Thursday, December 18, 2008

True Story: Happened to a Lecturer of a Lecturer of Mine

According to one first year chemistry lecturer who shall remain nameless (both to protect his identity and to avoid admitting I never knew the man's name) the discovery of phosphorus was a perverse and twisted affair.

It seems that the scientist in question inadvertently manufactured phosphorus by filling a bath tub with urine and leaving it to evaporate off for several weeks. He observed 2 notable properties for the resultant substance:

1 - It glows in the dark
2 - It causes a painful itching rash when applied to the genitalia.

Needless to say our interest in Chemistry shot up dramatically that week as we all attempted to imagine the kind of exhibitionist crackpot who thought it was a good idea to publish papers about the luminous excretion-derived chemicals he rubbed into his privates.

So was it true? or just a cautionary tale designed to stop us from running around naked in the labs?

Well at least there was a bathtub of urine involved.

by Jonathan Usmar

Science Fashion Tragedies Part II: Safety Goggles

Yesterday I was broadening my mind by reading stuff on the webby-net. One particularly mind-broadening web site that delighted me, dear readers, was one addressing those aspects of sartorial elegance that had allowed particular individuals to, as we would say in the biological sciences, "find a mate".

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but when I clicked through to this site, I thought I saw a sentence indicating that only the author "and the hottest scientists" are currently addressing this topic. Well, my little lab-rats, that's the clarion call of battle! Clearly another edition of Science Fashion Tragedies was called for.

The topic today addresses one item of science attire that currently guarantees the wearer exclusion from the afore-mentioned website: safety glasses. Let me elaborate...

In a wonderful example of research discovering the obvious, a small study here at the University of Sydney found that that science students (the male ones anyway) were more likely to be virgins that those in other schools. It's clear why: the poor bastards have to wear laboratory safety glasses. This particular form of sin against aesthetics is not only outstandingly ugly, it's uncomfortable too, resulting in an expression of pained distraction on the victim that is, unfortunately, about as far from a tempting "come hither" as possible.

So, my darling virgin science boys, what should you wear instead? Don't worry, there are options! While I'll grudgingly admit that some of them may be just a smidgen more expensive than, say, the free ones you get in class, it's important to remember that style often requires sacrifices.

Option 1:

These hot retro motorcycle goggles will get you noticed in all the right ways. Not only are these babies hot-looking, they're comfortable for hours. Everyone knows that bad girls and boys ride motorcycles, and who would have known that style like this is only US$23.95? Fake it 'til you make it, I say.

Of course, as a motorcycle rider, I don't exactly have to fake it...

Option 2:

Well, I never said I wouldn't mine the motorcycle vein for all it's worth. Option 1 is hot, but these are smoking! You'll make people's pants fall off with these ones! Not surprisingly, they're more expensive: about 70 GBP. But it would be worth the investment... oh yes.

Option 3:

This is the ticket if you're more surfy than motor enthusiast. Remember darlings, tint "reduces eye fatigue"! If you can't pull with these babies on, I'm not sure I can help you. For an investment of only about $40, they're your one way ticket to lovin', and they're Australian too.

So, having single-handedly solved one science fashion problem, and hopefully cleared up that nasty rash of virginity in the sciences, I'm signing off for this year. Have a wonderful Christmas!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Answers to questions you never thought to ask #2

This was brought on by a revelation from one of the postgrads, who claims that he has a friend who is allergic to fresh fruit and vegetables. Yes, large-hive-inducing allergic. Weird (and unfortunate). This of course leads on to the obvious question:

Can you be allergic to water?

Apparently yes. It's called aquagenous urticaria. And it sounds rather unpleasant. Contact of water with mucous membranes and skin causes outbreaks of painful sores due to a histamine reaction. It can be acquired, or you can be born with it, but thankfully it is an extremely rare condition (less than 30 people worldwide have been diagnosed).


Mammoth task achieved with a little help from ebay

Seeing as the header of this blog is a picture of a mammoth, we thought we'd better cover the sequencing of the woolly mammoth genome, published last month in Nature. Clearly one obstacle to sequencing the genome of an extinct animal is obtaining a nice DNA sample. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University overcame this problem in an unusual way- by trawling ebay for hair samples (see picture).

The $130, 10-g hair samples were taken from two Siberian mammoths frozen in the permafrost 20 000 and 60 000 years ago, and used to generate nucleic DNA sequence. This was compared to the previously sequenced mitochondrial genome to yield information about extant elephants. "Our data suggest that mammoths and modern-day elephants separated around six million years ago, about the same time that humans and chimpanzees separated" said Webb Miller, one of the project leaders. The project could also provide insight into characteristics such as the mammoth's adaptation to extreme cold.

Some readers may remember recent research in which a team took a single Tasmanian Tiger gene and inserted it into a mouse embryo, where it was expressed. This raises the possiblity of one day resurrecting extinct animals like the woolly mammoth using their genome sequence. However, given that the mammoth genome is thought to contain about 20 000 genes, we can expect it to be many years before these beasts are thundering across the permafrost again. In this event, presumably the price of mammoth hair on ebay will also drop dramatically.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Answers to questions you never thought to ask

And now for another semi-regular segment, inspired by Gareth Keenan (The Office), who famously wondered not if he'd be able to kill a tiger armed only with a biro, but instead "Will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark?". Some readers may know that one of the Eds has a penchant for asking similarly bizarro hypothetical questions, including this corker this week, so we've decided to try and answer them, and any others that you can think up, using a bit of science...

Answers to questions you never thought to ask #1

How long would it take to cook a roast inside a nuclear reactor?

Apparently this is a strange question to ask.

Firstly, I guess I need to know how hot it gets inside a nuclear reactor, which is surprisingly difficult to google (am now hoping that I'm not being electronically monitored because I am searching for all things nuclear!). Anyway, apparently in a Generation IV nuclear reactor, which has uranium fuel dissolved in circulating coolant, the coolant temperature is 510-1000oC.

