Can we “science away” palm oil?

Credit: Permaculture (magazine)

Yes, we can.

Activist groups have been campaigning against palm oil for decades. What is less known though is that science has also been quietly working away, trying to find solutions to the myriad of issues that palm oil production creates… and it’s happening right here in Australia.

First, a brief palm oil explainer.

Palm oil is a vegetable oil which is used in many products on supermarket shelves, including food, medicine and cosmetics. It is a popular oil, due to being able to produce the most amount of oil per crop of any other vegetable oil, making production cheap. A longer list of products containing the oil can be found on the WWF website, with explanations as to why each product contains palm oil. In fact it can be listed as many different things on packaging, but rarely do the actual words “palm” and “oil” appear together. It is the largest source of vegetable oil on the planet, with almost half of products on supermarket shelves having palm oil or palm kernel oil in it.

But despite the high content in oil palm crops, it is not enough to counter some environmental effects.

Aside from being unhealthy by containing 50% saturated fat, another problem is that oil palms can only grow in tropical areas such as Malaysia and Indonesia. That area of the world has forests, and due to deforestation from clearing for oil palm plantations,  this becomes an issue due to habitat loss for species such as the orangutan. It’s also a loss of giant carbon sinks, forests that absorb roughly a third of all carbon emissions. Popular ABC program The Checkout aired a segment of the challenges faced with regards to palm oil, including issues surrounding quality of life for those in countries were the palm oil industry is the main source of income.

Science has found a way to make an oil crop that not only grows in temperate areas, but is a higher quality oil than palm oil. On top of that, it was found that the amount of oil produced per crop could be higher than that of oil palms.

This research is currently a paper trail produced primarily by CSIRO scientists. This new crop would ensure demand is met as the global population rises, and also ensure that plantations are spread out and not concentrated in tropical areas such as in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Unless this research can get the necessary backing via funding from governments, it may be some time before they are able to physically produce that crop.

So, lobby your local MP to allocate more funding to plant research. Boycott anything with palm oil in it by checking ingredients carefully. Also, look for products with an RSPO certification as a sustainable palm oil alternative.
There is no downside to a higher quality oil that can be grown in Australia, and the environmental and economic impacts could be vast.

So let’s do this!

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The Australian Housing Crisis: Possum Edition


Just like Australians looking to get into the property market, possums are facing their own unique housing problems.


Possums rely on large tree-hollows to make their homes, but these hollows can take over 100 years to form.  Combine this with habitat clearing and possums are finding it even harder to find the perfect home.


With possums in peril, organisations like WIRES advocate for people to install nest-boxes to keep them safe and out of our own homes. Helping our fellow Aussies find a home is great, but what if nest-boxes are doing more harm than good?


Are nest-boxes for possums a hollow gesture?


Recent research lead by Jessica Rowland at the University of Melbourne looked into the temperature suitability of nesting boxes for four different species of possums.


The research team compared the temperatures in nest-boxes and tree-hollows during summer and winter to see which ones provided the best living conditions across the seasons.


Temperatures inside the nest-boxes fluctuated greatly compared to tree-hollows. This is because the nest-boxes responded strongly to changes in sunlight and outside temperature.


On average nest-boxes were 8oC warmer than tree-hollows in summer and 3°C warmer in winter.


Common brushtails seeking shelter in the Woolshed at Mulligan’s Flat.


In summer possums seek shelter so they can cool their bodies down, avoiding heat-stress and dehydration which can lead to death. Rowland and colleagues found that large species like common brushtails and common ringtails needed to expend up to 2.4 times more heat energy to cool themselves in nest-boxes than in tree-hollows.


In winter nest-boxes were beneficial because their warmer temperatures reduced the amount of energy possums needed to expend to keep warm.


The result, nest-boxes do not stack up to tree-hollows in summer, but they are valuable over the winter months.


Re-inventing the nest-box


Nest-boxes definitely provide benefits over winter, but that still leaves the problem of homeless possums in summer.


To fix this problem Jessica Rowland is part of another team of researchers lead by Stephen Griffiths who have been looking at ways to re-invent the nest-box.


The research team tested three different coloured nest-boxes (white, light-green, and dark-green) to see if the colour of the nest-boxes had an effect on the internal temperature they maintain.


They found that light coloured boxes were the best at reflecting heat during summer and dark coloured boxes retained heat well in winter. Other factors including box design, placement, and the amount of shade boxes received also influenced the internal temperature of the nest-boxes.


How can we help homeless possums?


Here are some tips to consider when putting up nest-boxes around your home:


  • Install multiple different coloured nest-boxes


  • Place boxes in different orientations


  • Install boxes in areas with different amounts of shade


Possums are protected animals in Australia and it is illegal to trap them without a licence. For help with possum problems you can contact WIRES on 1300 094 737, the RSPCA, or your local government to find out what to do.

