Inbox and Environment News: Issue 393

February 10 - 16, 2019: Issue 393

Leaves Are Nature's Most Sophisticated Environment Sensors

February 6th, 2019
New research confirms that leaves are nature's most sophisticated environment sensors. We can therefore use leaves to tell us about the management of the land they are growing in.

Professor of Zoology, Yvonne Buckley at Trinity College Dublin is part of a global network of grassland ecologists who have found that critical plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in leaves respond to fertilisation treatments as well as the climate and soils they are growing in. The discovery has just been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

While ecologists and agricultural scientists have known for some time that individual species at individual locations can vary in the amounts of these nutrients in their leaves in response to fertilisation, this is the first time that it has been confirmed across entire communities of plants in very different climates and soil conditions. The experiment was undertaken at 27 sites in four continents, from the semiarid grasslands and savannas of Australia to lush pastures in Europe and prairies in America.

When plants are fertilised they can use those extra nutrients to grow bigger and produce more flowers and seeds which can dilute the nutrients in their leaves, so a positive response of leaf nutrients to fertilisation is not guaranteed. A surprising result of this experiment was that Specific Leaf Area, a leaf trait that is commonly used to tell us about how plants defend themselves against herbivores and capture sunlight for growth, was unaffected by fertilisation. So this critical measure of leaf architecture is not changing in a consistent way in response to fertilisation. Leaf architecture is instead determined by climate and soil characteristics, so it may respond over a longer time frame than short-term fertilisation.

Commenting on the significance of the research, Professor Buckley said:

"As our environment changes more quickly due to climate change, intensification of agriculture and land use, it is becoming more important to understand how grasslands all over the world are likely to respond. Grasslands are one of the most extensive habitats in the world, they provide us with food, carbon storage and habitat for pollinators. Using plants as sensors of environmental change gives us another important tool for understanding the consequences of these changes for our life support systems."

"There are two ways that leaf nutrients can change in grassland communities, either the existing species leaves change to store more nutrients or the kinds of species which can survive in these new conditions change to species that naturally have higher leaf nutrients. We found that for nitrogen and potassium both of these things were happening but for phosphorus the species change pathway was not important."

The lead author of the paper is Professor Jennifer Firn from Queensland University of Technology with Professor Buckley as a co-author.

Jennifer Firn, James M. McGree, Eric Harvey, Habacuc Flores-Moreno, Martin Schütz, Yvonne M. Buckley, Elizabeth T. Borer, Eric W. Seabloom, Kimberly J. La Pierre, Andrew M. MacDougall, Suzanne M. Prober, Carly J. Stevens, Lauren L. Sullivan, Erica Porter, Emma Ladouceur, Charlotte Allen, Karine H. Moromizato, John W. Morgan, W. Stanley Harpole, Yann Hautier, Nico Eisenhauer, Justin P. Wright, Peter B. Adler, Carlos Alberto Arnillas, Jonathan D. Bakker, Lori Biederman, Arthur A. D. Broadbent, Cynthia S. Brown, Miguel N. Bugalho, Maria C. Caldeira, Elsa E. Cleland, Anne Ebeling, Philip A. Fay, Nicole Hagenah, Andrew R. Kleinhesselink, Rachel Mitchell, Joslin L. Moore, Carla Nogueira, Pablo Luis Peri, Christiane Roscher, Melinda D. Smith, Peter D. Wragg, Anita C. Risch. Leaf nutrients, not specific leaf area, are consistent indicators of elevated nutrient inputs. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0790-1

Bush Regen. At Ingleside Commences For 2019

Please join our Bush regeneration morning at the Baha'i Temple 173 Mona Vale Road Ingleside. Based on our past success PNHA has been given a new round of funding to continue work on conserving the threatened Grevillea caleyi  so we look forward to your support.

Monday 11 February 2019
Meet at the picnic shelter at 8.30 am

New volunteers welcome - training will be provided
Wear long trousers, a long sleeved shirt and boots or closed in shoes.

The session will be cancelled in the event of rain. For more information contact David Palmer on 0404 171940.

Pittwater Natural Heritage Association

Turimetta Beach Clean Up

ON: Sunday, February 24, 2019 at 10 AM – 12 PM
Come and join us for our February clean up at Turimetta Beach. We'll meet in the grass area close to Narrabeen Park Parade at the northern end - see map in our event. 

We have gloves (only a few kids gloves - sorry), bags and buckets. We'll clean up this area to try and catch all the litter before it enters the ocean. We're trying to remove as much plastic and rubbish as possible  - of course it's ok if you need to leave earlier - we're happy for any help! 

It's the first time the crew is at Turimetta Beach so this will be exciting. 

We're a friendly group of people and everyone is welcome to this family friendly event. It's a nice community - make some new friends and do a good deed for the planet at the same time. 

Parking on the streets close by. Message us here or on Instagram if you are lost. All welcome - the more the merrier. Please invite your friends too.

A Survey On Ticks And Wildlife In The Northern Beaches

The University of Sydney is conducting a study to better understand how residents and their pets are encountering ticks and wildlife in their backyards. We invite all Northern Beaches residents to participate in our survey.

Coastal bushland remnants and other green spaces across the Northern Beaches are home to a variety of native plants and animals. They also provide a place for residents to enjoy their favourite outdoor pastimes. Paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus) are common in the Northern Beaches and feed on a wide range of animal hosts during their life cycle. Understanding the complex relationship between ticks and their host species is an essential part of our research. The information we gain will contribute to our growing knowledge of ticks and will guide future research efforts.

We aim to identify:
  • Areas where people are encountering ticks more than others (tick 'hotspots'),
  • Backyard and landscape features that may influence tick presence, and
  • Wildlife using backyards and how this might or might not influence tick occurrence
To meet these aims, it is important for you to provide a street address. If you would prefer not to, we ask that you provide your street name and nearest cross street. It is important for us to create a map of tick encounters to understand what landscape features might influence tick presence and where to target future research.

All identifying information will be removed from any data presentations.

The survey should only take approximately 10 minutes to complete and is voluntary. 

If you have any questions about the project, please contact PhD candidate Casey Taylor on 02 9351 3189 or This project is being undertaken by the University of Sydney in association with Northern Beaches Council.

Your participation is greatly appreciated.

This research has been approved by the University of Sydney Human Ethics committee. (Approval no: 2018/157)

Important Community Event: 3D Seismic Testing Planned For Australia's East Coast

From Living Ocean

The Federal Government have given approval for intense 3D seismic testing along the East Coast approximately from Newcastle to Woy Woy.  This 500 PEP11 site, a very short distance from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is in the direct migratory path of the Humpback whales Megaptera novaeanglia, and home to dolphins, turtles and a myriad of marine life. 

Science-based evidence shows that ocean noise, such as sonar and seismic testing, has potentially wide ranging and devastating impacts on whales, dolphins and many, as yet not studied forms of marine life.   

To raise awareness in our community of the proposed testing and its potential impact, Northern Beaches ocean-based conservation group, Living Ocean, have partnered with Newcastle group ‘Save Our Coast’.  Together they are hosting a screening of the award-winning documentary, ‘Sonic Sea’, followed by a discussion with a panel of subject matter experts to allow the public to learn more.  Experts including economist, Matt Koch and marine biologist, Libby Eyre and more, will be on hand to answer questions. The moderator is Rowan Hanley - Northern Beaches Council Eco Awards winner 2018. 

