In Tune With June

I wasn’t that excited by the May edition of Australasian Science but June more than makes up for it. Of my articles the most significant is the profile of Em/Prof Maria Skyllas-Kazacos, which I’ve referred to here and here.

There’s a lot more to it than that however. We’ve got the most popular categories (at least when I tell people about my work at parties) covered. There’s a “wow can that even exist” piece, a tale of amusing animal behaviour and a story about sex. And that’s just in the first two pages of my work. After that I’ve also covered some exceptionally hopeful medical research and a three pieces with a connection to climate change.

For example we have the discovery of only the third known virophage. Virophages are viruses that act as parasites on other viruses. While an ordinary virus takes over a cell and makes it produce huge numbers of replica viruses, virophages can’t do this directly. Instead they infect a cell that is already infected by another virus, and insert their DNA into the first arriving virus, forcing it to force the cell to produce copies of them. If that’s not amazing enough, wait until you find out where Prof Rick Cavicchioli found this one.

Drs Phil Lester and Julien Grangier (presumably unrelated to Hermione) have discovered that a New Zealand wasp has discovered a unique way of dealing with invasive argentine ants while many other species have been overwhelmed.

Some women experience severe post coital dysphoria, or the after sex blues. This isn’t the regrets associated with shagging someone you really think you shouldn’t have, but an emotion that can hit even after good sex with a long term partner. It’s remarkably under-studied (we think it’s much less common in men, but don’t really know) and A/Prof Robert Schweitzer has published the first attempt to assess how common it is in the community, and seek correlating factors. Schweitzer, who apparently is a relative of Albert, says, “People assume it must be associated with a history of sexual abuse or psychological distress” but he found only a weak correlation.

Two pieces of medical research seem almost too good to be true. Prof John Eisman found a five year increase in life expectancy amongst people put on anti-osteoporosis drugs. The sample size is sufficiently small that this needs to be treated with care, but still – five years!

Dr Darren Miller has created a synthetic flu vaccine that, in mice appears to offer partial or complete protection against all strains of flu. This could be incredibly important if we experience another flu epidemic, but he can’t find money to take his research further, now that fears about Avian flu and Swine flu have subsided.

Dr Anthony Hannan retakes the lead in the contest to get the most stories coverage from your humble servant with research showing that mice with Huntington’s disease have a reservoir of stem cells ready to turn into new neurons that somehow get blocked. If this turns out to be the case in humans as well it puts us one step closer to beating this awful disease. Too late alas for Woody Guthrie, but something to give hope to thousands of people currently facing an awful death sentence.

Then there’s the medical story that doesn’t look like one. Rhizanthella gardener is the only orchid know to flower underground. It’s totally parasitic on other plants, since it can’t photosynthesise for itself. In fact, a little like the virophage it’s doubly parasitic, getting its food from a parasitic fungus. Highly endangered, it’s restricted to a couple of sections of the WA wheatbelt. Fascinating perhaps, but what’s the medical angle? Well Dr Etienne Delannoy notes that as a plant that has lost the capacity to photosynthesise it has something in common with the malaria parasite, and a comparison of these genomes might reveal some of plasmodium’s weaknesses.

June hasn’t just been a good edition for my stories though. I haven’t read Rick Shine’s cover story on cane toads yet, but it looks like a corker. We’ve got an opinion piece from the President of the Australian Academy of Science Prof Suzanne Cory, and another feature reporting that we may be greatly underestimating the diversity of Australian vertebrate species.

For all the pieces that don’t have links, feel free to ask me for more information, but better still, go out and buy the edition. It’s the one with the cane toad on the cover.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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