March 29 - April 4, 2020: Issue 444

Pets: the voiceless victims of the COVID-19 crisis

March 25, 2020: UNSW
Reports of companion animals starving or being killed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak highlight the vulnerable existence animals endure at the whim of humans.

The plight of companion animals such as cats and dogs has become an emerging animal rights issue since the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, with reports of abandoned animals in the Chinese city of Wuhan now starving or being killed.

Closer to home, there have been reports of Sydney vets being approached by pet owners, asking to have dogs put to death, out of concern the dog might bring coronavirus into the home.

“These are virus-free, healthy animals, and there is no reason to believe that dogs are able to pass the virus onto humans, or that dogs have passed the virus on to humans,” says Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan, an animal welfare expert from UNSW’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

“Yet, even if this were true – which it is not – there are clearly more ethical ways to respond to the issue.”

Advice from the World Organisation for Animal Health
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has advised that “to date, there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare. There is no evidence that dogs play a role in the spread of this human disease or that they become sick. Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19 virus.”

The OIE will continue to provide updates as new information becomes available.

Dr O’Sullivan is hoping these incidents of pet owners approaching vets to unnecessarily euthanise their dogs are isolated cases. She also hopes vets who are approached with such requests will take the time to educate their clients, for the sake of the animals.

“What this speaks to, in my view, is the relative disposability of non-human animals, in the minds of some people,” Dr O’Sullivan says.

Dr O’Sullivan says with the recent Australian bushfire crisis, people dedicated themselves to saving animals. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, some people are now making the rash decision to kill a companion animal (or seek to have them killed) because they mistakenly believe the animal might introduce a virus into the home.

She says the COVID-19 crisis highlights the vulnerable existence animals endure at the whim of humans.

“I am yet to hear of an influx of animals to pounds and the RSPCA. But, if people are thinking of dumping their animals, as opposed to having them killed, they need to be aware that many animals that find their way to the pound will be killed. Sending your animal to a shelter is as good as having them killed, in many cases.”

Owning a companion animal is a life-long commitment
Dr O’Sullivan says that, in the long term, educating pet owners is critically important. She also suggests that we perhaps need to be more selective in who can enjoy the company of a companion animal.

“Living with animals has been shown to generate many benefits for humans. They bring companionship, assist with exercise, are cute, loving and adorable. But, if humans are to enjoy the company of animals, they need to make a lifelong commitment. It should not be permittable to simply kill an animal once the going gets tough or at least when it is perceived to be. This is a lifelong commitment.”

It’s important for all people with companion animals to have an emergency management plan in place all the time, not just in times of crisis.

“This includes how you will evacuate the animals in case of fire, [or] who will feed the animals in case you are in an accident, hospitalised or delayed. There are many online dog and cat feeding providers. Your local vet may also be able to recommend suitable carers.”

Dr O’Sullivan says simply building strong networks – including your neighbours – is a good idea when it comes to an emergency care plan for animals.

Cannabis helps fight resistant bacteria

March 24, 2020: University of Southern Denmark
Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming, antibiotics have saved millions of lives from fatal infections world-wide. However, with time bacteria have developed mechanisms to escape the effects of antibiotics -- they have become resistant.

With fewer antibiotics available to treat resistant bacterial infections, the possibility of entering a pre-antibiotic era is looming ahead.

Alternative strategies are being explored and helper compounds are attracting attention. Helper compounds are non-antibiotic compounds with the capability of enhancing the efficacy of antibiotics.

How to boost antibiotics
One such helper compound has been suspected to be cannabidiol (CBD); a cannabinoid from the cannabis plant. Now a research team from University of Southern Denmark, has published a scientific study proving the effect of CBD.

Janne Kudsk Klitgaard is Principal Investigator and corresponding author. First author is PhD student Claes Søndergaard Wassmann. The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

When we combined CBD and antibiotics, we saw a more powerful effect than when treating with antibiotics alone. So, in order to kill a certain number of bacteria, we needed less antibiotics, they say.

Bacteria clones spread globally
In the study, CBD was used to enhance the effect of the antibiotic bacitracin against Staphylococcus aureus bacteria; a major human pathogen that frequently causes community- and hospital-acquired disease.

Multidrug-resistant clones of this pathogen have spread globally. In some countries, treatment of bacterial infections with these resistant bacteria are difficult and the problem is projected to be an ever-larger problem in the future.