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Watching mammoths go extinct

A new study of mammoths has discovered startling amounts of mutations accumulated in the DNA of a small population isolated on Wrangel Island off Siberia.

This research has important ramifications for current critically endangered species. It is an unusually long term example what happens to animals as they go extinct. This is a warning example of what happens to animals as they slowly go extinct.

Co-author Dr Rebekah Rogers told Scientific America;

“It’s difficult to catch a population in the process of going extinct, but this study finally made it possible.”

Having small isolated populations requires the animals to breed with relatives. This increases the chance of the DNA mutation and creating problems for the animals. Is it fair to let existing animals on the verge of extinction to live through a similar accumulation of mutations?

Researchers from the University of California compared the DNA of a mammoth from the small population on Wrangel Island, a mainland mammoth and an elephant from the San Diego Zoo.

The population of approximately 300 mammoths was isolated on the island for over 5,000 years after the mainland mammoths went extinct. The island mammoths were dwarfs compared to the mainland mammoths.

The woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius was the subject of this study.


There were so many mutations found in the island mammoth the researchers speculate the mammoths went extinct from a genomic meltdown. This means the animals had so many mutation and were so inbred they slowly decline to the point of extinction.

Amongst the mutations, the mammoths may have had problems with trouble of urination organs and had difficulties attracting mates to breed.  These mutations would have greatly affected the quality of life of the few remaining mammoths.

“If you can prevent these organisms ever being threatened or endangered then that will do a lot more to help prevent this type of genomic meltdown” Dr Rogers told the BBC.

Are critically endangered animals worth the investment of complex breeding programs if it results in their suffering through mutations? Genetics are known to suffer in small animal populations with inbreeding a known cause of extinction.

The Wrangel Island mammoths are an example of the dangers of dealing with a tiny population and the lessons should be applied to current research on endangered species.

We should concentrate research on animals with populations large enough to retain diversity in their genetics without resulting to dangerous inbreeding.


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A new solution to acid mine drainage

If your tap water looked like this, would you drink it?

Acid mine drainage can have severe effects on the health of our waterways.

Image credit: USGS

No? Then you may be surprised to hear that water like this exists in many places across Australia. The reason the water looks so unhealthy is because it has been affected by acid mine drainage, also known as AMD.

According to recent reports there could be up to 60,000 abandoned mines across Australia, so environmental pollution caused by AMD is an issue that seriously needs to be addressed.

However, in March this year, Michael Sephton and Dr John Webb from La Trobe University published a paper in Applied Geochemistry where they proposed a novel solution to combat AMD: using cement to cover up mine wastes.

The challenge

There’s a mineral called pyrite (FeS2) that’s commonly found in mine waste. Pyrite reacts with water and oxygen to form sulfuric acid, and this is the key process that creates AMD. This reaction also releases iron into the water; the iron can then form iron oxyhydroxide minerals, which stain the water blood red.

Acidic water can also leach metals and metalloids such as lead, copper and arsenic out of mine wastes. Therefore, a river affected by AMD becomes corrosive and poisonous, and this can have serious effects on the health of anyone who tries to use it.

The research

Mr Sephton and Dr Webb collected waste rocks from the Brukunga pyrite mine in South Australia and used them to set up 12 column experiments. They used three columns as controls, and applied cement mixes with differing water/cement ratios to the other nine columns.

Then, they poured water into the columns and measured the acidity and metal concentrations of the water that ran out the bottom of the columns. They repeated this process 21 times over the course of one year.

The results were stunning: two of the cement mixes were able to completely neutralise the acidity of the water, and metal concentrations were usually below the detection limit. The other cement mix reduced the acidity of the water by 85% compared to the control columns.

Not only did the cement neutralise the acidity produced by the mine waste, it also covered the surfaces of the rocks and filled the gaps between them. This made it harder for water and oxygen to come into contact with pyrite, reducing the amount of acidity the waste produced.

Mr Sephton and Dr Webb calculated that the cement would continue to neutralise AMD for at least a decade. So not only is cement highly effective at counteracting AMD, it would require less monitoring than many current AMD management systems. As a result, this innovation could make it much easier to protect our precious environment from the consequences of mining in the future.

If you want to let the Australian Department of Environment and Energy know that protecting our waterways is important to you, please contact them here.

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Don’t have a cow, man: Ditching dairy, beef and lamb aids in global transition to sustainability

Time to put down your meat pie and double caramel mocha decaf frappuccino – unless you ordered it on soy.

New research out of Chalmers university in Sweden suggests giving up beef and dairy will allow the energy system to transition to sustainable sources slower while still meeting global climate targets.

Ruminant production is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the livestock sector. Image: CC0 Public Domain.

Ruminants, including cows, sheep and goats, are mammals that have multiple stomach chambers to digest foods. The study found that if we were all to ban ruminant products from our plates it would allow a slower transition to sustainable energy, like wind and solar power.

