Science briefs

Mussels record Aboriginal history on the River Murray

Radiocarbon dating of river mussel shells from a midden site in South Australia has dated Aboriginal occupation of the area to about 29,000 years ago. The results extend the known Aboriginal occupation of the Riverland by approximately 22,000 years. The site overlooks the Pike River flood plain downstream of Renmark in SA.

The period dated by the radiocarbon is part of the Last Glacial Maximum (commonly known as the last Ice Age), which occurred from 115,000 to 11,700 years ago. During this time, climatic conditions were colder and drier, and the arid zone extended over much of the Murray–Darling Basin.

More than 30 additional radiocarbon dates were collected in the region, spanning the period from 15,000 years ago to the recent present. Flinders University has led the archaeological research in collaboration with the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC). The research has been published in Australian Archaeology and forms part of ongoing research into past and contemporary Aboriginal connections to the Riverland region.

Funding has been provided by the SA Murray–Darling Basin Natural Resource Management Board (now the Murraylands and Riverland Landscape Board) through the Australian Government and the Natural Resources Management levies, and Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP170100479).


Omega-3s from ocean microbes

CSIRO will use new technology to produce omega-3 oils from ocean microbes, offering an alternative to sourcing from wild fish and creating new economic opportunities from the ocean.

The technology cultures and extracts omega-3 from specific strains of unique and endemic Thraustochytrids, a marine microorganism. CSIRO research scientist Kim Lee Chang says it builds on CSIRO’s expertise in identifying and developing new sources for omega-3 oils, such as engineered canola.

CSIRO has signed an 18-month partnership agreement with Brisbane-based company Pharmamark Innovation to develop omega-3 oils, proteins and other extracts from marine microorganisms.
The partnership aims to unlock significant economic potential from a novel source of protein and omega-3 oils and will contribute to Australia’s growing ‘blue economy’ target of $100 billion annual revenue by 2025.

Products aim to boost the nutritional value of a range of food and beverages, beginning with the $89 billion global baby milk formula market.

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for good health, assisting with brain and eye development and cognition, particularly in early childhood, and may help to decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases, neural disorders, arthritis, asthma and skin diseases in humans.

Omega-3 oils are traditionally sourced from wild fish stocks and ocean krill. Minor sources are nuts and seeds, and oils from flaxseed, soybean and canola.


Viral insights

A mutation in viruses is a ‘mistake’ that occurs when a virus replicates; the virus reproduces by using a host cell to copy its own DNA or RNA.

All viruses mutate, though the rates at which mutations occur vary greatly among different viruses. A mutation does not automatically enable a virus to infect a new host species – most mutations result in virus particles that are functionally useless and simply die.

Virus latency is the state where an infection is present in a host, but is dormant. Recrudescence refers to the recurrence of viral activity (usually with the reoccurrence of associated symptoms) following a period of latency.


Communicating science

Australian case studies form part of a new book launched in September, Communicating Science: A Global Perspective.

The book provides the first detailed documentation of this international field of work, with 108 contributing authors.

It includes 38 national accounts that describe how modern science communication emerged in different countries around the world.

As chief editor and co-author of the chapter on Australia, Toss Gascoigne featured as one of five authors speaking at the official launch of the book, via Zoom, on 15 September 2020.

He is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University and was the inaugural president of the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network, expanding its sphere of influence internationally.