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Science Media Centre Briefing

Science Media Centre Briefing

Issue 147 August 26 - September 1

In This Issue

Suicide stats

Chinese Medicine

Obesity rising

New from the SMC

Sciblogs highlights

Research highlights

Policy updates

Sci-tech events

Quick Links

SMC Alerts Briefings Calendar

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Salmon study stirs up Canadians New research by a New Zealand biologist has caused a splash in Canada but has barely made a ripple here.

Dr Martin Krkosek, from Otago Univeristy, and Canadian colleagues, analysed data from wild and farmed salmon in British Columbia and found that when salmon farms had high levels of parasitic sea lice, wild populations also suffered.

The study was published this week in the international journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Krkosek told the SMC, "When the parasite numbers on farmed salmon are high, the wild salmon stocks that share those waters tend to decline. Although salmon farmers can use medications to protect their own fish from parasites, it appears they may need even stronger controls in order to protect their wild neighbours."

The results refute earlier research which suggested salmon farms had no impact on wild populations. The study also comes at a critical time for salmon fishing and farming in Canada, as a government appointed group - the Cohen Commission - is currently investigating the decline of salmon in the Fraser river in British Columbia.

Krkosek's study has stoked the debate between environmental and commercial salmon interests in Canada and the US and has been the subject of overseas media coverage. Here in New Zealand, however, the study has largely gone unnoticed. Krkosek acknowledged that Canada may have more of a stake in salmon than New Zealand,

"I think this is unlikely to be a problem in NZ salmon aquaculture at present because operations here are relatively small-scale and have high environmental performance. However, it is worth noting that time and again disease has emerged as a fundamental problem in aquaculture as industries expand.

"As we have seen with salmon and sea lice, this can create problems for not only the fish being raised in an aquaculture farm but also for wild fish that inhabit the surrounding waters There are lessons to be learned here for the future of aquaculture development in NZ, which is a future growth area."

NZ suicide rate remains flat An unprecedented release of statistics on suicide from the Chief Coroner shows suicides increased by just 0.3 per cent in the last year, compared to 2007 - 2008.

A study that specifically looked at suicide in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes found that there was in fact a small decrease in suicides after last September's major quake.

Overall, the data gathered from the Ministry of Justice records, shows the suicide rate has risen from 540 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007-2008 to 558 in 2010-2011.

The Chief Coroner, Judge Neil MacLean, said that:

- Men are three times more likely to commit suicide then women - Most at-risk age groups include 15-29 year olds and 45-54 year olds - Maori have the highest rate of suicide - Hanging, strangulation and suffocation accounting for more than half of all deaths.

Last week it was revealed in a Mental Health Commission report, that New Zealand has the highest female youth suicide rate in the OECD. However Judge McLean cautioned against comparing New Zealand to other countries that may have accurate data on suicide.

On the science radar

Anti-bacterial beetles, sexy seals, hungry black holes, ancient daddy-long-legs, antenna-wear, diamond planets and a universal gas shortage.

RSNZ weighs in on traditional medicine The Royal Society of New Zealand has recommended that the practice of traditional Chinese medicine be regulated.

Chinese medicine can include herbal medicine, acupuncture and massage therapy and is commonly practiced in New Zealand. However, there is little in the way of peer-reviewed literature to back up many of these traditional medicinal treatments, a point the RSNZ has seized on in making its call for tighter controls.

In a submission to a Ministry of Health request for feedback it recommended that the practice of traditional Chinese medicine become a regulated profession under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003.

"Regulation of TCM will ensure that all TCM practitioners are aware of the limitation of their service, and to know when to refer clients to another health service if necessary," it wrote in a submission that included a small survey of attitudes to traditional Chinese medicine undertaken by research psychologist and RSNZ member, Dr Marian Mare.