You may be scrambling to think of meals that don’t contain ruminant products but there’s still plenty to enjoy: eggs, pork and poultry are still on the energy- and climate-friendly menu.

Crunching the numbers

The livestock sector currently contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for climate change. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are common greenhouse gases belched out by livestock production.

The impact of a ruminant product-containing “reference” diet based on current beef-munching, milk-guzzling global trends, a diet free of ruminant products (but including poultry and pork), and a vegan diet were compared using computer modelling.

The modelling, performed by lead researcher David Bryngelsson, calculated the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from producing the food in each type of diet. Diets containing ruminant products had the highest emission of greenhouse gases out of the three calculated.

The modelling factored in the global target of keeping global average temperatures below 2◦C above pre-industrial levels, as set in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The way of the future

After a centuries long romance with fossil fuels, the energy sector must pen a break-up letter saying a firm goodbye. The blow can be softened by the global adoption of a ruminant-free diet, allowing the transition to sustainable energy sources to be slower and more gradual while still achieving the 2◦C target.

Changing our diet is a lot more simple that overhauling the entire energy industry overnight, and you don’t have to be a bleeding-heart vegan to do so. In fact, the study found that a completely vegan diet only had a tiny benefit (1%) to slowing the energy system transition.

If we starting transitioning to a ruminant-free diet by 2020, with 95% of the world embracing the change by 2060, the energy sector will be able to emit 60% more carbon dioxide without negatively impacting the fight against climate change.

Turning the lights off when you leave the room and taking the bus isn’t going to cut it when it comes to curbing climate change. Climate change is no longer a threat, looming off in the distance for our hypothetical great-great grandchildren to deal with. It is here and the solution lies with the actions we start taking today, including changing our diets.

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Water for the future. Do a reverse on reverse osmosis

Water is our most precious resource in Australia. Not natural gas, oil, coal or opals. Water. We must do everything to preserve it but sometimes, extraneous conditions make it hard.

Many will remember the millennium drought which saw harsh water restriction imposed. In response, our state governments built desalination plants to supplement our dwindling water supplies. The plants turned salt water to drinking water by a process called reverse osmosis to literally squeeze the salt out of the water.

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The war on undernutrition: Why supplements may be the superweapon we’ve been looking for.

Approximately 3 million children die every year due to malnutrition. The prevalence of this startling statistic remains one of the greatest failings of modern society. Nevertheless, new research suggests that we may have a secret weapon; an ace up our sleeves that is ready to be unleashed: food supplements.

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Gene editing in cancer treatment.

Healthy vs Leukemia blood. (source: SCIGOGO)

Everything is a fad, until it changes an industry.

TV was a fad, but then it killed the radio star.

The internet was a toy for nerds, now it runs the world.

Even the car was originally a gimmick, but I’ve never jumped into my horse drawn cart and clip clopped my way through a macca’s drive through.

The only constant is change, with huge payoff for those getting in early on an industry changing technology. But people are wary of change. People want to be comfortable. People don’t want risk.

An English team of doctors and researchers took the risk to save two young infants. In doing so they cured the infants cancer when nothing else would. The result could change cancer treatment, while the payoff for getting in early isn’t measured in money, but lives saved.

The cancer

The two infants aged 11 and 16 months had a severe form of leukaemia, termed acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL). ALL is the most common cancer in children, in this case effecting the B-cells of the immune system.

CAR-T cells

The infants lives were saved with a novel method that had never been used in humans before. Doctors edited donor T-cells (cells of the immune system) to become CAR-T cells. This allows the cells to recognise and latch onto specific proteins that are only on the surface of B-cells, healthy or cancerous.

The resulting cells, termed CART19 cells, can seek out and destroy the cancerous cells. These modified cells had been trialled with success in the past.

What’s the difference here? The modified cells are from a donor and not the host. This means that the donor T-cells will recognise the hosts body as non-self and attack it. In addition, the host immune system and anti-leukaemia drugs will attack the donor CART19 cells in return.


TALEN proteins cutting out a gene. (source: Labomic)

To overcome this, Qasim and colleagues created the universal CART19 cell by editing out two genes that allow the drug to recognise and attack the host body as non-self and be attacked in return. To do this TALEN proteins were engineered to bind to the exact positions of these genes and then cut them out of the T-cells genome. BOOM! The UCART19 cell was born and boy did it work.

Within 28 days both patients were in remission and have been for over a year.

Moving forward

This is special, because it becomes a so called “off the shelf” alternative. It helps not only immunosuppressed cancer sufferers, but also drastically reduces the cost involved in creating personalised therapies, which were upwards of $50,000 a dose, but now are as little as $4000.