According to the researchers, the combination of CBD and antibiotics may be a novel treatment of infections with antibiotic resistant bacteria.

How do the bacteria die?
Three things happened with the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, when the researchers treated them with the combination in their study:
  1. The bacteria could no longer divide normally.
  2. The expression of certain key genes (cell division and autolysis genes) in the bacteria was lowered.
  3. The bacterial membrane became unstable.
Anti-resistance must be stopped
According to the researchers, overuse of antibiotics is the main cause of antibiotic resistance.

If we combine an antibiotic with a helper compound, that enhances the effect of the antibiotic, we need less antibiotic to achieve the same effect. This may contribute to the development of fewer resistant bacteria, says Janne Kudsk Klitgaard.

Claes Søndergaard Wassmann, Peter Højrup, Janne Kudsk Klitgaard. Cannabidiol is an effective helper compound in combination with bacitracin to kill Gram-positive bacteria. Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-60952-0

eDNA provides researchers with 'more than meets the eye'

March 24, 2020
Researchers from Curtin University have used next generation DNA sequencing to learn more about the different species of plants, insects and animals present in the Pilbara and Perth regions of Western Australia.

Lead researcher Curtin PhD candidate Mieke van der Heyde, from the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration said that DNA metabarcoding is a growing field in the biological monitoring space, with the potential to provide fast, accurate, and cost effective assessments of biodiversity.

"Traditionally, biomonitoring has relied on scientists setting traps and visually monitoring a certain area, counting the number of species, and then extrapolating that data to come up with regional analysis," Ms van der Heyde said.

"Understandably, that method of data collecting is expensive, time consuming and challenging, especially when looking into remote areas of Australia, which often present a harsh climate.

"As animals and organisms interact with their environment, they leave behind traces of their DNA through things like droppings, skin cells, saliva, and pollen. When this DNA is found in the environment, it's known as environmental DNA, or eDNA.

"Our research looked in to the feasibility of using this eDNA as an additional tool for biomonitoring. Not only to see if this type of analysis could potentially make things a bit easier for biologists out in the field, but as well as providing researchers with more accurate field information then what they can visually identify."

The study analysed samples of soil, animal droppings, plant and insect material, collectively known as 'substrates,' taken from two different areas of Western Australia: The Pilbara, a hot desert climate, and the Swan Coastal Plain, a hot Mediterranean-type climate.

"We tested common environmental substrates including soil, bulk scat, bulk plant material, and bulk arthropods from pitfall traps and vane traps, using four eDNA barcoding assessments to detect a wide range of plants, vertebrates and arthropods," Ms van der Heyde said

"This study was the first of its kind to systematically test terrestrial substrates for eDNA, and it also was the first time that some of these particular substrates were analysed.

"Results show that bulk arthropods and animal droppings detected the most biodiversity, with at least a third of the biodiversity detected in only one substrate. Soil samples detected the least, and fewer samples had usable DNA, especially in the Pilbara. We believe this is most likely due to the hot climate, which potentially degraded the eDNA.

"Biomonitoring is necessary for effective ecosystem management. Our study shows that eDNA can detect biodiversity in an area, and collecting more substrates will increase the breadth of biodiversity detected.

"However, surveys must be carefully considered, as DNA may come from organisms outside the study area," Ms van der Heyde said.

This research was completed at the Trace and Environmental DNA (TrEnD) Laboratory at Curtin University's Perth campus.

Curtin PhD Candidate Ms Mieke van der Heyde collecting samples for eDNA analysis.

Mieke Heyde, Michael Bunce, Grant Wardell‐Johnson, Kristen Fernandes, Nicole E. White, Paul Nevill. Testing multiple substrates for terrestrial biodiversity monitoring using environmental DNA metabarcoding. Molecular Ecology Resources, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/1755-0998.13148

Art in times of crisis

March 24, 2020
Scientia Professor Jill Bennett says the arts offer useful ways of dealing with complex mental health and emotional challenges.

Body mapping session in Virtual Reality using EmbodiMap developed by UNSW fEEL Lab Scientia Professor Jill Bennett and lead immersive media designer Volker Kuchelmeister. Image: Dr Jill Bennett

People often think that prioritising art in a time of crisis is counterintuitive but ARC Laureate Fellow and UNSW Professor of Experimental Arts, Professor Jill Bennett says it’s very important.

