Biofuels: could agave, hemp and saltbush be the fuels of the future?

From The Guardian, May 10, 2017 (Image: Sergio Niebla via Flickr)

Biofuels have long been touted as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, doing for the world’s planes, ships and automobiles what windfarms and solar panels are doing for its electricity grids. With the transport sector accounting for almost one fifth of Australia’s total carbon emissions, green biofuels could be an important ingredient of the zero emissions future envisioned by the Paris climate agreement.

On paper, biofuels seem the ideal replacement for fossil fuels, which drive global warming by spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that would otherwise be locked away in geological deposits. With biofuels, the plants and algae used to produce the raw material inhale carbon as they grow, offsetting the carbon released when they are burned.

But the past decade has seen the biofuel industry face tough economic conditions and niggling questions over its green credentials. The fledgling industry is now turning to a raft of innovative crop and processing technologies to overcome its challenges. Read more…

A deep dive into the genomes of penicillin fungi reveals a trove of potential drugs

From Cosmos Magazine, April 4, 2017 (Image: AJC1 via Flickr)

Penicillium AJC1

A treasure trove of medicinal compounds could still be lurking within the fungi that revolutionised modern medicine through the use of antibiotics, according to a new study published in Nature Microbiology.

Penicillin, derived from the Penicillium fungi, became the first mass-produced antibiotic in the 1940s. Antibiotics have since saved millions of lives, but their efficacy against bacterial infections is waning, due to rampant overuse leading to potentially catastrophic antimicrobial resistance. Some estimates predict 10 million human fatalities a year by 2050 due to antibiotic ineffectiveness.

Yet the answer to this nightmare scenario may well lie in re-mining the veins of the Penicillium fungi, which bio-prospectors hunting for the next pharmaceutical blockbuster have to date largely overlooked despite it also being the source of other useful drugs including cholesterol-lowering statins. Read more…


How acid warps your thoughts and feelings

From Cosmos Magazine, January 27, 2017 (Image: Mesaj via Flickr)

Eight decades since Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first cooked up the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD or “acid” – and half a century on from its heyday during the 1960s counterculture, how LSD messes with our brain is still little understood.

But two new studies published today help to reveal those brain regions affected and neurochemical receptors responsible for LSD’s mind-altering effects. Read more… 

Killer whale menopause evolved from mother-daughter conflict

Killer whale Shawn McCready.jpg

From Cosmos Magazine, January 13, 2017 (Image: Shawn McCready via Flickr)

Menopause is an evolutionary anomaly. Only in three species – humans, orcas and short-finned pilot whales – does female reproduction grind to a halt part-way through life.

For orcas (Orcinus orca), a new study published in Current Biology shows that menopause isn’t just a quirk of nature, but a reproductive strategy that specifically evolved to match their social structure. Read more…

How microbes affect you from brain to bowel

From Cosmos Magazine, September 5-9, 2016. (Photo: Lactobacillus casei by AJC1 via Flickr)

Not a day goes by without some new study proclaiming the importance of our microbes to our health. It’s hard to keep up, and hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, the mildly interesting association from the water-tight causal link. I recently wrote a five part series that looks at the current state of microbiota research – what evidence is solid, and what needs further investigation.

Microbes and you: a partnership millions of years old

We are not alone. Our bodies are teeming metropolises of microscopic life – and the microbes that call us home influence everything from bowel to brain.

Over the past decade, technological advances in the lab have allowed us to take a census of our microbial entourage – known as the microbiota – like never before. Instead of seeing only the small fraction of microbes from our skin or poo that blossom on a petri dish, we can now blend, extract and read the genetic essence – the DNA – of all microbes, called the microbiome, to get a better idea of who’s there.

The picture that has emerged is one of staggering complexity. Read more…

How bugs in your gut can make you fat (or thin)

Tinkering with gut microbes causes more than a tummy ache. They can wring more calories from food and boost fat cell production – all from day one.

By far the majority of our companion microbes, weighing an impressive 1.5 kilograms and containing more than 1,000 species, reside in our gut, mostly in the large intestine.

As soon as a baby is born – and perhaps even before – microbes move in. Many are seeded from bacteria in the mother’s birth canal if it’s a vaginal birth or from her skin if it’s a caesarean birth. Read more…

Microbe tenants help – and hinder – your immune system

Obesity isn’t the only condition linked to imbalanced gut microflora. A host of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions – inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus – are also associated with changes to gut microbial ecosystems.

(Indeed, obesity is often described as an inflammatory condition for the widespread immune reaction that accompanies excess weight.)

Connecting the dots between altered gut microbes and disease is a lively area of research. Scientists are working on the ‘chicken or egg’ problem: does disrupting the gut microflora cause the disease, or does having the disease lead to changes in gut microflora?

