10 of the best science discoveries at Sydney in 2018

20 December 2018
From genomics and agriculture to astronomy and quantum physics, University of Sydney researchers have uncovered amazing things we didn't know about last year. Here are just 10 of them.
Mer-Neith-it-es being CT scanned. Image: Macquarie Medical Imaging.

Mer-Neith-it-es being CT scanned. Image: Macquarie Medical Imaging


1. Secrets of the Mummy within

It's been sitting supposedly empty in the Nicholson Museum for more than 150 years: the 2500-year-old coffin of Mer-Neith-it-es (pronounced mer-neth-it-ees), who served in the temple of the goddess Sekhmet. But CT scanning technology - and the hunch of museum curator Dr James Fraser - revealed that among the debris were two mummified ankles, feet and toes, consistent with a single person, and fused bone endings which suggested the person was an adult when they died.

"In short, the scans were the first step towards identifying whether the coffin contained its original inhabitant," said Dr Fraser.

The next step will be to work with Sydney Analytical using bone analysis, radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis and vibrational spectroscopy to further help identify the coffin’s remains.

“For me, the most exciting aspect of the project will be the recolouring of a digital model of the coffin,” said Dr Fraser.

Those recoloured images, and findings from the Mummy Project, will be incorporated into the Mummy Room at the museum’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum, due to open in 2020.

2. Cell messengers as biomarkers 

Co-author Sally Yunsun Kim.

Co-author Sally Yunsun Kim.

Researchers at the University of Sydney have established a method to identify individual nanoparticles released by human cells, opening the way for them to become diagnostic tools in the early-detection of cancers, dementia and kidney disease.

The particles, known as extracellular vesicles, or EVs, are routinely released by cells and play a central role in cell communication, sharing vital information such as DNA, RNA and proteins.

“This really is at the cutting edge of our knowledge of cellular development,” said Associate Professor Wojciech Chrzanowski, co-author of a new paper with Sally Yunsun Kim on EVs published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Nanoscale Horizons.

“EVs could not only be used to identify cellular pathologies but because they carry essential information about cell development, we could engineer them for purposes of tissue repair.”

3. World tourism's carbon footprint 

Air travel is a big contributor to greenhouse gases.

Air travel is a big contributor to greenhouse gases.

For the first time the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from tourism was measured.

Dr Arunima Malik, from the School of Physics, said: "Our analysis is a world-first look at the true cost of tourism – including consumables such as food from eating out and souvenirs – it’s a complete life-cycle assessment of global tourism, ensuring we don’t miss any impacts."

Between 2009 and 2013, tourism’s global carbon footprint increased from 3.9 to 4.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide – four times more than previous estimates. This accounts for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, shopping and food are significant contributors.

Lead researcher from the University of Sydney, Professor Manfred Lenzen, said the study found air travel was the key contributor to tourism’s footprint.

4. The life (and deaths) of the Great Barrier Reef

The reef is both resilient and fragile.

The reef is both resilient and fragile.

A landmark international study of the Great Barrier Reef showed that in the past 30,000 years the world’s largest reef system has suffered five death events, largely driven by changes in sea level and associated environmental change.

Over millennia, the reef has adapted to sudden changes in environment by migrating across the sea floor as the oceans rose and fell.

The study published in Nature Geoscience, led by University of Sydney’s Associate Professor Jody Webster, is the first of its kind to reconstruct the evolution of the reef over the past 30 millennia in response to major, abrupt environmental change.

The 10-year, multinational effort has shown the reef is more resilient to major environmental changes such as sea-level rise and sea-temperature change than previously thought but also showed a high sensitivity to increased sediment input and poor water quality.

Associate Professor Webster from the University’s School of Geosciences and Geocoastal Research Group said it remains an open question as to whether its resilience will be enough for it to survive the current worldwide decline of coral reefs.

“Our study shows the reef has been able to bounce back from past death events during the last glaciation and deglaciation,” he said. “However, we found it is also highly sensitive to increased sediment input, which is of concern given current land-use practices.”

5. Koala genome sequenced

A team of Australian and international scientists led by Adjunct Professor and Australian Museum Research Institute director Rebecca Johnson and Professor Katherine Belov at the University of Sydney, has completed the world-first full sequencing of the koala genome.

Considered to be the most complete marsupial genome sequenced to date, it is in terms of quality, on par with the human genome. The highly accurate genomic data will provide scientists with new information that will inform conservation efforts, aid in the treatment of diseases and help to ensure the koala’s long-term survival.

Professor Belov said: “The genome provides a springboard for the conservation of this biologically unique species.”

The Australian-led consortium of 54 scientists from 29 institutions across seven countries sequenced more than 3.4 billion base pairs and more than 26,000 genes in the koala genome, which makes it slightly larger than the human genome. 