However the suggestion that traditional medicine practitioners be treated as legitimate health service providers - as they are in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, has drawn criticism from prominent US science blogger PZ Meyers:

"It apparently doesn't matter whether [TCM] works or not, and the fact that it can cause harm was actually used to support endorsing it in a fine piece of topsy-turvy logic," he wrote on his Pharyngula blog, which is the most well-read popular science blog in the world attracting 40,000 readers per day.

The Royal Society noted in its submission that there was "potential harm" from the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

"It is possible that an occult fracture is missed in a client consulting a TCM practitioner for foot pain, or early meningococcal disease overlooked in a client with fevers and general malaise."

Four decades of rising obesity The impact of the global 'obesity epidemic' has been highlighted by health professionals in a top medical journal.

The Lancet 'special series', on obesity comprised of several international papers was published this afternoon in the leading medical journal.

The latest research details the extent of obesity over the last 40 years on a global scale, with around 1.5 billion adults now classed as overweight and a further 0.5 billion as obese. Disturbingly 170 million children are classified as overweight or obese. In places like Western Australia and the US, obesity has overtaken tobacco as the largest preventable cause of disease.

In the series researchers call for government-level action, demanding policies that would slow the literal growth of the obese population. Recommendations include banning the marketing of some foods to children and pushing for healthier product formulations. While some countries are doing better than others, the authors state, "no country can act as a public health exemplar for reduction of obesity and type 2 diabetes."

They also note that, as UN Member States gather in September for the first ever UN High-Level Meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), "the inexorable global rise of obesity will be the toughest challenge that they face."

The UK SMC held a media breifing on the Lancet Series with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, Deakin University, Melbourne. Audio and slides available.

Quoted: New Zealand Herald

"The combination of bright people, a strong base of research and development activity, and a diverse and innovative "eco-system" which can create the conditions where niches are found and opportunities for value creation and capture are exploited, is a winning formula."

Owen Glenn, Busnessman

New from the SMC

In the News:

Climate change and the cold: Writing in the Dominion Post Weekend paper, Michael Forbes looks at the connections between the recent chilly weather and climate change.

Quake focus at psych conference: Trauma and the resilience of Cantabrians in the wake of earthquakes has been the focus of reporting on research presented at a psychology conference in Queenstown this week.

Antarctic research freeze:
New Zealand's Antarctic research body has put several projects on hold due to budget limitations and logistical problems, write Paul Gorman for the Press. Reflections on science:

Sowing the seeds for real growth: In the New Zealand Herald, businessman and philanthropist Owen Glenn writes about getting the most out of innovation in Kiwi agricultural research.
Experts Respond:

Salmon study stirs Canadians: Research led by a New Zealand scientist has shown that salmon farming in Canada may be having a negative impact on wild populations due to the spread of parasites. Biologist Martin Krkosek explains his research and why it matters. Aus SMC:

Briefing: Modified mosquitoes combat dengue fever: Australian researchers have announced the results of their work into modifying and releasing mosquitoes to combat dengue fever. Scientists explain how they modified the mosquitoes and what happened when they released them into the community in Cairns.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts include:

Thinking Old-Style Big - Solid Energy is looking to go big with coal in NZ - really big. But Bryan Walker isn't so sure bigger is better. Hot Topic

Momentum conservation - Marcus Wilson dodges billiard balls and car crashes to give some alternative physics analogies.
Physics Stop

Snow doesn't stop hydrologists - Despite the atrocious weather last week, water scientists (and citizens) were out and about dutifully recording data, notes Daniel Collins.