In many cases, it is likely that a complex interplay between genetics and environmental triggers – including the microbes in our guts – is involved. Read more…

Mood, mind and memory – can gut bacteria meddle with the brain?

The microbes in your gut may be tiny, but their influence appears to extend as far as the brain, affecting mental health, stress levels, memory and cognitive abilities. Yet many of the most compelling results illustrating the microbiota-gut-brain axis, as it has become known, have only been seen in animals.

The potential for gut microbes to affect mood is probably best illustrated by an experiment conducted at McMaster University in Canada. Mice devoid of a microbiota were effectively given ‘personality make-overs’ via poo transplants. Timid mice became more brazen, and once daring mice retreated into shyness, taking on the anxiety profiles of their donors.

Human-to-rodent poo transplants also work. Read more…

Bugs as drugs – medicine’s next frontier

Microbiome research is providing tantalising clues about how we might change our microbiota to improve our health. But translating findings from the lab into clinical treatments is a slow and arduous process.

The most dramatic illustration of how our microbiota can be used in the clinic is the case of the poo transplant, also known as faecal microbiota transplantation. Read more…


Assisted colonisation of Australian tortoise sets controversial precedent

From ScienceInsider, August 11, 2016 (Photo credit: Gerald Kuchling)

As long as it has been known to science, the diminutive western swamp tortoise has been in peril. By the time it was formally named in 1901—using a decades-old museum specimen—Pseudemydura umbrina was presumed extinct. And since it was rediscovered in the 1950s, biologists have struggled to protect it from the twin threats of habitat loss and introduced predators, which drove its numbers to bottom out at just 30 individuals in the 1980s. Now that climate change poses an even more urgent threat to the endangered tortoise, biologists have a controversial plan to safeguard its future—by moving it to new sites outside of its known historical range. The translocation, which took place today, makes the tortoise the first vertebrate to be deliberately relocated because of climate change. Read more…

Coley’s toxins and the birth of cancer immunotherapy

[from the cutting-room floor…] (Image source: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Dashiell walked into the Memorial Hospital in New York with what she thought was probably a minor – albeit annoying – complaint. A small, painful nodule had formed on the back of her hand after she had jammed it between two seats on a train a couple of months earlier. Her doctor, a young surgeon by the name of William Coley, was perplexed. The lump had all the signs of an infection, but investigations finally led Coley to conclude that Bessie had sarcoma, a type of cancer.

The year was 1890 – a time when cancer was an almost guaranteed death sentence. On November 8, just five weeks after he had first seen his 17-year-old patient, Coley amputated Bessie’s right hand and forearm in an attempt to save her life. But even amputation proved futile, and Bessie died two and a half months later, riddled with tumours that had sprouted throughout her body.

Coley, just 28 at the time, was devastated by his patient’s rapid demise and resolved to find a way of preventing similar deaths in the future. Trawling through hospital medical records for clues to a possible cure, he stumbled upon the case of a German immigrant named Stein. Surgeons had repeatedly attempted to remove Stein’s neck cancer without success – the tumour stubbornly regrew each time. Until, that is, Stein succumbed to a severe post-operative skin infection. On this occasion, his tumour had shrunk and disappeared, leaving Stein cancer-free.

Coley suspected he had discovered something important and began deliberately injecting his patients’ tumours with bacteria – first live, and then killed – hoping to replicate Stein’s mysterious cure. Over the ensuing years, Coley tinkered with his formulation to find just the right combination of bacterial strains to produce a robust fever and tumour remission. He went on to treat hundreds of people with his ‘Coley’s toxins’, effectively curing a quarter of his sarcoma patients – a remarkable achievement for the time.

“Even though his work started over 100 years ago, he was really quite advanced [for his time],” says Stephen Hoption Cann, an immunologist from the University of British Columbia in Canada and chief medical officer at MBVax Bioscience, a small biotech firm in Vancouver.

Coley had figured out how to harness the body’s natural defence system to combat cancer. After his death in 1936, Coley’s toxins fell out of use. Patients required multiple doses, often of increasing strength, so “treating patients was a little more involved,” says Hoption Cann. With Coley no longer available to provide advice on how best to modify the dosage for each patient, and other simpler therapies, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy gaining favour, the idea of utilising the immune system to treat cancer was largely forgotten.

Coley’s work has belatedly earned him a distinguished place in medical history. Many now regard him as the father of cancer immunology, a field that has attracted increasing attention over recent years and was last year singled out as the ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ by the prestigious journal Science. Hoption Cann and others have been picking up where Coley left off, investigating treatments that kick-start the immune system to fight cancer.

To read more about current cancer immunotherapies, check out my feature in Cosmos Magazine, Is immunotherapy a cancer game changer? [paywall]