I am now starting to think that our biggest problem in this hypothetical Sunday dinner conundrum is going to be the choice of cooking vessel, but perhaps we can tackle that problem later. I tryto find some sort of calculator or an equation with cooking time as a function of weight and temperature, but apparently cooks don't have a need to know how to cook at this temperature and the charts I find describe cooking times at boringly low temps. Even Jamie Oliver doesn't have an answer for me.

Looks like it's over to finding some sort of graph to extrapolate from but google fails me here too. The USDA states that the internal temperature of a roast of any size should reach 62.8oC... surely I can work something out from this, but no, that would require a knowledge of the heat-exchange of beef and there is no way I can do those calculations. Hmm. Looks like it's time to turn to every PhD student's last resort (we can cite Wikipedia in our theses, right?), an actual scientific paper. Argh! I am confronted by many very scary-looking equations and maths never was my strong point.

After an hour and a half, I have to consider myself beat. Incredibly, it looks like no-one has ever tried to cook a roast inside a nuclear reactor. However, from my research, I can still disclose the following helpful hint: if you really want to get a roast done quickly, perhaps try a brick kiln (900-1000oC)- it would be just as quick and I would guess far less dangerous than using a nuclear reactor, and you probably have less chance of being arrested in the process...

Have resolved never to ask ridiculous hypothetical questions again.


Parvo puppy

I come downstairs to get something, I can't remember what. J my nurse is crouched over a puppy lying on the floor.

I work with J regularly on a Saturday. She's a top nurse who is currently undertaking a critical care course. She genuinely cares for the animals and takes initiative, especially when critical care cases come in. She's very capable of dripping, bleeding and xraying. This means I am happy to trust her looking after these cases. On a busy Saturday, when both vets are booked out, this is essential.

"I'm not happy with this puppy" she says, "She's really flat and has a temperature of 40 and a heart rate of 240"

"What puppy is this?" I say, there were no puppies in hospital this morning and I've not admitted any.

"She's a stray, just come in" says J, crouching over a prostrate blonde puppy lying on her side. She looks like a labrador, or a staffy, about 12 weeks old and ever so cute. Or she would be, if she didn't look so ill.

I take one look at the puppy, grab a glove and stick a finger up its bum. The rectum feels hot and my finger quests around a large cavern instead of a tightish passage. Sure enough the rectum is chockful of liquid. The puppy barely notices but does manage to sit up and then let fly an enormous stream of bloody diarrhoea.

"It's parvo" I say, surer of this than anything else I've seen that day. "We need a faecal parvo test done right now. This entire area needs to be triple bleached, now!" I yell out to the vet student to grab a towel, the lethal cocktail of diarrhoea and virus is spreading around the hospital floor. Parvo can be very stable in the environment and a serious risk in a veterinary hospital.

"Puppy in isolation straight away, parvo test then I'll have to call the boss"

Parvo is bad news. It's a very serious virus which causes severe vomiting and bloody diarrhoea in puppies. It is often fatal and there isn't much we can do beyond supporting the puppies with intravenous fluids, pain relief and some antibiotics for secondary infections. More heroics, like plasma transfusions, help a lot, but are very expensive. Even a mild case of parvo without these would be $500+. We want to help this puppy, and as a stray, we are obliged to give first aid, but the definition of first aid is blurry. In this case, it definitely could include euthanasia. Parvo is dangerous for the hospital and expensive for us to treat gratis, given we don't know whether this puppy will even be rehomed.

The irony here is that a vaccination or two in this puppy's life would most probably have avoided the problem. It is almost certain, in my mind, that the unvaccinated puppy started to get ill and so was turfed out on the street. People who won't even pay for a series of puppy vaccinations, won't pay for any treatment. Fortunately for her, someone found her and brought her in promptly. I worry about the rest of the litter, this could be the first of a whole batch.

The parvo test is positive. I speak to my boss on the phone who gives me permission to begin basic treatment - drips and antibiotics. One of the other nurses has rung the council. The pound will not take the puppy, even if we manage to pull her through as she is an infection risk to other dogs. I can understand this, even if it is hard. This then makes it an almost impossible situation - puppy may end up being euthanased on Monday when the pound opens anyway unless the practice decides to keep her and rehome her themselves. Although we rehome kittens, puppies are much more work, and need much more attention, so are rarely rehomed through the clinic. Fortunately one of the rangers has said he might take her, although he is worried about the cost. I decide to ignore this, I'm just working on today, I can't worry about Monday until later. And she is a stray, so her treatment is our responsibility, not his.

I manage to get away from the maelstrom upstairs and set up the medication and drip lines for the pup. I have to get everything ready because we will be working in isolation with barrier nursing. This means we have to wear special aprons, disposable gloves, use dedicated equipment and foot bath whenever we enter the area. We don't want to be walking back and forth between this area and the main hospital.

I grab half-used bags of fluids which other animals no longer need. At least puppy can have these without costing the hospital anything.

J and I get the puppy out to set up her drip. She is curled up on a half-towel in the isolation cage looking miserable. Fortunately her blood pressure is not too bad and I manage to get a catheter into her vein. We check her haematocrit and blood protein which are both markedly elevated indicating her severe dehydration. Her paws are starting to go cold as she goes into shock.

I set the fluid rate high to treat this, give her antibiotics and pain relief and leave her to it. We disinfect ourselves the best we can, spraying our arms and legs. I am now the "no puppies" vet for the day. I won't be seeing or treating any littlies for the rest of the day, only this one.

Later in the evening I set up all the medications before going in to check her again. I've left her until last as I want to leave the hospital straight away without looking at any other dogs to decrease infection risk. We have one very large 50 kg dog crammed into a tiny cage in the main hospital to keep him further away from this area. He has an unknown vaccination history, and when I called the owner to clarify, he wasn't sure if he'd ever received his "shots". This owner is not wealthy and we've only ever seen the dog to trim his nails, so it is possible he hasn't even had a course as a puppy meaning he is at risk of parvo, even as a four year old.