This will take place on Wednesday 13 February at 7pm at Avalon Beach Cinema, 2107.  Tickets are free but are limited and must be pre booked here: 

Living Ocean is an ocean-based conservation group on Sydney’s Northern Beaches promoting awareness of human impact on the ocean through research, education and community action.  The group develops and nurtures close and important partnerships with schools, marine scientists, independent corporations and government agencies. 

Its whale research program builds on research that has been conducted off Sydney’s Northern Beaches by experts over many years and its Centre for Marine Studies enables students and others to become directly involved.  Additionally, Living Ocean raises funds for other vital ocean conservation groups.  Living Ocean successfully lobbied NOPSEMA to postpone initial 2D testing in 2017 set to occur in the middle of the southern Humpback migration period. 

Save Our Coast is a Newcastle-based not-for-profit community, dedicated to protecting marine animals and the coastal ecosystem.  They aim to educate, inspire and empower the community to revere and care for our coastal environment. 

The event, which is supported by The Boathouse and Le Pont Wine Store, will include live music, art and will conclude with an after dark light show.   

National Parks Additions Have Slowed To A Trickle Under The Coalition While Koala Protections Have Been Slashed

February 4th, 2019: NSW Conservation Council
The new national park south of Sydney announced by Premier Berejiklian today is welcome but does not compensate for the Coalition’s terrible record on park creation and koala conservation.

The annual rate of additions to the state’s National Parks Estate has slumped 92% since the coalition came to office in NSW in 2011. [1]

According to analysis by the NSW National Parks Association, the annual average area reserved before the Coalition came to power in March 2011 was 132,000ha. Since then the annual rate has been slashed to 10,675ha a year.

Meanwhile, the government has refused to rule out supporting a National Park Private Members Bill to degazette the Murray Valley National Park and open its river Red Gum Forests to logging. [2]

“We always welcome additions to the reserve system, but the truth is the Berejiklian government has a terrible record in this area and has actually legalized the destruction of koala habitat on a scale not seen for a generation,” Ms Smolski said. 

“It will take more than the protection of a few thousand hectares of koala forest in the southern highlands to save the species from extinction.

“It’ll also take more to change the government’s record as possibly the worst government for nature in modern times.

“If the Premier is genuine about getting the koala off the extinction waiting list, she must rule out deforestation of koala habitat across the state.

“Instead, her government legalized the deforestation of 99% of koala habitat on private land, scrapped the Threatened Species Conservation Act, and gave landholders open slather to bulldoze bushland across the state.” [3]

See the Nature Conservation Council’s full policy position here.


These Two Koalas Lost Their Mothers To Deforestation

I call on you to urgently end the deforestation and land-clearing crisis by making potential koala habitat, threatened species habitat, and other high-conservation-value areas off limits to clearing, and by repealing the land-clearing codes.

I also urge you to invest in a restoration and conservation fund and deliver the world-class mapping, monitoring, and reporting the community expects.

Friends Of Narrabeen Lagoon Catchment February 2019 Forum

7pm Monday Feb 25 2019 
Coastal Environment Centre, Pelican Path,  
Lake Park Road, Narrabeen  
Possums, Gliders and Fauna Surveys 

Jayden Walsh and Brad Law will shine a light on the behaviour of our native animals — particularly possums  (including the endangered pygmy possum) and gliders. 

Brad Law, who is an expert on Eastern Pygmy Possums,  will also give some insights about local fauna surveys. 

Make sure you put February 25 in your diary and , so that you don’t miss out, book your ticket early by emailing Judith Bennett at -

Bush Regeneration  
Belrose area - Thursday mornings  
Belrose area - Weekend mornings  
Contact: Conny Harris 0432 643 295 
Wheeler Creek - Wed mornings 9-11am 
Contact: Judith Bennett 0402 974 105 

Long Reef Guided Reef Walks

Please find below the 2017 – 2018 timetable for guided walks of Long Reef Aquatic Reserve.

If you’d like to join us on a walk please contact me a couple of weeks before the walk date to make a booking. FREE GUIDED WALKS of Long Reef Aquatic Reserve with NSW Department of Industry & Investment Fishcare Volunteers will be held on the following date:

Dates for 2019
Sunday 6 January 2019         3:00pm – 5:00pm
Sunday 20 January 2019       2:00pm – 4:00pm
Sunday 17 February 2019     1:00pm – 3:00pm
Sunday 17 March 2019          11:30am – 1:30pm
Sunday 7 April 2019               2:30pm  – 4:30pm

Walks are held subject to weather conditions

Bookings are preferred.
Please email Wendy to book:

A New National Park For NSW

February 4th, 2019: NSW Government
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has today announced a new national park for NSW - providing another significant boost for the State's koala population - along with a major new package that will improve access to existing national parks.

The State's newest national park will cover around 3680 hectares in the north of Goulburn electorate, bordering Wollondilly. The new park is centered around Tugalong Station – about 25 kilometres northwest of Bowral.

"The NSW Liberals and Nationals have been careful custodians of the State's national parks and I am thrilled to be able to unveil a new one today," Ms Berejiklian said.

"This new national park will ensure that a vital koala wilderness area south of Sydney is preserved. Like all national parks, it will be open to the public so they can explore the wilderness country."

Ms Berejiklian also announced a $150 million investment to improve access to national parks across NSW – funding made possible due to the strong economic management of the NSW Liberals and Nationals.

"This includes major upgrade works in places like Sydney's Royal National Park and in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, making it easier for people to enjoy our wonderful natural beauty," Ms Berejiklian said.

Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the new national park contains some of the Southern Highlands' best koala habitat.

"Koalas are an iconic species and we are acting to ensure their survival," Ms Upton said.

"The new national park will not only add to the State's conservation lands, it is yet another example of how the NSW Government is moving to protect and preserve the koala population."

The Government's $150 million investment to improve access to existing national parks includes upgraded walking tracks, better visitor infrastructure and facilities and new digital tools such as virtual tours and livestreaming cameras.

This will include:
  • More access – significant upgrade to the 13.6 kilometre Grand Cliff Top Walk from Wentworth Falls to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area ($10 million). Also, upgrading access to iconic lookout points to a mobility impaired access standard ($9.9 million).
  • Improved park visitor infrastructure and facilities – expansion of picnic areas, BBQs, water provision, facilities ($38.7 million) and increased support for families and people with restricted mobility ($45 million). This will include upgraded picnic facilities and the walking tracks at Audley Weir, in the Royal National Park.
  • Safe access – Investment in making our extensive network of walking tracks and trails safer and more accessible ($36.4 million); expansion of the 'Think before you Trek' safety program for bushwalkers and work with other agencies to deliver other priority safety programs like rock fishing and enhanced mobile connectivity in the parks ($1 million).
"NSW boasts some of the most majestic and picturesque coastal lookouts, outback walking tracks, camping grounds and beaches in the world and we want more visitors to experience the natural beauty and wonder of our national parks," Ms Berejiklian said.

Ms Upton added: "As well as international and interstate tourists, we want to make it easier for families to get out there and discover the natural beauty our State."

Premier Should Mandate 40% Tree Canopy For Sydney By 2030

February 4th, 2019: NSW Conservation Council
Premier Berejiklian’s creation of a Minister for Public Spaces is tacit acknowledgement that these areas have been mismanaged for the past eight years as a result of policies pursued by the Coalition government.

“Eight years of pro-developer Coalition rule has seen a significant loss and degradation of urban bushland, alienation of parkland and destruction of trees in the Sydney region,” Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski said.

