Living with HIV in 2013

The history of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an intriguing one: the virus evolved from the simian immunodeficiency virus, which infects chimpanzees and gorillas, and made the jump to humans some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. This all happened in Africa, and it happened a long time ago. But for many, HIV only leaped into the limelight in the early 1980s, when gay men started developing rare cancers and dying from some unknown entity that caused their immune systems to collapse.

In the three decades since, the trajectory of the epidemic has very much depended on where you are in the world. Most HIV infections and deaths from AIDS occur in Africa. In Western countries, the story is vastly different. Rapid improvements in antiretroviral therapies have turned a once-lethal infection into a manageable, albeit chronic, one. This is the case in Australia.

This Sunday is World AIDS Day, an important day to reflect on how far we’ve come in the fight against a deadly virus, and where we need to focus our efforts in the future. Head over the ABC Health & Wellbeing to read the article I wrote about HIV in 2013. Another piece, focusing on the stigma associated with HIV is also on its way, so stay tuned.


Honey bees treat themselves to guard against colony collapse

A European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) flying b...
A European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) flying back to its hive carrying pollen in a pollen basket. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider for a moment the contents of your fridge and pantry – it has been estimated that about a third of our diet is thanks to the industrious foraging of insect pollinators. The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is by far the most lauded. Each time a worker bee sets out to forage for pollen and nectar to feed her colony mates, she fulfills another invaluable function. She fertilises the flowers of crop plants that she visits with the pollen she carries in her pollen basket, ensuring that humans benefit from the fruits of her labour as much as her younger siblings and queen do. And then, of course, there’s the honey — the delicious sugary syrup we have been collecting from wild hives for at least the past 15 millenia, and harvesting from maintained colonies of domesticated bees since the 1700s.

Since late 2006, a mysterious affliction — known as colony collapse disorder — has threatened to end this long-standing partnership we have with bees. When a colony collapses, worker bees fly from their hives, never to return. They abandon their queen, as well as the developing brood of larvae that now lie unfed in their individual honeycomb cells. Bee disappearances like this had occurred prior to 2006, but never in as great a number, and never as wide-spread. In the USA, about a third of honey bee colonies were lost to colony collapse disorder each year since 2007, but losses in 2012-13 could be as high as 50%Similar losses have occurred in Europe. Continue reading “Honey bees treat themselves to guard against colony collapse”

Right hand or left? If you have a preference, it may be because you walk upright

Toddlers begin to prefer their left or right hand when they start walking

Graduating from a crawler to a toddler is a significant developmental milestone for every child. Tentative steps turn into more confident toddles, and soon they are scampering off in whatever direction their insatiable curiosity takes them. At the same time as kids are learning to place one foot reliably after the next, significant changes are also occurring in how they use their hands. Whereas crawlers are happy to grab with either hand, by the age of three, a preference for the left of right hand has usually been established. The transition from crawling on hand and knees as a quadruped, to walking bipedally on two feet, creates a strong bias that can be seen both at the individual level – the vast majority of us has a preference for one side over the other – and at the population level – only around one in 10 people are left-handed. So, too, if we look at handedness from an evolutionary perspective. In mammals, the more upright the posture, the more likely that the species has a left- or right-hand bias. Ambidexterity, it seems, remains the preserve of quadrupeds. Continue reading “Right hand or left? If you have a preference, it may be because you walk upright”

Blue-green algae source sugar from the oceans

English: Stromatolites growing in Hamelin Pool...
Stromatolites – ancient cyanobacteria – in Shark Bay, Western Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cyanobacteria – commonly referred to by the misnomer ‘blue-green algae’ – are photoautotrophs, which is to say that they have the nifty ability to make their own food from sunlight. In fact, their predecessors were probably some of the first organisms on Earth to master this feat.

The ability to use light energy from the sun to power reactions that turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars (a process known as photosynthesis) assured these tiny organisms a permanent role on the evolutionary stage. At 3.5 billion years old, stromatolites – the clumpy, fossilised remains of ancient cyanobacteria – are some of the oldest records of life that we have.

Continue reading “Blue-green algae source sugar from the oceans”

What is herpes? Explainer on The Conversation

The Conversation has a series of ‘Explainer‘ articles – pieces that tackle a variety of topics.Today, they published an explainer article I wrote about genital herpes.

English: A grey horse grooming.
Human flexibility – or lack there-of – has affected herpes evolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poo transplants on Ockham’s Razor

A couple of weeks ago I recorded a piece for Ockham’s Razor, a program that airs on Radio National in Australia. I’ve written about fecal transplants before (for Cosmos online, and the The Conversation), but radio is possibly my all-time favourite medium for learning about… well, stuff… anything, really. So, I pitched the poo story to Ockham’s Razor, and the final product aired on Sunday morning. Being slightly longer than my other pieces on the topic, I also managed to cover a little bit more on the microbiome, which was really the whole reason I started writing about poo in the first place! The transcript has also been reproduced, so you can either read or listen.

New News: an experiment in online science reporting


When it comes to science writing, there is ample free content on the internet, and much of it – especially from the blogosphere – very high quality. But can an online publication that relies on free, crowdsourced content still be of high quality and have a viable business model. This was the topic of a workshop run as part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. I went along as an observer and reported back to the Croakey blog, here.

Or, if you’d prefer to read without clicking, here’s what I had to say:

Experiments, as any honest scientist or amateur chef will tell you, can be tricky. Do you have all of the ingredients you need, and are the incubation conditions just right?

Last weekend, a bold experiment in new media and health journalism was conducted at the Melbourne Writers Festival, as part of the New News conference. Continue reading “New News: an experiment in online science reporting”