10 best Sydney science discoveries 2017

15 December 2017
From squirtable surgical glue to gravitational waves, University of Sydney scientists have been hitting the headlines in 2017.
MeTro is squirted directly onto the wound and activated with light.

MeTro is squirted directly onto the wound and activated with light.

1. Squirtable surgical glue

Biomedical engineers at the University of Sydney working with scientists in Boston, USA, developed potentially life-saving glue.

Named MeTro, the revolutionary product sets in just 60 seconds once treated with UV light. It also a built-in degrading enzyme which can be modified to determine how long the sealant lasts – from hours to months, in order to allow adequate time for the wound to heal.

University of Sydney McCaughey Chair in Biochemistry Professor Anthony Weiss said: "The potential applications are powerful – from treating serious internal wounds at emergency sites such as following car accidents and in war zones, as well as improving hospital surgeries."

2. Fast, safe blockchain

In July, researchers from the School of IT announced they are building a new super-fast, safe blockchain technology that has the potential to revolutionise the global economy.

By late October, global trials proved the super-fast 'Red Belly Blockchain' can process financial transactions 50 percent faster than first anticipated – outperforming some market leaders including VISA for world-wide payments.

Dr Vincent Gramoli, who heads up the Concurrent Systems Research Group, said: "Our tests showed the Red Belly Blockchain can process more than 660,000 transactions a second on 300 machines in a single data centre." 

Turtle-headed seasnake. Photo: Claire Goiran

Turtle-headed seasnake. Photo: Claire Goiran

3. How seasnakes lost their stripes

Professor Rick Shine, working with researchers in New Caledonia, found that industrial pollution was having an evolutionary impact on turtle-headed seasnakes living on coral reefs.

Professor Shine says that the findings are yet another example of rapid adaptive evolutionary change in action. For him, it’s also a more sinister reminder that “even on an apparently pristine coral reef, human activities can pose very real problems for the animals that live there”.

Claire Goiran, the study’s lead author, from Labex Corail & Université de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, got the idea that blacker skin might be related to pollutant exposure after learning that the darker feathers of urban pigeons in Paris store more zinc than lighter feathers.

4. Neutron stars collide

Artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding.

Artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding.

A University of Sydney team was the first in the world to confirm radio wave emissions emanating from the collision of two neutron stars 130 million light years away that produced measureable gravitational waves.

University of Sydney Associate Professor Tara Murphy was in the US when the announcement of the gravitational wave event occurred. 

“We immediately rang our team in Australia and told them to get onto the CSIRO telescope as soon as possible,” she said. “We were lucky in a sense in that it was perfect timing but you have to be at the top of your game to play in this space. It is intense, time-critical science.”

5. Brains don't stream, they strobe

An Australian-Italian collaboration found that our brains most likely process data from our environment as oscillations.

While our conscious experience appears to be continuous, the University of Sydney and Italian universities study suggests that perception and attention are intrinsically rhythmic in nature.

“These findings that auditory perception also goes through peaks and troughs supports the theory that perception is not passive but in fact our understanding of the world goes through cycles,” said Professor David Alais.

6. Babies' lives saved by later clamping

Thousands of preterm babies could be saved by waiting 60 seconds before clamping the umbilical cord after birth instead of clamping it immediately - according to two international studies coordinated by the University of Sydney’s National Health and Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Centre.

“We estimate that for every thousand very preterm babies born more than 10 weeks early, delayed clamping will save up to 100 additional lives compared with immediate clamping,” said the University of Sydney’s Associate Professor David Osborn, the review’s lead author and a neonatal specialist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Dr Birgit Stiller (left) and Moritz Merklein at the Sydney Nanoscience Hub. Photo: Louise Cooper

Dr Birgit Stiller (left) and Moritz Merklein at the Sydney Nanoscience Hub. 

7. Storing 'lightning inside thunder'

A team at Sydney Nano developed a world-first prototype microchip that allows photonic - or light - information to be stored as acoustic waves. The design will help develop photonic chips, which can process data without producing the heat in typical chips.

“The information in our chip in acoustic form travels five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain,” said Dr Birgit Stiller, research fellow at the University of Sydney and supervisor of the project. “It is like the difference between thunder and lightning,” she said.

8. 'Bin chickens' like to carb load

A white ibis prepares to tuck in. Photo: Zhixian Sui

A white ibis prepares to tuck in. Photo: Zhixian Sui

Australian white ibis - loved or loathed as Sydney's 'bin chicken' - prefer a carbohydrate-rich diet in their adopted urban environment.

The research, by PhD student Sean Coogan, shows the ibis abandoning its traditional low-carb, high-protein diet from its western NSW wetland environment when it reaches the city.

“Urban Australian white ibis seem to be taking advantage of the abundance of high-carb human foods available in the city,” Mr Coogan said. The bin chicken came second in Guardian Australia's 'Bird of the Year' poll this month.

9. Ferals a big threat in the bush

Under threat: the desert mouse, Pseudomys desertor, is critically endangered in NSW.

Under threat: the desert mouse, Pseudomys desertor, is critically endangered in NSW.


Feral foxes and cats pose a bigger threat to native rodents than climate change, research from the University's School of Life and Environmental Sciences found.

Lead author Dr Aaron Greenville said removing introduced cats and foxes could increase rodent population by almost one in 10 in the study area within the Simpson Desert.

In earlier research this year, Dr Thomas Newsome, found that reintroducing dingoes and other apex predators could help control the feral pests.

“Humans need a greater tolerance of apex predators if we want to enjoy the environmental benefits they can provide”, said Dr Newsome.

The prototype microwave circulator next to a five cent piece.

The prototype microwave circulator next to a five cent piece.

10. Quantum component invented

A team led by Professor David Reilly in collaboration with Stanford University has invented a microcomponent important for the scaling up of quantum computers.

Invention of the microwave circulator is part of the device engineering needed to build a large-scale quantum computer.

“It is not just about qubits, the fundamental building blocks for quantum machines. Building a large-scale quantum computer will also need a revolution in classical computing and device engineering,” Professor Reilly said. 

Lead author of the research,and PhD candidate Alice Mahoney said: “Such compact circulators could be implemented in a variety of quantum hardware platforms, irrespective of the particular quantum system used."

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