The findings were published in Nature Genetics.

6. Simulating chemical bonds with quantum computers

Artist's impression.

Artist's impression.

Researchers achieved the world’s first multi-qubit demonstration of a quantum chemistry calculation performed on a system of trapped ions, one of the leading hardware platforms in the race to develop a universal quantum computer. 

The research, led by University of Sydney physicist Dr Cornelius Hempel, explores a promising pathway for developing effective ways to model chemical bonds and reactions using quantum computers. It was published in Physicial Review X of the American Physical Society.

“Even the largest supercomputers are struggling to model accurately anything but the most basic chemistry. Quantum computers simulating nature, however, unlock a whole new way of understanding matter. They will provide us with a new tool to solve problems in materials science, medicine and industrial chemistry using simulations," Dr Hempel said.

With quantum computing still in its infancy, it remains unclear exactly what problems these devices will be most effective at solving, but most experts agree that quantum chemistry is going to be one of the first 'killer apps' of this emergent technology.

7. Wheat-rust puzzle solved

A third of the world's population relies on wheat for food.

A third of the world's population relies on wheat for food.

Researchers from the University of Sydney, CSIRO, the United Kingdom’s John Innes Centre, Limagrain UK and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) have isolated the first major resistance genes against the stripe rust disease that is devastating wheat crops worldwide.

The discovery by the scientists, who have cloned three related rust resistance genes – called Yr7Yr5, and YrSP – will enable these important genes to be accurately monitored and integrated into breeding programs in the fight against ever-changing pathogens that could kill about 70 percent or more of whole wheat crops at a time.

The findings solve a 30-year-old puzzle. Co-author Dr Peng Zhang from the University of Sydney said: "This work finally resolves the relationships between three related rust-resistance genes."

The University of Sydney’s cereal rust research team under the directorship of Professor Robert Park created mutation populations in 2015 and identified mutants for each gene, while unknowingly in parallel, scientists in the UK were working on two of the genes.

8. Population of astronomical fast-radio bursts doubles


Australian researchers using a CSIRO radio telescope in Western Australia have nearly doubled the known number of "fast radio bursts"; powerful flashes of radio waves from deep space.

The discoveries include the closest and brightest fast radio bursts ever detected.

University of Sydney astronomer Professor Elaine Sadler, who was part of the team, said: "At the moment, no one really knows what causes fast radio bursts, or why they are so powerful. Being able to find more of them to study is a really important step in working out what they are and why they happen."

The team’s findings were reported in the journal Nature.

9. How climate stress impacts cities

Angkor was once the biggest city in the world.

Angkor was once the biggest city in the world.

The fall of Angkor in the 15th century has long puzzled historians, archaeologists and scientists, but now a University of Sydney research team is one step closer to discovering what led to the city’s demise - and it comes with a warning for modern urban communities.

Built upon on a complex system of canals, water catchments and embankments, Angkor was once the largest city in the world, covering an area of approximately 1000km2. However, in the 15th century it saw a massive population fall.

The multidisciplinary team led by Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, Director of the Complex Systems Research Group, and Associate Professor Daniel Penny, Director of the Greater Angkor Project, found that the medieval city suffered external climate stress coupled with overloaded infrastructure within the canal system, which through in-depth mapping showed evidence of a vulnerability to catastrophic failures.

Professor Prokopenko: "Complex infrastructural networks provide critical services to cities but can be vulnerable to external stressors, including climatic variability."

The study was published in Science Advances.

10. Doomed star in Milky Way threatens gamma-ray burst

Apep is 8000 light years from Earth and will go supernova 'imminently'.

Apep is 8000 light years from Earth and will go supernova 'imminently'.

University of Sydney astronomers and international colleagues found a star system like none seen before in our galaxy.

The scientists believe one of the stars – about 8000 light years from Earth – is the first known candidate in the Milky Way to produce a dangerous gamma-ray burst, among the most energetic events in the universe, when it explodes and dies.

The system, comprising a pair of scorchingly luminous stars, was nicknamed Apep by the team after the serpentine Egyptian god of chaos. One star is on the brink of a massive supernova explosion.

The findings, published in Nature Astronomy, are controversial as no gamma-ray burst has ever been detected within our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Fortunately, if it produces gamma rays, they will not be directed at Earth.

“When we saw the spiral dust tail we immediately knew we were dealing with a rare and special kind of nebula called a pinwheel,” said Professor Peter Tuthill, research group leader from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy.

“Ultimately, we can’t be certain what the future has in store for Apep,” he said.

“The system might slow down enough so it explodes as a normal supernova rather than a gamma-ray burst. However, in the meantime, it is providing astronomers a ringside seat into beautiful and dangerous physics that we have not seen before in our galaxy.”

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