“The appointment of a minister to have a voice on the future of state-owned urban land and new parks is long overdue.

“However, without strong legislative protections a change in administrative arrangements will not protect these resources from rapacious developers or the government’s brutal infrastructure program.

“To do that, we need to reform the planning laws to give urban bushland and mature trees the protection they need.”

The Nature Conservation Council calls on the major parties and all candidates to: 
  • Legislate to protect green spaces and fully fund their upkeep. We need new laws and funds to protect and expand our existing green spaces, including implementation of the Sydney Green Grid, and assure their permanent protection.
  • Legislate to maintain urban trees and close loopholes that allow tree clearing. Review laws and policies that allow tree clearing for development and infrastructure and remove provisions that allow unchecked tree clearing (such as the Exempt and Complying Development Code and 10/50 Bushfire Code). Mandate robust, uniform tree-preservation rules for local councils and invest in enhancing green spaces and growing Sydney’s urban tree canopy by 40% by 2030. 
  • Implement and fund policies to ensure that by 2030 every household is within walking distance of green space (preferably bushland). These policies must ensure children have access to green space to maximise the health benefits of nature.
  • Establish a three-year, $450-million healthy and resilient communities fund. Allocate new funds for councils to protect and manage green space, urban bushland and tree canopy and adopt other nature-based solutions to build healthy and resilient communities.

NSW Back Of The Pack For Renewables

February 7th, 2019
Lack of leadership on energy policy in NSW has been laid bare again today with the release of the latest Green Energy Markets report, which found NSW sources more of its power from coal than any other state in Australia. [1]

“In December, NSW sourced just 13.5% of its power from renewables, including hydro,” Nature Conservation Council Climate Campaigner Dr Brad Smith said.

“Meanwhile Victoria gets 18% of its power from clean sources, and South Australia gets 52.7%.”

The research and advisory business also found the energy mix in NSW had barely changed in a decade, with  78.5% of the state’s energy still coming from coal.

“NSW is still at the back of the pack when it comes to clean energy because the Berejikian government doesn’t have target for clean energy,” Dr Smith said.

“The state Labor Opposition haven’t announced a clean energy policy either, so voters are right to wonder where is the political leadership?

“We need all the parties to lift their level of ambition and make strong commitments that will rapidly transition the state’s energy supply away from coal and into clean, modern sources like solar backed up with storage and batteries.reliable renewables.”

The Nature Conservation Council and other climate action groups are calling on all parties to ensure: 
  • The NSW Government tenders for 4000 MW of large-scale clean power by 2023 (the next term of government).
  •  All government operations are powered with renewable energy, including schools and public hospitals, by 2023.
  • Every household (including low-income and rental properties) can access solar power by 2029 through a Solar For All Rebate and by helping families with solar install batteries.
  • Legislate net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and ensure all government decisions consider the impact of policies on climate change.

REFERENCES: [1] SMH 7/2/2019 Renewables reach highest share of Australia's power in 40 years

Landmark EDO NSW Legal Win For Climate And Community In Rocky Hill Case

Friday February 8th, 2019: EDO NSW
Today the Chief Justice of the Land and Environment Court Brian Preston SC handed down his judgment in our landmark case, refusing approval of a new coal mine to be built just outside of the town of Gloucester in the NSW Upper Hunter Valley. This is the first time an Australian court has refused consent for a coal mine on the basis of its climate change impacts.  The Court also poses a foundational question for all future fossil fuel projects: “the wrong time” test. 

The Court accepted our scientific evidence and the concept of a global carbon budget. NSW Environmental Defenders Office CEO David Morris stated “In the face of that acceptance, the judgement presents a foundational question for all decision makers. It is this: given that, if we are to remain within the global carbon budget, only a finite amount of additional carbon can be burned, and that existing approvals already exhaust that budget, why should this particular project be prioritised over any other, or displace an existing approval? That is ‘the wrong time’ test and will prove an insurmountable barrier for many projects going forward”.

Representing community group Groundswell Gloucester, EDO NSW argued the mine was contrary to the public interest and principles of ecologically sustainable development because of its significant social and climate change impacts.

The Court accepted those arguments in deciding to refuse approval for the mine, finding that carbon emissions from the mine will contribute to global warming, such that approving it will not assist in achieving the rapid and deep reductions in emissions needed in order to meet Australia’s Paris targets.

Significantly, the Court held that it was not important that emissions from the mine would be a fraction of global total emissions, noting that the global problem of climate change needs to be addressed by multiple local actions to mitigate emissions. The Court also found that the mine’s economic benefits had been substantially overstated.

The Court found that the Rocky Hill coal project will cause a variety of serious negative social impacts to the Gloucester community, including visual, noise and dust impacts, and significant impacts to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, stating that the mine will severely impact on people’s sense of place.

In summing up his judgment, Chief Justice Preston SC said: “In short, an open cut coal mine in this part of the Gloucester valley would be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape, proximate to many people’s homes and farms, will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts. Wrong time because the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of the coal mine and its product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions. These dire consequences should be avoided. The Project should be refused.”

David Morris concluded, “This is a seminal moment in the development of climate litigation in Australia – and will weigh heavily on the minds of decision-makers considering whether to approve new fossil fuels projects.”

Rocky Hill Judgement Exposes Bankruptcy Of Fossil Fuel Industry’s Pollution Claims

February 8th, 2019: NSW Conservation Council
The Nature Conservation Council congratulates Groundswell Gloucester and the Environmental Defenders Office NSW for their historic win in the Land and Environment Court today.

“This is a great victory for the community of Gloucester and our climate over the interests of big mining companies,” Nature Conservation Council Kate Smolski said.

“Until now, coal and gas companies have been allowed by governments to deny responsibility for the pollution their products cause.

“Today’s judgement lays bare the bankruptcy of that falsehood once and for all.

“It is a shame we had to wait for the courts to protect our communities, climate and environment from coal and gas projects, which people naturally expect their governments will do.

“We call on the government to ban all new coal or gas projects and develop a plan to dismantle our coal-dependent energy system, replacing it with one that sources our power from solar, wind and storage.”

The Nature Conservation Council and other climate action groups are calling on all parties to ensure: 
  • The NSW Government tenders for 4000 MW of large-scale clean power by 2023 (the next term of government).
  • All government operations are powered with renewable energy, including schools and public hospitals, by 2023.
  • Every household (including low-income and rental properties) can access solar power by 2029 through a Solar For All Rebate and by helping families with solar install batteries.
  • The government legislates net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and all government decisions consider the impact of policies on climate change.

City Of Sydney To Host Major 2020 Women’s Climate Summit

February 4th, 2019: City of Sydney
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore today announced that the City of Sydney has been selected to host a major international climate conference in 2020.

The C40 Women4Climate Conference is an initiative of the C40, a network of 94 of the world’s largest cities, representing more than 700 million people worldwide.

Under the leadership of its former and current chairs – Michael Bloomberg and the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo – the organisation has taken over 10,000 practical actions to tackle climate change.

“For too long, many national governments have failed to take action to address accelerating climate change, so cities are leading the way”, Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.

“More than half of the world’s population live in cities, and generate a staggering 75 to 80 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so action in our cities is crucial.

“Shamefully, our own national government has a history of wilful negligence and Australian politicians, both state and federal, are presiding over a climate disaster.

“Just this month in Australia, we’ve experienced the hottest month on record, unprecedented fish kills in the Murray-Darling river system and bushfires in Tasmania; while in the northern hemisphere people are dying in extreme freezing temperatures.

