10 best Sydney science discoveries 2017

From squirtable surgical glue to gravitational waves, University of Sydney scientists have been hitting the headlines in 2017.

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. 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.

3. Neutron stars collide

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."

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. ’Bin chickens’ like to carb load

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.

8. Ferals a big threat in the bush

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.

9. Coffee + nap = zip!

Associate Professor Chin Moi Chow  has been reviewing the relationship between sleep and caffeine and says that  combining the two can give people an extra zing during the day.

She says that while coffee naps will power you for a couple of hours, they’re not the best way to pay back your sleep debt.

Getting  enough sleep  on most days is a better solution for alertness, performance and productivity. That’s because sleeping is vital for a range of  brain and body functions.

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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