Puppy has vomitted and there is a large pool of something - probably very liquid diarrhoea in the cage. She is lying partially in it, but does seem brighter and manages to wag her tail when I talk to her. I adjust her medication to put her onto a constant rate infusion of antivomiting medication. I stroke her and speak softly. She is just a baby. I'm rewarded with a few weary tail flaps. Then I repeat her pain relief, clean her cage out, give her another 1/2 towel and leave her to it. We've done our best, she is getting "first aid" of the same standard as a paying client (I've slipped in a few extras, like pain relief, antinausea meds and potassium in the drip. The boss didn't ok these but won't be upset, she's a good boss). Now it's up to puppy - she will live or die in this first battle, even before she's found someone to really love and look after her.

I rang today. Puppy is better, no vomiting, diarrhoea only. The ranger looks like he might take her. I knew that if she was alive and better Monday, she wouldn't be euthanased. She is just too cute. Perhaps, getting parvo and being thrown on the street was the best thing for her in the end.

**update on the update**
Puppy did go to the pound in the end, but has been recruited from there to become a working dog – assistance, or sniffer dog or something similar. She was picked out as being exceptionally bright compared with the others and was recruited. This means she will get top-notch training, exceptional veterinary care and will have a great interactive life. Eventually when she can’t work anymore, she will be retired, usually with her handler. A dog couldn’t ask for a better life.

By Jo Griffith; Illustration by Quintin Lau

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Profile: Izmira (Mira) Farhana Mohd Ismail

I was born... months after the first International Islamic Games held in Izmir, Turkey. It was quite a historical event and my parents decided to name me after the beautiful city... hence Izmira!

At school I... was very timid and quiet, I became talkative when I joined the debate team in University

My first relationship was... with my highschool sweetheart at 14, whom I am now happily married to :)

Friends say I'm... cheeky

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... a very glamorous TV host with my own talk show on prime time

At the moment I'm reading... ' Barking' by my favourite comic fantasy writer Tom Holt

My worst job was... none really. I've worked once as a chemist sales assistant and I loved every minute of it!

At the moment I'm... sequencing the ovine CLN6 gene to find disease-causing mutation/s

... which is interesting because... finding the mutation will not only help our affected sheep with Batten/NCL disease but also provide helpful information for children with a comparable human form of the disease.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Profile: Michael Bertoldo

Mysteriously nicknamed 'Big Bad' for reasons unknown to the Eds, this second year PhD student has been busy jetting off around the globe in his quest to improve the reproductive performance of sows during seasonal infertility.

I was born... 1/1/1984

Friends say I'm... a d**k

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... dunno

At the moment I'm reading... The Costello Memoirs

My worst job was... Kitchen Hand

At the moment I'm... procrastinating

... which is interesting because... right now you probably are too!


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Across the ditch... dutch... dtch?

As requested by the bakeoff crew... oh yes, and don't watch it if you're offended by the word "sht".


A slice of the action at the Camden bakeoff

On Wednesday a cake competition was held in the Shute building- a new excuse to eat cake and bake cake for those so inclined! The morning was very successful as members of the Shute building rallied in the tea room to sample the 14 cakes, slices, muffins and biscuits created by some of the very finest cooks in the Vet faculty. Each baked good was judged on its appearance, texture and flavour by anyone willing to taste test and contribute a gold coin donation to charity. Sophie Hoft won a prize for best dressed cake - a beautifully decorated yummy mocha fudge meringue cake. Meg Donahoo's lemon yoghurt cake was judged the people's choice award. A good time was had by all and few leftovers remained. $52 was raised for charity.

Ed's note: This blog entry was Meg's prize (punishment?) for winning.

Bakeoffs are abounding in the Vet Faculty at the moment. If you are in the city on Thursdays, come around to level 6 of Gunn or 'India' in the J.D. Stewart building and join in. Next week- Emily Wong will wow us with a yet-to-be-named delicacy!

by Meg Donahoo

Monday, December 1, 2008

Get your hands off my chloroplasts

A kleptomaniac sea-slug brutally assaults a plant, assimilating parts of it into its own body to become a hybrid plant-animal intent on world domination. Sounds like science fiction, right?

Well, ok, I made up the world domination part. But the rest is true- see the video below! Thanks to Jerry for tipping us off about this.


Friday, November 28, 2008

101 things to do whilst completing your PhD - #1

In the spirit of every procrastinating PhD student that Hugh Kearns (speaker at our postgrad conference) was talking about, here is a new semi-regular segment! So, #1 is... enter an international dance contest in which PhD students must dance their thesis. Yes, this really exists!

Sue Lynn Lau, a University of Sydney PhD student has won this competition ("Dance your PhD"). Her entry was entitled “The role of vitamin D in beta cell function”. View it here. Her prize is a trip to Chicago, where she'll see her winning entry performed by professional dancers.

The competition is run by Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So who's entering next year?!!!

Thanks Lee for tipping us off about this!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

SciFi poll

Over the past few months, New Scientist has been running a poll asking readers to vote for the best science fiction book and movie of all time. The winners are revealed here. All you scifi fans out there- do you agree? If you're not a fan and want to be (who doesn't want to join the glamorous world of SF fandom?!), here are some suggestions.

Top five films
1. Blade Runner
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. Serenity
4. Forbidden Planet
5. The Matrix

Top five books
1. Dune
2. Foundation series
3. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
4. Ender's Game
5. Hyperion series


Friday, November 21, 2008

Lemmings under threat

You know lemmings. The small furry rodents that supposedly arrive in plague proportions and then suicide en masse as the food runs out. Incidentally, does anyone else remember the game “Lemmings”, which was released in the 1990s? The obsession of a generation of kids, you can play it here if you are in the market for some time wasting or nostalgia… But I digress! Some new research has revealed that global warming is threatening the lemmings in a most peculiar way. No, these little critters haven’t been driven to suicide by frustration about the lack of human action to prevent climate change…

In fact, the idea that lemmings commit suicide is a myth. What really happens is that in some years they become superabundant (because more young than usual survive- female lemmings can have up to three litters of 12 young per year!), which means that food becomes scarce. During these times they can become so hungry that they disperse in large numbers and to find food. Occasionally, large groups will leap into the sea (sometimes from a cliff!) and swim off to find food, which led to the myth that they commit suicide.