“I think it's exactly now that we need these kinds of tools,” she says. “One of the things that art does well – and has done for hundreds of years – is to investigate challenging human experiences. This opens up the potential for reflecting on and understanding our own and others mental states and feelings of distress and anxiety.”

Professor Bennett notes that evidence suggests that 65% or more of Australians with a mental health issue don’t seek help. That’s why she is advocating for work around mental health to also be done outside the health sector.

“We need to support people in more ways than just medically,” she says.

For Professor Bennett, who is also the founding Director of The Big Anxiety festival, art exists beyond the gallery or the museum - and creative mental health interventions take place in environments that people want to be in, and enjoy being in, rather than a medical space.

“The creative process is very different from, say, a course of cognitive behaviour therapy or something medicalised,” she says. Art doesn’t substitute for medical interventions, but it offers something else that is beneficial.

“Art can be a means of reflecting on and processing difficult emotions or complex mental states. It can help us gain perspective, insight and agency, as well as the capacity to communicate”.

On one level, that increased understanding can come through casual engagement with art or it can come through the form of larger art-based projects, Professor Bennett says. But in both cases, it’s like a form therapy insofar as it helps us develop agency and emotional awareness.

Professor Bennett has an ARC funded Lab called fEEL (felt Experience & Empathy Lab) where psychologists and art specialists work together developing techniques and practises that are beneficial in a whole range of mental health, trauma and anxiety contexts.

Body mapping session in Virtual Reality using EmbodiMap developed by UNSW fEEL Lab Scientia Professor Jill Bennett and lead immersive media designer Volker Kuchelmeister. Image: Dr Jill Bennett

Through fEEL she has recently developed EmbodiMap - a therapeutic body mapping tool that uses Virtual Reality to allow users to engage with and map their feelings, thoughts and emotions.

“We often feel anxiety in the body. You may feel a response in your throat or your gut, for example. Body mapping, which is used extensively by my colleague, Professor Katherine Boydell at Black Dog Institute, is a process of mapping those embodied feelings, by drawing. EmbodiMap allows us to do this in VR, interacting in a physical way with 3D body images.

“When you feel anxious it can be useful to think about what's happening in your body. You need to notice the patterns of what's happening, and develop a way of intervening when stress or anxiety occurs.”

She says that the EmbodiMap is a good illustration of this because it works with those processes. It gives people a potent way of visualising what’s happening to them by encouraging them to paint internal sensations as they are experienced onto a 3D facsimile of the body, which can also be posed and manipulated, thus creating an interactive tool to exert some control over anxious thoughts and feelings. 

“That’s not to say you can instantly and mechanically make anxiety go away,” she says. “But having that sort of perspective and insight and being able to see much more clearly what's going on, does give you a much greater degree of agency and insight. Those things we know are really critical when it comes to managing anxiety and emotional health.”

Professor Bennett’s team is looking for participants to be involved in the testing phase of EmbodiMap, which can be used in conjunction with body-focused therapies or as stand-alone activity.  

Ancestor of all animals identified in Australian fossils

March 23, 2020
A wormlike creature that lived more than 555 million years ago is the earliest bilaterian
A team led by UC Riverside geologists has discovered the first ancestor on the family tree that contains most familiar animals today, including humans.

The tiny, wormlike creature, named Ikaria wariootia, is the earliest bilaterian, or organism with a front and back, two symmetrical sides, and openings at either end connected by a gut. The paper is published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An artist's rendering of Ikaria wariootia. (Sohail Wasif/UCR)

The earliest multicellular organisms, such as sponges and algal mats, had variable shapes. Collectively known as the Ediacaran Biota, this group contains the oldest fossils of complex, multicellular organisms. However, most of these are not directly related to animals around today, including lily pad-shaped creatures known as Dickinsonia that lack basic features of most animals, such as a mouth or gut.

The development of bilateral symmetry was a critical step in the evolution of animal life, giving organisms the ability to move purposefully and a common, yet successful way to organise their bodies. A multitude of animals, from worms to insects to dinosaurs to humans, are organized around this same basic bilaterian body plan.

Evolutionary biologists studying the genetics of modern animals predicted the oldest ancestor of all bilaterians would have been simple and small, with rudimentary sensory organs. Preserving and identifying the fossilised remains of such an animal was thought to be difficult, if not impossible.