“Australia remains the largest exporter of coal in the world and until recently our state sourced more than 90 per cent of electricity from coal-fired power. Our National Government’s 2020 and 2030 emissions targets are profoundly inadequate and Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily increasing since the carbon tax was removed in 2013.”

The Lord Mayor said action on climate change is the City of Sydney’s top priority, and this conference would provide an opportunity to showcase the leadership of Sydney to the world.

“The City was among the first to set science-based targets in 2008 and since then we’ve reduced our emissions by 20 percent on 2005 levels, and are well on our way to achieving our 2030 goal of 70 per cent, and net zero by 2050,” the Lord Mayor said.

“We were inspired by Los Angeles to convert our 6,500 streetlights to LED more than a decade ago. Now our local energy provider Ausgrid is converting almost 10,000 more. This action alone is our largest carbon reduction project to date.

“The City has worked with our business community through the Better Buildings Partnership. Members have saved $33 million a year on power costs and reduced their emissions by 52 per cent since 2001, well over halfway to their 2030 target of a 70 per cent reduction.

“But our challenge is huge because of the lack of support from our state and national governments.”

“I hope that by hosting this major international conference, we can give voice to the majority of ordinary Australians who believe the science and want action but who are silenced by the powerful vested interests in our country, and help encourage one of the world’s highest producers of greenhouse gas emissions into taking more ambitious action.”

The City of Sydney will host the annual conference for three days in April 2020, bringing together hundreds of influential women leaders from government, business industry and the community sector to tackle climate change issues.

“As part of our successful bid, we’ve also committed to developing a 10 month mentoring program to empower Sydney’s next generation of female climate leaders by connecting them with the current successful female climate change leaders,” said the Lord Mayor.

The Women4Climate initiative was founded by Paris Mayor and C40 Chair Anne Hidalgo in 2016 to enhance women’s participation and leadership to secure a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore, the CEO of the City of Sydney Monica Barone and the Lord Mayor’s chief of staff, Shehana Teixeira will travel to the 2019 C40 Women4Climate Conference in Paris later this month.

For more information on C40 Cities, visit:

Maritime Museum Launches New Talk Series

For the love of oceans! The Australian National Maritime Museum is launching an exciting new monthly talk series in 2019, Ocean Talks, with a range of fascinating marine experts who will challenge everything you know about the depths (and shallows) of earth’s oceans.

“Our oceans really are sitting at a critical point in history right now, and the Museum has never had a more vital role in marine conservation, exploration and sharing the wonder and mystery of our oceans,” comments Kevin Sumption PSM, Director and CEO of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some exciting talks in the series include:

• Sharks, Humans and Jazz: Ever wondered if shark repellent actually works, or if sharks can hear sounds underwater? In this lively discussion with three of Australia’s leading shark ecologists, discover how humans and sharks interact, including findings from an experiment where jazz music was played to Port Jackson Sharks, learn how sharks are tracked with acoustic receivers and ponder the question - if sharks were humans what personality type would they be? This ‘in conversation’ evening also includes an immersive virtual reality experience following live sharks tagged in Sydney Harbour. Thursday 4 April (6-8pm). 

• Fastest Team on Water: On the 8th October 1978 Australian motorboat racer Ken Warby became the fastest man on water travelling at 511.10 kmh in The Spirit of Australia – a boat he built in a Sydney backyard. 41 years later Warby’s son David is set to put his own jet boat Spirit2 to the test – a second generation jet-powered hydroplane. The attempt will take place mid to late 2019 on Blowering Dam – the same stretch of water Ken broke both world records. David’s aim is to not only beat his father’s record, but to extend it to 550 kmh. Thursday 6 June (6-8pm). 

• Bligh: Hero or Villain?: Almost universally portrayed as a villain in movies and books, does this view of one of the maritime world’s most infamous figures William Bligh stand up to scrutiny today? What’s not in doubt is that Bligh’s life was extraordinary – he caused controversy on land and sea. He was an officer of the Royal Navy, a survivor of a brutal mutiny at sea, and a Governor of NSW whose actions caused a military coup that became known as the Rum Rebellion. Come and judge for yourself as we hear from author Peter Fitzsimmons who will argue Bligh as tyrant and villain, together with Rear Admiral Peter Briggs who will argue that Bligh was a heroic figure and strong leader. Thursday 8 August (6-8pm). 

• Hunting Prehistoric Sea Monsters: Millions of years ago, the Earth’s oceans were home to some of the largest, fiercest and most successful predators ever! While dinosaurs ruled the land, huge prehistoric reptiles hunted the depths of the oceans. Don’t miss out on this rare chance to hear from renowned paleontologist Dr Espen Knutsen who travels the world searching for evidence of these prehistoric predators. He’ll introduce some of these incredible creatures, share his adventures and reveal insights into some of the exciting discoveries he’s made. Espen has described five new species of Jurassic marine reptiles and hunted monsters in Australia, the Arctic, The Netherlands and USA. Thursday 7 November (6-8pm).

Ocean Talks tickets include exclusive access to corresponding exhibitions and displays in the hour before the talks (5-6pm).

Humans' Meat Consumption Pushing Earth's Biggest Fauna Toward Extinction

February 6th, 2019
At least 200 species of large animals are decreasing in number and more than 150 are under threat of extinction, according to new research that suggests humans' meat consumption habits are primarily to blame.

Findings published today in Conservation Letters involved a study of nearly 300 species of "megafauna."

Of those species' populations, 70 percent are in decline, and 59 percent of the species are threatened with disappearing from the globe, said the study's corresponding author, William Ripple, distinguished professor of ecology in the Oregon State University College of Forestry.

"Direct harvest for human consumption of meat or body parts is the biggest danger to nearly all of the large species with threat data available," Ripple said. "Thus, minimizing the direct killing of these vertebrate animals is an important conservation tactic that might save many of these iconic species as well as all of the contributions they make to their ecosystems."

Ripple and colleagues in the College of Forestry were part of an international collaboration that built a list of megafauna based on body size and taxonomy -- qualifying for the list were species unusually large in comparison to other species in the same class.

The mass thresholds the researchers decided on were 100 kilograms (220 pounds) for mammals, ray-finned fish and cartilaginous fish and 40 kilograms (88 pounds) for amphibians, birds and reptiles since species within these classes are generally smaller.

"Those new thresholds extended the number and diversity of species included as megafauna, allowing for a broader analysis of the status and ecological effects of the world's largest vertebrate animals," Ripple said. "Megafauna species are more threatened and have a higher percentage of decreasing populations than all the rest of the vertebrate species together."

Over the past 500 years, as humans' ability to kill wildlife at a safe distance has become highly refined, 2 percent of megafauna species have gone extinct. For all sizes of vertebrates, the figure is 0.8 percent.

"Our results suggest we're in the process of eating megafauna to extinction," Ripple said. "Through the consumption of various body parts, users of Asian traditional medicine also exert heavy tolls on the largest species. In the future, 70 percent will experience further population declines and 60 percent of the species could become extinct or very rare."

Nine megafauna species have either gone extinct overall, or gone extinct in all wild habitats, in the past 250 years, including two species of giant tortoise, one of which disappeared in 2012, and two species of deer.

"In addition to intentional harvesting, a lot of land animals get accidentally caught in snares and traps, and the same is true of gillnets, trawls and longlines in aquatic systems," Ripple said. "And there's also habitat degradation to contend with. When taken together, these threats can have major negative cumulative effects on vertebrate species."