But where does climate change fit in? The new research, published in Nature this month, has shown that lemming numbers are declining because the ‘wrong’ type of snow has been falling in Norway. During winter, lemmings live in the subnivean space that forms between the top layer of snow and the ground. Here, they can remain protected from predators and insulated from cold weather, feeding on the exposed herbage, until the end of winter. Recently, though, this type of snow has not been forming, and worse still, freeze-thaw cycles have meant that a layer of impenetrable ice has been forming over the moss. This has led to a decline in lemming numbers, which will of course have knock-on effects up the food chain on populations of predators such as Arctic foxes and snowy owls. This is just another example amongst many showing that we humans must change our ways if we are going to ensure the survival of the planet.

A lemming- the real kind!


Monday, November 10, 2008

Profile: Meg Donahoo

Meg is a second year PhD student investigating the immune responses to vaccination against an intestinal disease in pigs. If she can find immune cells in the pig that are linked to vaccine protection then it might be possible to use these in the pig industry to determine whether vaccinated pigs are protected against future infection.

I was born... in the baby factory in Melbourne- that's right, I'm not a two headed Tasmanian

At school I… got picked on for being rosey in the cheeks, apparently I looked like a tomato

My first relationship was... with the floor, I couldn't walk until i was 3 so I polished the floor with my bum

Friends say I'm... feral because I could happily go a week or two without a shower, and showering when you go camping is sacrilege in my books!!

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... one of those hot looking tv presenters who gets to travel to cool places for free.

At the moment I'm reading... a quirky book about horsie people.

My worst job was... cleaning old people's toilets!!

At the moment I'm... playing with lots of poo, blood and intestines- it's fun, really!

... which is interesting because... you can find out a lot of information about someone (pigs) from their poo!

Meg facing her fears and making friends with a chook


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sheep disappears in shock murder mystery

In a world exclusive, The Appendix today uncovers a hoax that will shock the nation. After five years, we reveal the unthinkable… Dolly the sheep is alive and well, and living in the Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Dolly, a Finn-Dorset sheep, was catapulted to fame after her birth fifteen years ago as the first animal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. At first, she enjoyed the attention she garnered as she held press conference after press conference on the media circuit and dazzled fans lining the red carpet. However, her enthusiasm faded in the wake of a series of cruel smear campaigns implying that she had an eating disorder reported after a series of wild fluctuations in her weight. After a brief period of respite in the Betty Ford Clinic, Dolly returned home and quickly fell pregnant to a bad-boy Welsh Mountain Ram known only as Sanchez.

Five years after the birth of her triplets, she had disappeared into obscurity. Compromising photos of her dancing naked in a notorious Soho nightclub precipitated a second media frenzy. Dolly’s behaviour grew increasingly erratic. Unable to cope with the glare of the spotlight, Dolly cut her hair shockingly short and then disappeared into seclusion again. Shortly afterwards, she was reported dead from ‘progressive lung disease’.

However, a chance encounter in the sheep unit prompted intrepid investigative work by the Editors of The Appendix. “When I saw that woolly coat and yellow eyes, I just knew it had to be her. She has aged a little, but there’s no hiding a face that famous.” Dolly is, in fact, still alive, and currently living in hiding in the Faculty of Veterinary Science (Camperdown). Dolly refused to comment on this story, but sources close to her suggest that “She just wants to live her life as a normal sheep. After her disastrous relationship with Sanchez, Ryan [a merino ram, the love of Dolly’s life] really grounds her, and they have made their home here together.”

Dolly herself seems unaware of the implications of her choice. When we delved deeper into the “official story”, the truth became increasingly sinister. Not only was Dolly’s death faked, but the body displayed in the Royal Museum of Scotland may be that of a victim of this foul conspiracy. We have little doubt that this is the body of a sheep that tried to tell the true story.

The body of an unknown sheep was substituted for Dolly at the Royal Museum of Scotland.


Friday, October 24, 2008

OMG my x-ray machine has no x-rays, what do I do???

No, this isn't the exclusive that you've been hearing all about! That's still coming - but it's so scorchingly hot that we're wrapping the web server in a bit of insulation before we put it up. Just in case, you know...

OK, on to the real story. Bear with me a bit here for this MacGyver-type scenario: say you've got an x-ray machine, but picketers at the Lucas Heights reactor have meant that your radiation source hasn't been replaced. Your x-rays have run out! As a vet-type person, a delicate baby something-or-other has been brought to you, and you need to x-ray it to check that its adorable fuzzy leg isn't broken. What to do??? Can you MacGyver up some x-rays to save an cute fluffy baby animal???

The chances are that I wouldn't be writing this if you couldn't.

Apparently, unrolling clear sticky tape (Scotch tape) can generate x-rays, and not just a little sparkle, but enough to image tissue as thick as a human hand.  Freaky.

Back to our MacGyver situation, and all you need to do is get your engineering buddy to wire up a system to unwind sticky tape at about 3cm a second where you want your x-ray source, and ta-da! X-rays = cute fluffy baby animal saved!

Now, those people that prefer tape to staples generally start looking worried about now. To those people: harden up. You don't avoid airplanes because of the x-rays you'll get there, do you?


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Coming soon to The Appendix...

Don't miss our world-exclusive expose, coming this month. You'll hear it here first!

Friday, October 3, 2008

2008 Ig Nobel Prize Winners!

The 2008 Ig Nobel prizes were held on Thursday, October 2. Read about the winners here. In the biology category, Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert and Michel Franc for discovered that fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than fleas that live on a cat.

Monday, September 29, 2008

EndNote's Parent Company Gets Nasty

Here at the University of Sydney, we are encouraged to use EndNote citation software to manage our reference material. There isn't much discussion of competitors or alternatives to EndNote, but if you look, you'll find that there are quite a few out there. From a user's point of view, it's important that there are strong competitors to EndNote, because competition will push EndNote to try to make their software the best, to fix the problems that it has, and to add new, useful features.

Unfortunately, the parent company of EndNote seems to have decided that they will pursue a strategy of attacking their competitors, rather than trying to be the best. They've recently filed an apparently baseless suit against a new-ish competitor, Zotero.