For 15 years, scientists agreed that fossilised burrows found in 555 million-year-old Ediacaran Period deposits in Nilpena, South Australia, were made by bilaterians. But there was no sign of the creature that made the burrows, leaving scientists with nothing but speculation.

Scott Evans, a recent doctoral graduate from UC Riverside; and Mary Droser, a professor of geology, noticed minuscule, oval impressions near some of these burrows. With funding from a NASA exobiology grant, they used a three-dimensional laser scanner that revealed the regular, consistent shape of a cylindrical body with a distinct head and tail and faintly grooved musculature. The animal ranged between 2-7 millimetres long and about 1-2.5 millimetres wide, with the largest the size and shape of a grain of rice -- just the right size to have made the burrows.

Ikaria wariootia impressions in stone. (Droser Lab/UCR)

"We thought these animals should have existed during this interval, but always understood they would be difficult to recognise," Evans said. "Once we had the 3D scans, we knew that we had made an important discovery."

A 3D laser scan of an Ikaria wariootia impression. (Droser Lab/UCR)

The researchers, who include Ian Hughes of UC San Diego and James Gehling of the South Australia Museum, describe Ikaria wariootia, named to acknowledge the original custodians of the land. The genus name comes from Ikara, which means "meeting place" in the Adnyamathanha language. It's the Adnyamathanha name for a grouping of mountains known in English as Wilpena Pound. The species name comes from Warioota Creek, which runs from the Flinders Ranges to Nilpena Station.

"Burrows of Ikaria occur lower than anything else. It's the oldest fossil we get with this type of complexity," Droser said. "Dickinsonia and other big things were probably evolutionary dead ends. We knew that we also had lots of little things and thought these might have been the early bilaterians that we were looking for."

In spite of its relatively simple shape, Ikaria was complex compared to other fossils from this period. It burrowed in thin layers of well-oxygenated sand on the ocean floor in search of organic matter, indicating rudimentary sensory abilities. The depth and curvature of Ikaria represent clearly distinct front and rear ends, supporting the directed movement found in the burrows.

The burrows also preserve crosswise, "V"-shaped ridges, suggesting Ikaria moved by contracting muscles across its body like a worm, known as peristaltic locomotion. Evidence of sediment displacement in the burrows and signs the organism fed on buried organic matter reveal Ikaria probably had a mouth, anus, and gut.

"This is what evolutionary biologists predicted," Droser said. "It's really exciting that what we have found lines up so neatly with their prediction."

Scott D. Evans, Ian V. Hughes, James G. Gehling, and Mary L. Droser. Discovery of the oldest bilaterian from the Ediacaran of South Australia. PNAS, March 23, 2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2001045117

Bushfire smoke and pollution responsible for over 400 excess deaths

March 23, 2020
Medical researchers have estimated some of the impacts of this summer’s bushfire smoke and air pollution on Australians’ health.

Bushfire smoke over eastern Australia during the 2019-20 summer is estimated to have been responsible for 417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems and 2027 for respiratory problems, as well as 1305 presentations to emergency departments with asthma, a preliminary evaluation published today in the Medical Journal of Australia shows.

Excess deaths describe a temporary increase in mortality in a population, usually caused by environmental phenomena such as extreme weather events, or pandemics.

The researchers, led by the University of Tasmania and involving a UNSW researcher, estimated population exposure to particulate matter less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5) for the regions of NSW, Queensland, the ACT and Victoria for which publicly available air quality monitoring data were available.

The highest population-weighted PM2.5 exposure level, 98.5 μg/m3 on 14 January 2020, exceeded the national air quality 24-hour standard (25 μg/m3) and was more than 14 times the historical mean 24-hour PM2.5 value. 

“We analysed data from the last quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020,” says a co-author of the paper, Conjoint Professor Bin Jalaludin from UNSW Medicine.

“We defined bushfire smoke-affected days as days on which the 24-hour mean PM2.5 concentration exceeded the 95th percentile of historical daily mean values for individual air quality stations.

“This was the case with at least one monitoring station in the study area on 125 of 133 days.”

The researchers then compared deaths, cardiovascular and respiratory-related hospitalisations and ER presentations with asthma to what they’d expect on any other day, according to historical data. That allowed them to extrapolate estimates for how many outcomes were likely caused by air pollution.