Among those threatened is the Chinese giant salamander, which can grow up to 6 feet long and is one of only three living species in an amphibian family that traces back 170 million years. Considered a delicacy in Asia, it's under siege by hunting, development and pollution, and its extinction in the wild is now imminent.

"Preserving the remaining megafauna is going to be difficult and complicated," Ripple said. "There will be economic arguments against it, as well as cultural and social obstacles. But if we don't consider, critique and adjust our behaviors, our heightened abilities as hunters may lead us to consume much of the last of the Earth's megafauna."

Collaborators included Christopher Wolf, Thomas Newsome and Matthew Betts of the College of Forestry, as well as researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and in Australia, Canada, Mexico and France.

William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Matthew G. Betts, Gerardo Ceballos, Franck Courchamp, Matt W. Hayward, Blaire Valkenburgh, Arian D. Wallach, Boris Worm. Are we eating the world's megafauna to extinction? Conservation Letters, 2019; e12627 DOI: 10.1111/conl.12627

Tasmanian Devil Cancer Unlikely To Cause Extinction

January 23, 2019
A new study of Tasmanian devils has revealed that a transmissible cancer which has devastated devil populations in recent years in unlikely to cause extinction of the iconic species.

New research led by Dr Konstans Wells from Swansea University has revealed that it is more likely that the disease will fade-out or that the devils will coexist with Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) in future.

DFTD typically kills the majority of devils it infects and has wiped out around 80% of wild devils with continuous decline of existing populations since the disease was first identified.

An international team of scientists from the UK, Australia and the USA matched field epidemiological evidence from wild populations collected over a 10-year period in north-west Tasmania with simulation studies, which revealed that DFTD is unlikely to continue causing ongoing population declines of Tasmanian devils in future.

They say the findings of their study, published in Ecology, offers much-needed hope that the species, which is the world's largest remaining marsupial carnivore, will not necessarily become extinct due to DFTD.

First discovered in north-eastern Tasmania in 1996, DFTD causes tumours to form on the face and neck of the animal. The cancer spreads when the devils bite each other's faces during fighting, thus killing the animals within six to twenty four months.

Dr Konstans Wells, lead author of the study, said: "Our findings suggest that immediate management interventions are unlikely to be necessary to ensure the survival of Tasmanian devil populations. This is because strong population declines of devils after disease emergence do not necessarily translate into long-term population declines."

To explore the long-term outcomes of DFTD and devil populations, the researchers conducted a large number of simulations of possible disease spread in devils. Based on evidence such as current infection rates in the wild, the most likely simulation scenarios were selected to explore how DFTD will affect devil populations over the next 100 years. Among the most likely scenarios were those in which DFTD faded out (57% of likely scenarios) or coexisted with devils (22% of likely scenarios).

Co-author of the study, Dr Rodrigo Hamede from the University of Tasmania, said: "With growing evidence that devils are showing signs of adaptation to DFTD and that so far the disease has not caused local extinctions, management actions targeted at understanding the devil's adaptive strategies to cope with DFTD should be considered.

"Complete eradication of DFTD is not feasible, therefore studying the long-term interactions between devils and tumours will provide a realistic prognosis for the species and at the same time will help us to understand important evolutionary processes. This is particularly relevant given the recent outbreak of a new transmissible cancer -- devil facial tumour 2 -- affecting devil populations in south-eastern Tasmania. Devils seem to be prone to transmissible cancers, so studying epidemic dynamics and evolutionary responses to this type of diseases should be a priority."

The research suggests that management efforts to maintain devil populations should be guided by the changing understanding of the long-term outcome of the disease impact on devils.

Dr Wells explained: "Management efforts in wild populations that solely aim to combat the impact of DFTD can be counterproductive if they disrupt long-term forces at work that may eventually lead to stable devil populations that are well able to persist with the cancer.

"Wildlife diseases such as DFTD should not disguise the fact that sufficiently large and undisturbed natural environments are a vital prerequisite for wildlife to persist and eventually cope with obstructions such as infectious diseases without human intervention."

Konstans Wells, Rodrigo K. Hamede, Menna E. Jones, Paul A. Hohenlohe, Andrew Storfer, Hamish I. McCallum. Individual and temporal variation in pathogen load predicts long-term impacts of an emerging infectious disease. Ecology, 2019 DOI: 10.1101/392324

Australia Streaks Ahead To Be Renewables World Champion

February 8th, 2019: ANU
Research from The Australian National University (ANU) has found that Australia is installing renewable power per person each year faster than any other country, helping it to meet its entire Paris Agreement emissions reduction targets five years early.

Lead researcher Professor Andrew Blakers said Australia was installing renewable power per capita several times faster than the European Union, Japan, China and the United States, based on preliminary data available for installations globally last year.

"The installation of renewables in Australia last year really ramped up compared to these other major economies, and we expect that trend to continue this year and beyond," said Professor Blakers from the ANU Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering (RSEEME). 

"The electricity sector is on track to deliver Australia's entire Paris emissions reduction targets five years early, in 2025 - without the need for any creative accounting.

"Australia is on track to reach 50 per cent renewable electricity in 2024 and 100 per cent by 2032. The Australian renewable energy experience offers real hope for rapid global emissions reductions to preserve a living planet."

Co-researcher Dr Matthew Stocks said the net cost of achieving the 2030 carbon emission targets set in the Paris Agreement would be zero because expensive fossil fuels were being replaced by cheaper renewables.

"The price of electricity from large-scale solar PV and windfarms in Australia is currently about $50 per Megawatt-hour (MWh), and steadily falling," Dr Stocks said.  

"This is below the cost of electricity from existing gas-fired power stations and is also below the cost of new-build gas and coal power stations. Nearly all of the new power stations are either PV or wind. We anticipate that this will continue into the future, provided that energy policy is not actively hindering development."

Co-researcher Bin Lu said stabilising a 100 per cent renewable electricity grid would be possible with technology that is already widely used in Australia, in addition to new smart energy systems that are being developed for electricity grids.

"We can do this with energy storage, demand management and strong interstate connection using high-voltage transmission lines to smooth out the effect of local weather," Mr Lu said.

"By far the leading storage technologies are pumped hydro and batteries. Australia's coal power stations are old and are becoming less reliable, and transition to a modern renewable energy system can improve grid stability."

Pumped hydro energy storage sites such as Snowy 2.0 require pairs of reservoirs at different altitudes, in hilly terrain and joined by a pipe with a pump and turbine. Water is pumped uphill when wind and solar energy is plentiful, and electricity is available on demand by releasing the stored water through a turbine.

A report on the team's findings is available at:

L-R Dr. Matthew Stocks, Professor Andrew Blakers and Bin Lu Image Credit - ANU 

Avalon Boomerang Bags 2019 Start Date +

TUESDAY 5TH February will be our first day back.

WORKSHOPS are held Tuesdays during the school term
at the Avalon Recreation Centre 11.30 - 3.30pm

Everyone is welcome; come for an hour or come for all 4, we'll even provide a cuppa and guaranteed laughs.  Non-sewers also very useful.

Pop in with your excess fabric donations or spare enviro bag donations. We also sell our very handy Boomerang Bag coffee cups, stainless steel drink bottles and other enviro products and of course, our "Bought to Support"  bags. 

Smart Energy Conference & Exhibition 2019

Starts: 8:30am Tuesday, 2 April 2019
Ends: 5:30pm Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Location: International Convention Centre Sydney
14 Darling Drive, Darling Harbour, New South Wales 2000

The Smart Energy Conference and Exhibition is one of Australia’s biggest solar, storage and smart energy conference and exhibition.