I thought it was worth bringing this to your attention, because Zotero supports reference formats that anyone can use, while EndNote uses proprietary formats that other products can't read. Imagine if this happened with gene or protein sequence files! The Zotero strategy is far more in line with an academic needs, and they deserve our support.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Animal agriculture on a grand scale

The small cardboard brochure that arrived in the mail belied the spectacle that awaited me in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the 13th AAAP conference. It gathered together 1240 delegates from 36 countries and the aims were sweeping- to increase the quality of life of poor people in rural areas, and to discuss ways to reduce the disadvantage of smallholder farmers in a global economy.

The opening ceremony for the Asian – Australasian Association of Animal Production Conference, inside the soaring National Convention Centre (where APEC 2006 was held- there was even a fetching picture of John Howard in national dress on the wall), was a spectacle complete with a military band, endless floral displays, and the most enormous conference banner I have ever seen. It was a far cry from the daily lives of the people that this conference would aim to help; many smallholder farmers live on less than $2 a day.

At the ceremony, the Vietnamese Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development described the plan for Vietnam to be “industrialised by 2020”. Surely there is a hint of irony in discussing this at such a conference: What happens to the traditional smallholder farmer when he is squeezed out of the supply chain under pressure to maximise efficiency and intensify production? It is a tricky question. One cannot deny the rights of poor farmers to improved education, health and security in terms of producing enough food to live on year-round, but shouldn’t we also be aiming to preserve the culture and traditional ways of life of smallholder farmers, rather than trying to turn their farms into intensive piggeries or sterile sheds full of poultry?

Fortunately, many of the scientists at this conference are presenting interesting and inspiring research that can realistically be implemented to improve the lives of smallholder farmers without resorting to intensive non-traditional agriculture. Professor Peter Wynn (now at CSU, Australia) presented on the effects of pre- and post-natal nutrition on cow and buffalo calves, with some simple ideas to improve the growth and life-long productivity of these animals, and Dr Jean Charles Maillard (CIRAD, France) spoke about the need to preserve traditional breeds of production animal, which can be a reservoir of genetic diversity and are often more disease resistant than intensively produced breeds.

Environmental issues such as global warming and the decreasing supply of fossil fuels were not ignored, and several presenters touched on methods that can increase production or reduce greenhouse gas emissions by utilising agricultural waste. Dr Thomas Preston (Columbia) spoke about the use of a gasifier to generate electricity on small farms in Columbia (these simple machines can be fuelled by crop byproducts such as coconut shells), and Dr R.A. Leng (Australia) advocated the use of combined systems, such as farming rice with ducks to weed the paddies as a simple alternative to herbicides, and the use of grazing cattle between palm plants to increase palm oil production.

This conference has shown us many examples of this ‘back to the future’ approach, where all waste is utilised and everything is regarded as a resource. We can only hope that the recommendations from this kind of research will be implemented, as this may be the only way to ensure that smallholder farms remain viable in our increasing globalised world.

Photograph top: Red Sahiwal calf and chicken, Vietnam
Photograph bottom: Part of the foyer of the National Convention Centre, Hanoi


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Profile: Professor John W. James

You'll find Professor John James in Room 513 of the RMC Gunn Building on most Wednesdays and Thursdays. And why would you be looking for him? Well, that bit is easy - he's a retired academic with a background in quantitative genetics, biostatistics, and computing applications, and since statistics in particular is the least favoured discipline of 99.9%* of biologists (*estimated using a thorough survey of this blog's editors), his skills and interests are very valuable.

John has retired from his post at the University of NSW, but his two days a week with us in the Vet Faculty shows that he has not been able to completely resist the siren call of academia. However, he does have other interests that keep him busy, including sport and literature.
This Renaissance Man and Fountain of Statistical Wisdom provided the following answers to our profile questions:

I was born... in 1935 at Rockhampton, the first of 7 children to 5 of whom Dad transmitted a Y chromosome. I did not pass on my copy, but my brothers have passed on 7 copies in all.

At school I... was called Jesse, after a well-known American, my resemblance to whom is, I believe, in name rather than character.

My first relationship... was begun 50 years ago and still continues.

Friends say I... like any game that involves hitting or kicking a ball.

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... Roger Federer, hitting the ball so much better than I do.

At the moment I'm reading... (as usual) several books : The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Shostakovich and His World edited by Laurel Fay, Something to Declare by Julian Barnes, and once again An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications by William Feller. This old favourite provides much entertainment and instruction, and includes an account of the Galton-Watson process which can be used to model Y chromosome transmission.

My worst job was... shovelling crushed ore back on to a conveyor belt in the No. 1 Mill at Mt. Morgan mine at the points where it had fallen off. By the time we had finished at the last point it was time to go back to the first.

At the moment I'm working... not very hard,

...which is interesting because... that is also the way I worked before I retired.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Profile: Dr. Gauthami Sudhamayee Kondagari

Gauthami is one of only a few postgrad students here who has actually worked as a vet! She joined us in February, 2005, and is working on a doctoral research project, entitled "Intra thecal enzyme replacement therapy in canine fucosidosis and investigation of pathophysiology". Before coming to Australia and starting her PhD, Gauthami worked as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology, College of Veterinary Science, Rajendranagar, Hyderabad, India (2002-2005). She worked as a Veterinary Surgeon from 1999 to 2002.

Gauthami has completed her Master of Veterinary Science in Physiology (M.V. Sc.) and Bachelors in Veterinary Science & Animal Husbandry (B.V.Sc. & A.H.) at the College of Veterinary Science, Acharya N. G. Ranga Agricultural University, Hyderabad, AP, India.

The story of how Gauthami came to be here with us in Australia is an interesting one. She had always been passionate about neuroscience, and loved dogs, including her family's German Shepherd, Buffy. When her husband, Ramana, found work in Australia, Gauthami started to look for roles here, and in May 2004 visited the Faculty of Veterinary Science here at the University of Sydney. She met a few potential supervisors, including Rosanne Taylor, who had a project looking at canine fucosidosis in Springer Spaniels. With such a good match for her interests, Gauthami was inspired to work on this project, and the rest is history.

