are covered in plumes and shells of gas and dust, and all the action takes place on a stage so remote that very high magnifications are needed to reveal any detail. Capturing a clear image is fraught with difficulties, for as first described by Newton, the turbulent mixing of the atmosphere in the air above the telescope causes images to shimmer and degrade. Over the years, huge sums of money have been invested in high-tech approaches such as space telescopes to try to overcome this problem.
Dr Peter Tuthill from the University of Sydney has successfully captured the closest view yet of a star being born by using a technique first conceived 130 years ago by a French optician called Fizeau, known as aperture masking. Fizeau suggested placing a mask over the telescope mirror which only allowed light to pass through two small holes. Careful measurements of the image produced, he argued, would enable fine detail up to the theoretical limit (known as diffraction limit) to be recovered.
Using the world's largest optical telescope, the Keck observatory in Hawaii, Dr Tuthill designed an aluminium plate that was mounted onto the telescope that blocked off most of the light coming in, except for a handful of starlight beams. This made the telescope mirror behave like an array of small telescopes, which in turn had a profound effect on the ability to recover an image. The aluminium plate, acting as a mask, simplified the process by sorting out which parts of the image came from which beams of starlight, effectively reducing background noise and confusion.
Dr Tuthill also used state of the art infrared array detectors to record data electronically, which were then processed using sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques.
By combining the old and the new, Dr Tuthill achieved a resolution of one 20,000th of a second of arc - that's equivalent to seeing the head of a pin in detail at a distance of five kilometres away. This technology has revealed the fascinating and beautiful structures of stars being born and the plumes and shrouds which envelope a star as it dies. It has also revealed a wealth of astrophysical secrets about star structure and history.
Dr Peter Tuthill has entered his research in the 2005 UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.
Professor Paul Alewood, Professor David Adams, Professor David Craik & Associate Professor Richard Lewis.
Australia has many different types of carnivorous cone snails (Conus spp) that live in our oceans. The snails hunt their prey (usually fish, worms and other molluscs) by firing potent venom from a harpoon-like organ, causing paralysis and death in seconds.
A group of Australian scientists have been investigating these venoms, called conotoxins, and have found some to have outstanding pain-killing properties.
The Conotoxin Research Group is made up of chemists, biologists, pharmacologists and physiologists. This group was one of the first, world wide, to recognize the potential use of venoms and toxins as molecular templates for drug design, and as research tools to help understand how nerve cells function.
The venom of any one snail can contain up to 200 peptides. Peptides are small protein fragments that exhibit powerful, highly selective activity on nerves. The Conotoxin Group has isolated, identified and characterized (both structurally and pharmacologically) many venom peptides, and has helped develop a classification system for each family of peptides, based on their source, structure and pharmacological affects.
Conotoxins interfere with the ion channels and membrane-bound proteins in the nerve cell, which in turn disrupts the nerve cells function. By studying the interaction between conotoxins and these ion channels and proteins, the Group has made significant advancements in our knowledge of the nervous system and management of chronic pain.
The work of the Conotoxin Group has also resulted in a successful "spin-off" company called Xenome. The company has taken a number of the venom peptides to both preclinical and clinical stages with some promising results for the development of new drugs for the management of pain.
The Conotoxin Research Group has entered their research in the 2005 Royal Societies of Australia Eureka Prize for Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.