The very idea of gene editing human cells strikes fear into many, but with such striking results the only question is why not embrace the change. Will the industry be slow moving? Or will it react quickly? The payoff for adopting this new method years before it may have otherwise become mainstream might well be measured in lives saved.

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Live fast, stay young…NAD+ do it well

Forget Botox, THIS is the all-natural, scientifically tested product that you need to get that youthful glow this season.

We get wrinkles when our bodies are no longer able to produce collagen and elastin in our cells, which gives the appearance of thinning and sagging skin.

The culprit is sunlight, more specifically the UV radiation from sunlight.

Radiation causes DNA mutations, which affect the way our body produces proteins like collagen and elastin.

When we’re young our bodies are able to locate mutations and fix them, but as we get older our bodies cannot restore the ‘broken’ DNA and we begin to show signs of ageing.

Our bodies deteriorate as we age and it has been thought to be irreversible and unavoidable since the beginning of our existence. But what if I told you that human trials for an age reversing pill would begin in months?

Yep, that’s right. Professor Sinclair and his colleagues at UNSW have worked out why our DNA stops being able to repair itself, and they’ve found a way to fix it.

It all starts with a molecule called NAD+. This may sound familiar if you’ve taken high school biology, as it is found in every single one of our cells and is vital for our existence. But until now, no one has completely realised its full function.

In 2013 Professor Sinclair and his colleagues noticed that young mice had higher levels of NAD+ than older mice. They thought this might have something to do with ageing.

They were right, and they investigated how it works.

But before you (as a consumer) get too excited about a cheap facelift; after its human trials, this drug will be exclusively used to treat extreme cases of radiation exposure, like chemotherapy or cosmic radiation. There is no doubt that these patients should be first in line for this treatment.

But another prospective market has been missed. Policy makers, scientists and journalists alike are hesitant to make any statement on whether this technology can be used for cosmetic purposes for the average citizen.

Scientists need to get down off their pedestal, and see the potential of a cosmetic product like this. Australians spend $1 billion on cosmetic surgery annually, and some people are willing to invest $700 on La Prairie skin tightening serum.

Imagine the social, economic and medical benefits of a product that cheaply and effectively reversed the ageing process.

But why stop at the cosmetic industry, everyone could have access to NAD+ pills that would provide a safe and natural method of prevention and treatment for the visible and genetic signs of ageing.

Modern medicine has already increased human lifespans exponentially; this technology is simply taking the next big step. It could have the potential to add an extra 20% of youthful life to humans.

That’s right, a potential 20 extra years.

Imagine that.

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How CRISPR-Cas9 Could Cure Cancer

Cancer, a plague on humanity. Chances are you’ve seen someone close to you taken by this horrific disease. Now, there may just be a way to cure it.

The Costs of Cancer

In 2014, Cancer killed more than 44,000 people in Australia, and that number is estimated to increase to more than 47,000 this year. That’s at least 182,000 people who have had a loved one taken away from them over only 2 years.

Ovarian Cancer Cells Source: Nephron (2010)

What is cancer, you may ask. Well, it is a disease caused by certain mutations in the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid), the structure of which happens to dictate our very state of physical being. These mutations always seem to cause a huge amount of suffering for the unfortunate people with cancer.

CRISPR-Cas9, A Revelation

In recent years, a new technology has been created called CRISPR-Cas9. Funnily enough, it was isolated from bacteria found in yoghurt. Highly effective at its job, CRISPR-Cas9 can edit genes, and most importantly scientists can choose which genes to edit.

So, it makes sense that it can change the genes that cause cancer. As it turns out, this is exactly what scientists have recently achieved.

It was found that changes made by CRISPR-Cas9 could stop certain cancer cells from replicating. With further research, scientists may be able to stop all cancer cells from replicating using CRISPR-Cas9.

Concerns with CRISPR-Cas9

Many may take issue with CRISPR-Cas9 because it can be used to edit ‘germline cells’ (cells with DNA that can be inherited) and embryos. Some say this screams of eugenics, others suggest it may cause a rippling effect among generations that will be forever changed by gene editing.

But this is only in the case of ‘germline cells’ and embryos. The treatment of cancer would only need to edit cells with uninheritable DNA, so would only affect the individual.

Of course, there are very legitimate concerns in using CRISPR-Cas9 in cells with DNA that is not inherited as well. CRISPR-Cas9 could potentially edit DNA that is not harmful, and instead cause injury to the individual.

Why CRISPR-Cas9 Research is Important

This is why further research is needed in this rapidly growing field, especially about how CRISPR-Cas9 works. Knowing everything there is to know about CRISPR-Cas9 will help decrease any ill effects of its use.

As it stands, not allowing the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in the treatment of diseases will only harm humanity. The potential of CRISPR-Cas9 is too great to ignore, and while further research and responsible use are needed, CRISPR-Cas9 may in time provide a cure for cancer.


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