Gauthami will be writing for us again soon to tell us more about living and practicing veterinary science in India. Here is her profile:

I was born... in Hyderabad, the most populous city of Andhra Pradesh which is the southern state of India.

At school I... was keen on becoming an Engineer as I was strong in Maths.

My first relationship... ended in marrying Ramana and we are blessed with 2 beautiful children.

Friends say I... am a naughty nut! "but now no more"

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... an Engineer.

At the moment I'm reading... only books related neuroscience as I am writing up my work.

My worst job was... while working as Vet in a rural area, I had to attend janmabhoomi where I was forced to attend meetings with politicians and villagers to resolve issues not relevant to my job profile.

At the moment I'm working... intra-thecal enzyme replacement therapy in canine fucosidosis

... which is interesting because... it gives encouraging information to parents whose children suffering with fucosidosis too.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Profile: Karma Nidup

I was born... in the cowshed nearby a beautiful lake surrounded with thick broad-leaved forest. My late brave mother was alone and while in labour she saw star through the window and named me “Kam Mindu” – meaning Northern Star. Later, my Buddhist teacher changed it to Karma Nidup which means “blessing of the stars”.

At school I… was a bit hyperactive (unusual for a northern star)

My first relationship was... that was in high school. She dumped me after few days for a guy who was a singer in the school. It is okay because even I admire singers… No grudges!

Friends say I... don’t look like 35… Keep saying it folks.

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... a television journalist or radio jockey.

At the moment I'm reading... books on genetics – well, I have to.

My worst job was... so far I have no complaint.

At the moment I'm working... on genetic diversity of Bhutanese and Nepalese pigs

... which is interesting because... these animals will change my title from Mr to Dr –hopefully, fingers crossed!


Flying pigs

Marijuana grows wild in Bhutan and only a few people, mostly poor subsistence farmers, take notice of it. But they don’t consume it- instead this wild weed is fed to the pigs to fatten them, keep them quiet at night, and restrain restless behavior during oestrous.

Perhaps this Himalayan Shangri-La Kingdom may be the only country where pigs do ‘fly’. My research involves unveiling the phylogenetics and phylogeography of these ‘flying pigs’ using FAO/ISAG-recommended microsatellite markers and partial sequences of mitochondrial DNA. My wishful thinking is that findings from this study could be useful for drawing up a program for strategic conservation and sustainable utilization of indigenous pig genetic resources in Bhutan.

By Karma Nidup

Monday, September 15, 2008

Profile: Dr. Gary Muscatello

Dr. Gary Muscatello joined the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney in 2008. He completed his BVSc at the University of Melbourne in 1997, after three years in practice he returned to the University of Melbourne to undertake postgraduate studies completing a PhD in Veterinary Microbiology in 2005, investigating the effects of farm management on ecology of virulent Rhodococcus equi. His work in the field of R. equi epidemiology has raised many questions regarding the method of spread of virulent R. equi on horse studs, with results suggesting an alternative contagious route of aerosol transmission.

Gary gave us some insight into his background and passions with his answers to our profile questions:

I was born... into a large immigrant Italian family in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.

At school I... was an AFL superstar in the making...

My first relationship was... in kinder with a freckled face red haired girl who lived a block from me, we were friends through to year 12 ...

Friends say I... love a challenge and don’t mind putting in the hard yards ..

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... a sports journalist.

At the moment I'm reading... Finding Nino, A sea change in Italy by Marc Llewellyn (I started reading this book at Christmas and am still on the first chapter!!).

My worst job was... haven’t had one yet!!...

At the moment I'm working... on developing new units of study in the Animal and Veterinary bioscience degree ...

... which is interesting because... it gives me the opportunity to mould young scientific minds...


Saving hundreds of foals and millions of dollars

My work on the horse lung disease called 'rattles’ could save hundreds of foals each year and the Thoroughbred industry millions of dollars.

Rattles in foal is a huge problem in the Thoroughbred industry in Australia and throughout the world with treatment and management costs alone estimated to be $5 million each year. Given that on some farms, foals that get rattles can have as low as a one in ten chance of survival and the potential million dollar price tags generated from the sale of one of these ‘well breed’ foals at yearling sales, it’s not hard to realise the significant cost of this disease on the horse breeding industry.

In my work I discovered that I could measure the microbe (virulent Rhodococcus equi) responsible for this disease in the dust on horse breeding farms. The concentration of the microbe in dust was associated with the prevalence of ‘rattles’ (i.e. high numbers of microbes = lots of rattly foals). I was also able to detect the microbe on the breath of foals that where sick, they could be seen to be breathing out the microbe and possible infecting their mob mates.

The ability to measure this microbe in the dust on farms and from the breath of foals has lead to farmers and veterinarians having a better understanding of when and where the microbe can be inhaled by the foal and cause disease. Farm managers are now better equipped to identify environmental and mob warning signs, such as dry and sandy pens and the crowding of large number of foals in small yards for a long time, that may lead to increase risk of ‘rattles’. The development of farm management strategies to reduce the impact of this disease will involve minimise the risk of foal being in danger of inhaling high concentration of the microbe. Watering paddocks, good grass coverage and making sure foals avoiding large crowds will no doubt lead to a huge reduction in the occurrence of this disease and in so slashing its economic impact.

By Dr. Gary Muscatello

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Profile: Professor John Prescott, University Professor at Large

Professor John Prescott gave a lunchtime seminar in the Faculty of Veterinary Science on Wednesday, September 10, 2008. His talk looked at public health and zoonoses, with several attention-grabbing examples from research carried out in Canada by the Centre for Public Health at Zoonoses at the University of Guelph. Professor Prescott is in Australia for a month. This profile was sprung on him when he was least expecting it, but the results were very interesting! Let's hope other visiting professors can keep up the standard...
I was born... in a British military hospital in Libya with an identical twin brother... (evil laugh)
At school I... had a very broad education. I went to thirteen schools before I was 12. Usually when a boy changes schools they get beaten up in the playground, but that doesn't happen when you've got a twin brother.
My first relationship was... gee, I've had so many I don't remember.
Friends say I am... interesting, amusing, intelligent, handsome, good-looking...
I'm very bad at... names. People should wear name tags on their foreheads.
If I wasn't me I'd like to be... a Golden Eagle.
At the moment I'm reading... A Dance To The Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. This book was recommended by Bob Carr (Ed: recommendation is in My Reading Life: Adventures in the World of Books) as one of the best English language books in existence. It is catastrophically funny.
My worst job was... bagging barley on a back of a 3' wide combine harvester.
At the moment I'm working... in Australia on trying to improve my bacteriology teaching.
...which is interesting because... I've got quite a few new ideas.