Powered by the Smart Energy Council – incorporating the Australian Solar Council and Energy Storage Council, this is our 57th annual FREE-TO-ATTEND conference and exhibition.

  • Over 6,000 delegates, 120 exhibitors and partners
  • A showcase of the latest technology, demonstration of new business models and innovation
  • Outstanding knowledge sharing and networking
  • 3 Conference and information sessions with over 100 presenters
  • CPD points for installers

Nano-Infused Ceramic Could Report On Its Own Health

February 5th, 2019: Rice University
A ceramic that becomes more electrically conductive under elastic strain and less conductive under plastic strain could lead to a new generation of sensors embedded into structures like buildings, bridges and aircraft able to monitor their own health.

The electrical disparity fostered by the two types of strain was not obvious until Rice University's Rouzbeh Shahsavari, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering, and his colleagues modeled a novel two-dimensional compound, graphene-boron-nitride (GBN).

Under elastic strain, the internal structure of a material stretched like a rubber band does not change. But the same material under plastic strain -- caused in this case by stretching it far enough beyond elasticity to deform -- distorts its crystalline lattice. GBN, it turns out, shows different electrical properties in each case, making it a worthy candidate as a structural sensor.

Shahsavari had already determined that hexagonal-boron nitride -- aka white graphene -- can improve the properties of ceramics. He and his colleagues have now discovered that adding graphene makes them even stronger and more versatile, along with their surprising electrical properties.

The magic lies in the ability of two-dimensional, carbon-based graphene and white graphene to bond with each other in a variety of ways, depending on their relative concentrations. Though graphene and white graphene naturally avoid water, causing them to clump, the combined nanosheets easily disperse in a slurry during the ceramic's manufacture.

The resulting ceramics, according to the authors' theoretical models, would become tunable semiconductors with enhanced elasticity, strength and ductility.

The research led by Shahsavari and Asghar Habibnejad Korayem, an assistant professor of structural engineering at Iran University of Science and Technology and a research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, appears in the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Ceramics with networked nanosheets of graphene and white graphene would have the unique ability to alter their electrical properties when strained, according to a researcher at Rice University. The surprising ability could lead to new types of structural sensors. Credit: Rouzbeh Shahsavari/Rice University

Graphene is a well-studied form of carbon known for its lack of a band gap -- the region an electron has to leap to make a material conductive. With no band gap, graphene is a metallic conductor. White graphene, with its wide band gap, is an insulator. So the greater the ratio of graphene in the 2D compound, the more conductive the material will be.

Mixed into the ceramic in a high enough concentration, the 2D compound dubbed GBN would form a network as conductive as the amount of carbon in the matrix allows. That gives the overall composite a tunable band gap that could lend itself to a variety of electrical applications.

"Fusing 2D materials like graphene and boron nitride in ceramics and cements enables new compositions and properties we can't achieve with either graphene or boron nitride by themselves," Shahsavari said.

The team used density functional theory calculations to model variations of the 2D compound mixed with tobermorite, a calcium silicate hydrate material commonly used as cement for concrete. They determined the oxygen-boron bonds formed in the ceramic would turn it into a p-type semiconductor.

Tobermorite by itself has a large band gap of about 4.5 electron volts, but the researchers calculated that when mixed with GBN nanosheets of equal parts graphene and white graphene, that gap would shrink to 0.624 electron volts.

When strained in the elastic regime, the ceramic's band gap dropped, making the material more conductive, but when stretched beyond elasticity -- that is, in the plastic regime -- it became less conductive. That switch, the researchers said, makes it a promising material for self-sensing and structural health monitoring applications.

The researchers suggested other 2D sheets with molybdenum disulfide, niobium diselenide or layered double hydroxides may provide similar opportunities for the bottom-up design of tunable, multifunctional composites. "This would provide a fundamental platform for cement and concrete reinforcement at their smallest possible dimension," Shahsavari said.

Ehsan Hosseini, Mohammad Zakertabrizi, Asghar Habibnejad Korayem, Rouzbeh Shahsavari. Tunable, Multifunctional Ceramic Composites via Intercalation of Fused Graphene Boron Nitride Nanosheets. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 2019; DOI: 10.1021/acsami.8b19409

See-Through Fish Aid Scientists In Autism-Related Breakthrough

February 6th, 2019
University of Miami researchers have discovered a clue in the humble zebrafish's digestive tract that, one day, could help people on the autism spectrum alleviate one of the most common yet least studied symptoms of their disorder: gastrointestinal distress.

By replicating a mutation in zebrafish that causes a rare, autism-related genetic condition known as Phelan-McDermid Syndrome in humans, the researchers found a drastic reduction in the number of cells that produce serotonin in the mutant zebrafish's gut. Perhaps better known as the body's natural mood stabiliser, serotonin also initiates the contractions that move food through the digestive system.

Published last week in the journal Molecular Autism, the study is the first to show that a mutation of a particular autism-associated gene, SHANK3, causes food to move through the digestive tract at an abnormally slow pace. While the finding applies to zebrafish, a common freshwater aquarium species that shares about 70 percent of its genes with humans, it could explain why many people with an autism spectrum disorder, and particularly those with Phelan-McDermid Syndrome (PMS), often suffer severe and disruptive bouts of constipation, diarrhoea, reflux, and/or cyclical vomiting.

More importantly, it could open the door to treatments that alleviate such unpleasant gastrointestinal, or GI, symptoms.

"The fact that we see reduced motility in the GI tract of fish with shank3 mutations is likely explained by the absence of these serotonin-producing cells, and that suggests that if we could find a way to increase motility we might be able to help with the GI problem," said senior author Julia Dallman, associate professor of biology whose UM lab studies inherited nervous system disorders by modelling them in zebrafish. "One issue in autism right now is that a lot of the drugs given to kids with autism to address their behavioural issues actually make their gut function worse. So by having a model of gut function we can try to find treatments that don't make it worse."

Dallman and two of her graduate students, David M. James and Robert A. Kozol, the first co-authors of the study, began earnestly modelling GI distress in zebrafish after they were invited to the 2016 biennial meeting of the international Phelan-McDermid Syndrome Foundation in Orlando. There they heard firsthand accounts from parents of children born with PMS which, caused by a deletion or mutation of the SHANK3 gene at the end of chromosome 22, is characterised by moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and developmental delays, absent or delayed speech, decreased muscle tone, and epileptic seizures.

Yet, despite all those very daunting challenges, parents often expressed deep frustration over their child's GI issues, which affected their quality of life on a daily basis, often making ordinary routines and milestones, like eating and toilet-training, exceedingly difficult.

"At that time, there hadn't been much published about GI issues in our community, but when you listen to parents they would always talk about how troubling it was," said Geraldine Bliss, past chair of the foundation's research support committee."There was a whole constellation of issues -- sometimes diarrhoea, sometimes constipation, sometimes alternating diarrhoea and constipation, reflux -- all kinds of GI problems, but it hadn't really been characterised or reported in the literature."

Now, the common zebrafish and James' interest in characterising GI issues in autism seem destined to help shed light on the confounding problem.

About an inch long at maturity, the zebrafish is a valuable model for human disease because, aside from having a similar genetic structure to humans, it develops rapidly and, until its second week of life, is almost completely transparent. That's when it begins developing the telltale dark stripes for which it is named.