Weekend Nanotech: Snot-light? - Elf Eldrige highlight an interesting source of novel LED components - mucus.
Just So Science

Not Darwin's tree of life - Anyone attributing the 'Tree of Life' to Charles Darwin is barking up the wrong theory. Grant Jacobs explains.
Code for Life

Research highlights
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

How many species exist? A daunting question, but one that scientists have to tackle, and the latest answer is eight million, seven hundred thousand species (give or take 1.3 million). That is a new, estimated total number of species on Earth -- the most precise calculation ever offered -- with 65 million species found on land and 2.2 million in the ocean. Announced by Census of Marine Life scientists, the figure is based on an innovative, validated analytical technique that dramatically narrows the range of previous estimates.
PLoS Biology

Human gait could power cellphones: Novel energy-harvesting technology which uses a process called "reverse electrowetting" could drastically change the face of portable electronics. Mechanical energy is converted to electrical energy by using a micro-fluidic device consisting of thousands of liquid micro-droplets interacting with a novel nano-structured substrate. This technology could enable a novel footwear-embedded energy harvester that captures energy produced by humans during walking to be used to power mobile electronic devices.
Nature Communications

Beer yeast hunted down: Researchers have uncovered the long-mysterious genetic identity of a species of yeast commonly used to brew lager beer. Researchers used molecular techniques to scour the Southern beech woodlands of Northwestern Patagonia, home to many yeast species, and found the forebear to an unusual hybrid strain of ale yeast, which they dubbed Saccharomyces eubayanus. The authors say their findings "illuminate the role that fermented beverages have played in human civilization and provide new strategies for improving yeasts for brewing and biofuel production."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Climate cycle linked to conflict: In the first study of its kind, researchers have linked a natural global climate cycle to periodic increases in warfare. The arrival of El Niño, which every three to seven years boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall, doubles the risk of civil wars across 90 affected tropical countries, and may help account for a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, say the authors. The research has important implications for the future if a predicted rise in global temperature does occur.

Ancient cross-breeding improved our immune system: Some modern humans may have their ancient ancestors to thank for the robust immune systems that they enjoy today. According to a new study, it's likely that some breeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals first introduced forms of the HLA genes, famous for their roles in immune defense, into the human genome. Scientist performed population genetic studies to trace the path of various combinations of such genes over the course of early human history.

Gene therapy success: Nine years after treatment, gene therapy has kept a rare immune disorder in check, report two new studies in a small group of children. Children with severe combined immunodeficiency - or SCID - lack virtually all immune protection from microbes. Gene therapy offers a way to avoid these pitfalls by taking out blood cells from SCID patients, genetically fixing a defect in these cells, and returning the repaired cells to patients. Researchers now report successful treatment of a majority of patients with SCID. A related perspective article discusses the history of gene therapy trials for SCID.
Science Translational Medicine

Policy updates

Some of the highlights of this week's policy news:

MAF - Fisheries merger conformed- The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry will merge with the Ministry of Fisheries, saving more than $18 million in the coming financial year, but also resulting in job cuts.

Alcohol expert forum planned - Justice Minister Simon Power announced that cabinet has agreed to establish an expert forum to consider the effectiveness of further restrictions on advertising and sponsorship to reduce alcohol-related harm.

EEZ bill introduced - The Government has introduced legislation to manage the environmental effects of activities in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) and announced interim measures to manage the environmental effects of activities before the new law is passed.

West coast reserves - Five new marine reserves, including the two largest in mainland New Zealand, are to be established on the South Island's West Coast, were announced by the Ministers of Conservation and Fisheries. The new reserves are Kahurangi, Punakaiki, Okarito, Gorge and a small educational site at Ship Creek near Haast, totalling 17,528ha combined.

UFB update - The government's Ultra Fast Broadband initiative (UFB) will see fibre rolled out to more than 50,000 premises around New Zealand in the next twelve months including schools, hospitals and businesses, according to the Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

Upcoming sci-tech events New Zealand Association for Behaviour Analysis Conference - 26-28 August, Hamilton. Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research 2011 - 27 August - 31 September, Queenstown. Queenstown Molecular Biology Meeting - 29-31 August, Queenstown. Cutting Edge 2011- National Addiction Treatment Conference - 1-3 September, Auckland Public Health Association Conference - 31 August - 2 September, Christchurch. Managing pests: The future of biocontrol - 1st Bio-Protection Symposium - 31 August, Christchurch. 3rd Combined Australian and New Zealand Entomological Societies Conference - 28 August - 1 September, Christchurch For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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