“From other studies we know what the risks are for deaths and hospitalisation from smoke and air pollution. We applied these risks to the baseline death rate or hospitalisation rate and calculated the deaths/hospitalisations attributable to smoke pollution in our timeframe,” Professor Jalaludin says.

Estimates likely conservative
The researchers’ estimates are based on air quality data from monitoring stations in the four eastern states – that is, they did not include data for smoke from all extreme fires in Australia during the study period.

“We only looked at four states for a defined period from the first of October 2019. There were some fires in September which we did not take into account and also those in other states,” Professor Jalaludin says.

“Secondly, we only looked at the outcomes where we have strong evidence. There are many other health effects caused by bushfires, for example mental health effects, hospital admissions or ED visits for other conditions which we did not evaluate – either because it is difficult to obtain such information, or because the links between air pollution and these conditions are not as strong.

“Given these limitations, our estimates are likely conservative, and we need more research to get a clearer picture of the overall impact.”

Professor Jalaludin says the team also did not specifically look at the effects of fires and smoke on those people in the frontline – firefighters, people and communities directly affected. 

“There were a number of deaths in that group and I am sure there would have been cases of burns, smoke inhalation, injuries and similar.”

What is certain, Professor Jalaludin says, is that the findings indicate the smoke-related health impact of last summer was substantial. 

“Smoke is just one of many problems that will intensify with the increasing frequency and severity of major bushfires. We urgently need to expand and diversify approaches to bushfire mitigation and adaptation to living in an increasingly hot and fire-prone country.”

Unprecedented smoke‐related health burden associated with the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Australia. Nicolas Borchers Arriagada, Andrew J Palmer, David MJS Bowman, Geoffrey G Morgan, Bin B Jalaludin and Fay H Johnston. Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja2.50545

Aboriginal scars from frontier wars

March 18, 2020
Hundreds of Aboriginal men who became native mounted police in colonial Australia carried a significant burden of responsibility for law and order for white settlers in Queensland and other settlements.

An historical photo of Native Mounted Police troopers.

A long-running ARC-funded archaeology project has turned the lens on the recruitment to the Queensland Native Mounted Police and their part in the violent 'frontier wars' -- which created long-term traumatic impacts on the lives of the Indigenous people involved.

"We argue that the massacres, frontier violence, displacement, and the ultimate dispossession of land and destruction of traditional cultural practices resulted in both individual and collective inter-generational trauma for Aboriginal peoples," says Flinders University Professor Heather Burke in a new article published in the Journal of Genocide Research.

"Despite the Australian frontier wars taking place over a century ago, their impacts continue to reverberate today in a range of different ways, many of which are as yet only partially understood."

Professor Burke, and Queensland researchers, say official records show of the history of the Queensland Mounted Police in terms of its development, its white officers, some day-to-day operations of the force, and how many people were killed during the frontier wars.

The article looks at the ongoing psychological impacts of the historical dispossession and frontier violence.

Based on more than four years of research, the Archaeology of the Queensland Native Mounted Police project combined historical records, oral and historical evidence from a range of sites across central and northern Queensland to understand more fully the activities, lives and legacies of the native police.

It strives to present an alternative perspective on the nature of frontier conflict during Australian settlement, in order to initiative new understandings of the Aboriginal and settler experience, and contribute to global studies of Indigenous responses to colonialism.

The Queensland Native Mounted Police was organised along paramilitary lines, consisting of detachments of Aboriginal troopers led by white officers. It covered the whole of Queensland, including 170 camps, and was explicitly constituted to protect the lives, livelihoods and property of settlers and to prevent (and punish) any Aboriginal aggression or resistance.

This was often accomplished through violence in many forms, leading Australian historian Henry Reynolds to characterise the NMP as "the most violent organisation in Australian history."

The project's new publicly available national database covers the 50-year history of the Queensland Native Mounted Police (1849-1904) and stories of many of the 800 troopers and 400 officers. It is the only publicly available historical and archaeological dataset of their lives and activities. The excavations conducted over the past four years were the first archaeological investigations of any native police force operating anywhere in Australia.

Heather Burke, Bryce Barker, Lynley Wallis, Sarah Craig, Michelle Combo. Betwixt and Between: Trauma, Survival and the Aboriginal Troopers of the Queensland Native Mounted Police. Journal of Genocide Research, 2020; 1 DOI: 10.1080/14623528.2020.1735147

Disclaimer: These articles are not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Pittwater Online News or its staff.