That early transparency, coupled with an apparent zeal for what juveniles consider yummy food, enabled James and Kozol to record what happens when zebrafish lacking the shank3 gene digested chicken egg yolks, which were infused with tiny, florescent-green tracking beads. The films clearly showed that the mutant fish not only had slower and less frequent gut contractions than normal zebrafish, but that the ingested food particles got stuck in the junction between the stomach and the intestine for prolonged periods of time.

The reason came as a surprise. Initially, the researchers hypothesised the shank3 mutation somehow damaged the fish's enteric nervous system -- the "brain" that controls the gut -- but that was perfectly normal. Instead, the researchers found the shank3 mutants had drastically fewer serotonin-producing cells than their wild-type counterparts.

"It was definitely an 'Aha!' moment," James said. "It opens up a lot, in terms of studying potential mechanisms for how all this dysmotility is occurring. If we can figure that out, we can start talking about what the proper treatments are, and what's going to fix this -- that's the real question."

The answer may lie in the distant future, but this first crucial step in unraveling a biological reason for autism-related GI distress is heartening to members of the PMS foundation, which began as a family support group in 1998, when 20 of the 23 families then known to be affected by a deletion or mutation of chromosome 22 first met.

Today, nearly 200 affected families from around the world attend the foundation's meetings, the last of which was held in Texas last summer. That's when James presented UM's research on intestinal dysmotility in zebrafish, which not only won the conference's research award but gave parents like Gail Fenton hope for a better future for their children.

"Joanna's tummy troubles have been a major source of family stress for 15 years," Fenton wrote from Australia about her 36-year-old daughter. "She is often hunched over because of tummy pain. She cries, even yells, when her tummy is sore. She'll always have Phelan-McDermid Syndrome but her life, and the lives of fellow sufferers with these complex GI issues, would be so much happier without these negatives and we are so very thankful for the research that can lead to any helpful interventions."

David M. James, Robert A. Kozol, Yuji Kajiwara, Adam L. Wahl, Emily C. Storrs, Joseph D. Buxbaum, Mason Klein, Baharak Moshiree, Julia E. Dallman. Intestinal dysmotility in a zebrafish (Danio rerio) shank3a;shank3b mutant model of autism.Molecular Autism, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s13229-018-0250-4

Scientists To Create New 'Chemical Noses' To Rid The Environment Of Industrial Pollutants

February 6, 2019: Estonian Research Council
Scientists from five European countries have joined forces to develop next-generation 'chemical noses' to remove industrial pollutants from the environment. The European Commission allocated 2.9 million euros to finance the Horizon2020 FET-OPEN project INITIO that will bring together researchers from TalTech and five other universities as well as experts from an Interspectrum OÜ operating in Estonia and an Italian company in an international research project.

The supramolecular chemistry research group of the School of Science of Tallinn University of Technology has, for five years, been engaged in building new-generation receptor-molecules that would detect and send signals on pesticides and other industrial pollutants hazardous to the environment. Such smart 'electronic-nose-devices' would allow harmful toxins to be removed before their release into the environment.

The head of the supramolecular chemistry research group, Professor Riina Aav says, "Dealing with pollutants in the environment is becoming an ever-increasing problem. One relatively unknown reason for this is that many agricultural pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs that enter the environment are 'chiral', which means they exist in two non-superimposable forms (like left and right hands). This molecular quirk makes it difficult for the pollution control technologies to identify and remove many of these pollutants and this cannot be achieved by traditional methods for analysis."

'Chirality' of substances also has an impact on the environment whereto they are released. For example, one of their forms may be more toxic than the other and the chirality of the molecules may directly affect their environmental degradation. Chiral pollutants are found in pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, freon substitutes, dyes, antibiotics and many other drugs. In most cases we have no idea about their environmental impact.

The collaborating INITIO consortium will address this major issue by first engineering molecules that act as receptors -- that recognize specific pollutants -- and then integrate them with smart nanostructures to create devices that can be deployed directly in the field to detect and destroy the pollutants. These devices will essentially function as 'chemical noses' by sniffing out the specific industrial pollutants, thus facilitating their removal and destruction.

Our research group will build the receptor-molecules for these chemical noses. We will make container molecules, the 'hemicucurbiturils', which were recently developed in the project funded by Estonian Research Council. Our researchers will also build chiral molecular systems with recognition and signaling functions to flag the presence of specific pollutants, e.g. through changing colour," Professor Aav says.

The collaborative project will end in 2021 and the ultimate goal of the project is to develop a much more effective technology for cleaning the environment.

Sandra Kaabel, Robin S Stein, Maria Fomitšenko, Ivar Järving, Tomislav Friscic, Riina Aav. Size-control by anion templating in mechanochemical synthesis of hemicucurbiturils in the solid state. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2019; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201813431

Heavy Drinking In Teens Causes Lasting Changes In Emotional Center Of Brain

February 6th, 2019
Binge drinking in adolescence has been shown to have lasting effects on the wiring of the brain and is associated with increased risk for psychological problems and alcohol use disorder later in life.

Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics have shown that some of these lasting changes are the result of epigenetic changes that alter the expression of a protein crucial for the formation and maintenance of neural connections in the amygdala -- the part of the brain involved in emotion, fear and anxiety. Their results, which are based on the analysis of postmortem human brain tissue, are published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Epigenetics refers to chemical changes to DNA, RNA or specific proteins associated with chromosomes that change the activity of genes without changing the genes themselves. Epigenetic modifications are involved in the normal development of the brain, but they can be influenced by environmental or even social factors, such as alcohol and stress. These kinds of epigenetic alterations have been linked to changes in behavior and disease.

The researchers looked at postmortem human amygdala tissue obtained from the New South Wales Brain Tissue Resource Center in Sydney, Australia. The amygdala is the part of the brain involved in emotional regulation. The specimens were from the brains of 11 individuals who started drinking heavily before the age of 21 or early-onset drinkers; 11 individuals who started drinking seriously after the age of 21, known as late-onset drinkers; and 22 individuals with no history of alcohol use disorder. The average age of death of the individuals from whom the samples were taken was 58 years old for those without alcohol use disorder; 55 years old for early-onset drinkers; and 59 for late-onset drinkers.

Amygdalae of individuals who were early-onset drinkers had about 30 percent more of a molecule called BDNF-AS, a large non-coding RNA. Usually, RNA is involved in the production of proteins from DNA, but this one is not. BDNF-AS regulates a gene that produces a protein called BDNF. This protein is a growth factor and is crucial for the normal formation and maintenance of synapses throughout the brain. When there is more BDNF-AS, there is less BDNF. The brain tissue of early-onset drinkers had 30 percent to 40 percent less BDNF compared with brain tissue from people with no history of alcohol use disorder. This reduction in BDNF was not seen in brain samples from late-onset drinkers or from people with no alcohol use disorder.

Subhash Pandey, professor of psychiatry and director of the UIC Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics, and corresponding author on the paper, believes that epigenetic changes to BDNF-AS are the reason BDNF is lower in the amygdalae from people who started drinking early in life. In the amygdala from people who started drinking after age 21, there were no such changes.

"BDNF is needed for normal development in the brain and for connections to form between neurons," said Pandey, who is also a senior research career scientist at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, Chicago. "If levels are lowered due to alcohol exposure, then the brain will not develop normally, and we see that in these brain samples where there are abnormalities in another synaptic gene, Arc, possibly making abnormal connections between neurons."