LHC to go off with a Big Bang

Somewhere in Europe, 100 metres underground, sits a supercooled, superbig science experiment ready to recreate the early moments of the Big Bang. No, it’s not the pet project of an evil genius intent on destroying the world- it’s the world’s largest particle accelerator, set to switch on in a few hours.

It’s known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a £2.6 billion, 27 kilometre tunnel loop, constructed underground at CERN on the border between Switzerland and France. Inside the vacuum of the LHC, streams of protons, steered by thousands of magnets, will make the 90 microsecond trip around the loop before being smashed together head-on. Four detectors situated in enormous underground caverns around the ring will record the results.

Physicists hope that collisions between the proton beams will produce new particles such as the elusive Higgs boson, which can explain why all other particles have mass. The data should help us to understand what is the universe is made of and how it was created in the first place- Big Questions indeed!


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Profile: Kao "no middle name" Castle

I was born... in Townsville in the 70's. My parents lived on Magnetic Island (where compasses don't work properly!).
At school I... got comments on my strange sense of humour in every report card (including kindergarten), and didn't pay much attention to my teachers.
My first relationship was... with Sam in preschool, when I tried to convince him I could fly.
Friends say I... am good at remembering birthdays. They must not know about automated reminders from electronic diaries!
If I wasn't me I'd like to be... my dog, Miles, who gets to sleep for 22 hours a day.
At the moment I'm reading... I'm not actually reading any books, but I like to check, and I love
My worst job was... temping for a security company. One client stopped paying their bills when their security system was stolen along with all of their posessions, and the security company didn't notice.
At the moment I'm working on... a bone growth disorder called osteochondrosis in Thoroughbred racehorses.
... which is interesting because... individual animals can be worth so much, and the breed as a whole is very healthy.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Science Fashion Tragedies Part I: The Lab Coat

Yikes!Why is lab wear white, baggy, and supremely unflattering?

I suspect it's not the fashion sense of your standard science student at fault in this situation. Instead, I'm placing the blame fair on the shoulders of lab coat manufacturers. What lack of imagination on their part blinds them to the obvious need for an Evil Genius Lab Coat, or simply the Power Lab Coat (discrete shoulder pads and high collar) for those moments when we need to come across as supremely knowledgeable?

And the colour? Why white? It's black that is slimming! Australia is currently topping the charts when it comes to the proportion of obese people in our population, so a lab coat that doesn't scream "giant white whale" would seem like a sensible proposition.

Lab coats are there to protect our skin and clothes from chance exposure to chemicals and biological fluids when we get a bit too excited with the pipette. Theoretically, you need to be able to tear the coat off when sprinting for the emergency shower after you just covered yourself with acid. But this requirement doesn't seem like much of a barrier to lab coat diversity: thanks to the miracle of press-studs (or velcro for those that are after that hypercolor 80s inspired lab coat!) we could all be stylish and safe. Personally, I think I'd opt for a classic trench-coat inspired design, feminine and flattering, that would look good with the covered shoes (to be addressed later) that are also required for lab safety.

Lab-wear manufacturers, if you think that there is not enough demand for stylish lab wear to make this work, you're wrong. If someone can make money from ties with the periodic table on them, just imagine how much you'd make from stylish lab coats... a gift that scientists would actually like to receive!


Monday, September 1, 2008

Platypuses- Dangerous when wet!

When you think of a platypus, what words come to mind? I’m thinking ‘cute’, I’m thinking ‘cuddly’, I’m thinking ‘perfect pet for my toddler/niece/nephew if only they would change those darn protected species laws’. If you thought any of those things, well, think again. I’m here to tell you that the platypus has a sting in its tail.

By now you know that male platypuses have poisonous spurs on each hind leg, which they use to inject venom into victims. Envenomation occurs when the platypus wraps both hind legs around the victim, driving the spurs into the flesh several times, and injecting venom as he does so. Unfortunate humans often need help to disengage an attacking platypus, as it is able to support its full weight by its spurs. There is even a story of one eminent platypus biologist who, when trying to untangle an angry male animal from a net, ended up with the platypus hanging from either side of his trouser fly (luckily he was wearing thick trousers and wasn’t hurt!).

I say lucky because although envenomation of humans has never reported to have been fatal, the venom produces swelling and excruciating pain- and morphine is mostly ineffective at pain relief. One victim, who had previously served in the Vietnam War, described the pain of platypus envenomation as worse than his shrapnel injuries, and it lasted for several weeks. Nausea, gastric pain, cold sweats and lymph node swelling all come with the territory too.

Yeah, yeah, you say, so they’re venomous, but they’re not all that scary. I beg to differ- have a listen to the bone-chilling growl of an angry platypus here.
So, in summary: Platypuses- get them before they get you!


Why are we blogging?

Both Camilla and Kao have entered essays in the Wellcome Trust New Scientist Essay competition. Unfortunately, neither of them received quite the award they deserved, and as a result they have been driven to publish their wonderful essays themselves.

Since they needed a website to publish these essays on, they're going all the way and publishing other things too: articles on science news, interviews with interesting scientists, profiles of the other students and academics that they work with, and horoscopes. But first of all, and most important, our (tragically non-award winning) essays are posted below.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Medicines from Monotremes

Somewhere in Eastern Australia, I stand on a darkened riverbank, huddled against the frigid wind. It is 2am, and I’m holding a small animal in my hands. It is covered with furry, loose skin, makes a growl like an angry cat, and tries to chew my hand with its soft, duck-like bill. The cold and the early hour are causing my mind to wander, and as I hold the squirming platypus, I reflect on the millions of years of evolution that have led to the strange creature I see before me.

Platypuses and echidnas are members of an ancient group of mammals called Monotremes, which have been around for 166 million years. They lay eggs like a reptile and produce milk like all mammals, and in the case of platypuses, produce venom like a snake, making them very unusual indeed. Little wonder that when platypuses were first discovered they were thought to be the trick of a taxidermist!

I am here on the riverbank to collect samples of platypus genetic material, which I’m going to use to unlock the secrets of its evolution, and maybe even help humans a little along the way. My research involves examining the genes of the platypus to help with understanding how mammals first evolved from their reptilian ancestors. Geneticists like me can investigate how traits like egg-laying were superseded by features such as milk production, and by looking at genes that are in both platypuses and modern mammals like humans, can also work out which genes are really important for us mammals. Although you won’t find humans sprouting a duck-bill any time soon, you might be astonished to learn that more than 80% of the platypus genes are also found in the human genome. In particular we can examine the genes involved in platypus immunity and learn more about how mammalian immune systems function and have evolved. Perhaps we may discover new ways of boosting our own immune systems.

My colleagues and I are studying the platypus genes that code for antimicrobial proteins. Unlike humans, platypus young are born after a short gestation in an immature state. They thus have a very underdeveloped immune system, and yet these fingernail-sized hatchlings still manage to survive in a dirty burrow that is full of microbes. Our team is investigating the possibility that platypus milk contains antimicrobial proteins which protect the developing young from infection. In the future, I hope it will be possible to duplicate these ‘natural antibiotics’ to develop new treatments for human diseases, which are urgently needed to combat existing antibiotic resistant pathogens.

We are also researching another bizarre feature of the platypus: its venom. Males have sharp spurs on each hind leg that are used to deliver a potent chemical poison into victims. Venom is used during fighting between males, but it can also be used for defence against potential predators like foxes and domestic dogs, which if spurred may die, and the occasional unwary human like me! Luckily, the animal I’m holding is a female so has no spurs, because in humans, envenomation causes terrible swelling and excruciating pain that is not relieved by morphine. There must be some very interesting and novel chemicals in the venom to cause such unusual symptoms. I am working to identify the chemicals by decoding the genes that produce them. Snake venoms have already been used to develop drugs to treat human diseases, and I’m hoping that our platypus venom research might also lead to the development of novel drugs. In particular, if we can find the platypus venom chemicals that cause the extreme pain, we may discover new pain receptors and be able to develop novel painkillers to block them.

A shout from a colleague reminds me that it’s time now for my platypus to have her blood sampled. From this I will be able to extract and study her DNA. The procedure is over quickly, and I take her down to the water to release her. She gives one parting growl, and then slips quietly under the water, apparently unaware of the great potential of her genes to help us improve human medicine.


Legs Like A Supermodel

Exceptionally long, slim, and elegant legs are a ticket to a glamorous world of champagne and parades. However, I’m not talking about the world of a supermodel, but rather the world of a Thoroughbred racehorse.

The parallels between racehorses and models go beyond the length of their legs. Both groups are thought to live on a mainly herbivorous diet, neither speaks much in public, and both horses and models have a beautiful mane of hair. There are some important differences, of course: for example, racehorses wear flat shoes not stilettos.

You may have noticed that racehorses are heavier than models too. Racing fit, the average Thoroughbred weighs at least 500 kilograms. Racehorses also run faster than models, travelling at up to 60 kilometres per hour at full gallop. Due to their weight and speed, the bones in racehorses’ legs are subject to enormous forces during a race, and the presence of any flaws in these bones can have catastrophic consequences.

My research focuses on a bone growth disorder in Thoroughbred racehorses, called osteochondrosis. Osteochondrosis causes lesions in the joints of the legs. In a horse suffering from this disease, small regions of the bone growth plates that lie just below the joint surface fail to mature correctly. This leaves cores of weaker cartilage where there should be bone. A racehorse with osteochondrosis lesions has an increased likelihood of suffering both recurrent lameness and catastrophic breakdown.

Because osteochondrosis occurs while the horse is growing, I am following Thoroughbred foals through the first twelve months of their lives. I am recording the pedigree of each foal in the study, and visiting them regularly to observe the different environments in which they are raised. When the young racehorses are twelve to eighteen months old, they will have their legs x-rayed. This is traditionally the method by which vets diagnose osteochondrosis and other bone problems before the horses are sold. I will use this information to calculate the relative contributions that genes and environment make to osteochondrosis in racehorses.

In order to make my study statistically valid, I am following hundreds of foals. Fortunately, most foals are very inquisitive, and getting close to them is not hard. Unfortunately, foals (like babies) seem to follow the steps of 1) briefly observing the novel item – me, and then 2) trying to put it in their mouth or up their nose. As well as studying osteochondrosis, I believe I could track the foals’ increasing curiosity and independence by analysing the amount of saliva left on me at the end of each visit.

Foal spit aside, this research is important. This study should help breeders predict which horses are most likely to develop osteochondrosis, before the lesions occur. Horses that are identified as being at risk could then be managed differently to their healthier counterparts, by altering their diet and other factors that may contribute to the disease. Reducing the rate of occurrence of osteochondrosis will result in less pain and loss of life amongst racehorses, as well as saving money for horse owners, breeders and trainers. Equally importantly, the fact that this research is being carried out at all shows that the racing industry is increasingly embracing scientific research as a way forward.

The horse racing industry is one of the largest industries in the world. In Australia, it contributes more than $8 billion to the economy. In the USA, it is bigger than Hollywood. In the UK, there is almost £100 million of prize-money available for horse races, and one in eight agricultural workers is employed in the horse industry. However, with a few exceptions, it is a highly traditional industry that has not embraced change.

There are many challenges for the horse racing industry to face in coming years. Infectious diseases must be managed and treated, and new farming and training methods will be called for to work with the changing climate. Breeders aiming to create new champions will need information to ensure that their horses remain genetically diverse and healthy. Scientific research will be invaluable in helping the racing industry meet these challenges.