Pandey and his colleagues found that the increase in BDNF-AS in the early-onset drinkers is caused by decreased methylation of BDNF-AS. Methylation is a type of epigenetic change where a molecule containing a methyl group is added to another molecule and results in a change in genetic expression. The decreased methylation of BDNF-AS is believed to be caused by early-onset drinking and appears to be a long-lasting change.

"The epigenetic changes we saw in the amygdala of early-onset drinkers can alter the normal function of the amygdala, which helps regulate our emotions, and may cause individuals to be more susceptible for things like anxiety, which we have shown in other studies, or the development and maintenance of alcohol use disorder later in life," Pandey said.

John Peyton Bohnsack, Tara Teppen, Evan J. Kyzar, Svetlana Dzitoyeva, Subhash C. Pandey. The lncRNA BDNF-AS is an epigenetic regulator in the human amygdala in early onset alcohol use disorders. Translational Psychiatry, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41398-019-0367-z

Bees Can Do Basic Arithmetic

February 6, 2019: RMIT
Researchers have found bees can do basic mathematics, in a discovery that expands our understanding of the relationship between brain size and brain power.

Building on their finding that honeybees can understand the concept of zero, Australian and French researchers set out to test whether bees could perform arithmetic operations like addition and subtraction.

Solving maths problems requires a sophisticated level of cognition, involving the complex mental management of numbers, long-term rules and short term working memory.

The revelation that even the miniature brain of a honeybee can grasp basic mathematical operations has implications for the future development of Artificial Intelligence, particularly in improving rapid learning.

Led by researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, the new study showed bees can be taught to recognise colours as symbolic representations for addition and subtraction, and that they can use this information to solve arithmetic problems.

RMIT's Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said numerical operations like addition and subtraction are complex because they require two levels of processing.

"You need to be able to hold the rules around adding and subtracting in your long-term memory, while mentally manipulating a set of given numbers in your short-term memory," Dyer said.

"On top of this, our bees also used their short-term memories to solve arithmetic problems, as they learned to recognise plus or minus as abstract concepts rather than being given visual aids.

"Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected.

"If maths doesn't require a massive brain, there might also be new ways for us to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems."

There is considerable debate around whether animals know or can learn complex number skills.

Many species can understand the difference between quantities and use this to forage, make decisions and solve problems. But numerical cognition, such as exact number and arithmetic operations, requires a more sophisticated level of processing.

Previous studies have shown some primates, birds, babies and even spiders can add and/or subtract. The new research, published in Science Advances, adds bees to that list.

A school for bees? How the honeybees were trained
The experiment, conducted by PhD researcher Scarlett Howard in the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab (BIDS-Lab) at RMIT, involved training individual honeybees to visit a Y-shaped maze.

The bees received a reward of sugar water when they made a correct choice in the maze, and received a bitter-tasting quinine solution if the choice was incorrect.

Honeybees will go back to a place if the location provides a good source of food, so the bees returned repeatedly to the experimental set-up to collect nutrition and continue learning.

When a bee flew into the entrance of the maze they would see a set of elements, between 1 to 5 shapes.

The shapes were either blue, which meant the bee had to add, or yellow, which meant the bee had to subtract.

After viewing the initial number, the bee would fly through a hole into a decision chamber where it could choose to fly to the left or right side of the maze.

One side had an incorrect solution to the problem and the other side had the correct solution of either plus or minus one. The correct answer was changed randomly throughout the experiment to avoid bees learning to visit just one side of the maze.

At the beginning of the experiment, bees made random choices until they could work out how to solve the problem. Eventually, over 100 learning trials that took 4 to 7 hours, bees learned that blue meant +1, while yellow meant -1. The bees could then apply the rules to new numbers.

Scarlett Howard said the ability to do basic maths has been vital in the flourishing of human societies historically, with evidence that the Egyptians and Babylonians used arithmetic around 2000BC.

"These days, we learn as children that a plus symbol means you need to add two or more quantities, while a minus symbol means you subtract," she said.

"Our findings show that the complex understanding of maths symbols as a language is something that many brains can probably achieve, and helps explain how many human cultures independently developed numeracy skills."

Scarlett R. Howard, Aurore Avarguès-Weber, Jair E. Garcia, Andrew D. Greentree, Adrian G. Dyer. Numerical cognition in honeybees enables addition and subtraction. Science Advances, 2019; 5 (2): eaav0961 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav0961

More Than 100 New Gut Bacteria Discovered In Human Microbiome

February 5th, 2019
Scientists working on the gut microbiome have discovered and isolated more than 100 completely new species of bacteria from healthy people's intestines. The study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Hudson Institute of Medical Research, Australia, and EMBL's European Bioinformatics Institute, has created the most comprehensive collection of human intestinal bacteria to date. This will help researchers worldwide to investigate how our microbiome keeps us healthy, and its role in disease.

Reported today (4th February) in Nature Biotechnology, the new resource will allow scientists to detect which bacteria are present in the human gut, more accurately and faster than ever before. This will also provide the foundation to develop new ways of treating diseases such as gastrointestinal disorders, infections and immune conditions.

About 2 per cent of a person's body weight is due to bacteria and the intestinal microbiome is a major bacterial site and an essential contributor to human health. Imbalances in our gut microbiome can contribute to diseases and complex conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome allergies and obesity. However, as many species of gut bacteria are extremely difficult to grow in the laboratory, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of them.

In this study, researchers studied faecal samples from 20 people from the UK and Canada, and successfully grew and DNA sequenced 737 individual bacterial strains from these. Analysis of these isolates revealed 273 separate bacterial species, including 173 that had never previously been sequenced. Of these, 105 species had never even been isolated before.

Dr Samuel Forster, first author on the paper from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Hudson Institute of Medical Research, Australia, said: "This study has led to the creation of the largest and most comprehensive public database of human health-associated intestinal bacteria. The gut microbiome plays a major in health and disease. This important resource will fundamentally change the way researchers study the microbiome."

Standard methods to understand how the gut microbiome impacts on human health involves sequencing the DNA from mixed samples of gut bacteria to try to understand each component. However, these studies have been severely hampered by the lack of individually isolated bacteria and reference genomes from them.

The new culture collection and reference genomes will make it much cheaper and easier for researchers to determine which bacteria are present within communities of people and research their role in disease.

Dr Rob Finn, an author from EMBL's European Bioinformatics Institute, said: "For researchers trying to find out which species of bacteria are present in a person's microbiome, the database of reference genomes from pure isolates of gut bacteria is crucial. Then if they want to test a hypothesis, for example that a particular species is enriched in a certain disease, they can get the isolate itself from the collection and physically test in the laboratory if this species seems to be important."

Dr Trevor Lawley, Senior author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "This culture collection of individual bacteria will be a game-changer for basic and translational microbiome research. By culturing the unculturable, we have created a resource that will make microbiome analysis faster, cheaper and more accurate and will allow further study of their biology and functions. Ultimately, this will lead us towards developing new diagnostics and treatments for diseases such as gastrointestinal disorders, infections and immune conditions."

Samuel C. Forster, Nitin Kumar, Blessing O. Anonye, Alexandre Almeida, Elisa Viciani, Mark D. Stares, Matthew Dunn, Tapoka T. Mkandawire, Ana Zhu, Yan Shao, Lindsay J. Pike, Thomas Louie, Hilary P. Browne, Alex L. Mitchell, B. Anne Neville, Robert D. Finn, Trevor D. Lawley. A human gut bacterial genome and culture collection for improved metagenomic analyses. Nature Biotechnology, 2019; 37 (2): 186 DOI: 10.1038/s41587-018-0009-7

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