Our Changing World

Thursday 3 November 2011, with Alison Ballance, Ruth Beran & Veronika Meduna

Audio from Thursday 3 November 2011

Not all audio is available due to copyright restrictions.

  • Bioplastics ( 23′ 11″ )

    21:06 Scion scientist Jeremy Warnes introduces plastics made from biological materials, including wood

  • Nature's Catalysts ( 12′ 44″ )

    21:20 University of Canterbury chemist Emily Parker explores the role of enzymes in biological reactions

  • Predicting Volcanoes ( 12′ 37″ )

    21:34 Volcanologist Gill Jolly explains how data from a volcano monitoring network help forecast volcanic activity

  • Magnetic Nanoparticles ( 15′ 05″ )

    21:46 Scientists are working on iron magnetic nanoparticles which could improve contrast in MRI images and be used in cancer therapy

On This Programme

Wood Plastic

Wood plastic

Jeremy Warnes showing off various wood-plastic products including fan blades, cosmetics pottles, chair arm rests and Zespri's 'spifes' for eating kiwifruit, made from kiwifruit waste (image: A. Ballance)

Crown Research Institute Scion knows a lot about wood – and increasingly they known a lot about plastics, and ways of combining wood with plastic. Bioplastic is made from renewable natural sources rather than petrochemicals, but wood is compatable with both kinds of plastics, and even with nylon. Jeremy Warnes shows Alison Ballance the plastics and extrusion lab at Scion, which is a small pilot plant, and introduces her to some of the products they have been involved in, ranging from sanding discs to cosmetic pottles. He explains how Scion has developed a technique that pelletises wood in such a way that it can used along with polypropylene pellets in existing plastics machinery, and talks about the advantages of combining wood with plastic.

Wonderful World of Enzymes

emily parker s team

Emily Parker, right, with some members of her team, Sarah Wilson-Cooks, left, and Tammie Cookson, centre. (image: V Meduna)

Enzymes are Nature’s own catalysts, responsible for making biological reactions happen at a rate that can support life.  Recent developments in technology have allowed scientists to describe the three-dimensional structure and sequence of amino-acid building blocks of these complex proteins in such detail that is has become possible to unlock the secrets of how they work.

University of Canterbury chemist Emily Parker leads a team that uses chemical and biochemical techniques to explore the evolution and molecular mechanisms of enzymatic catalysis. In this preview of her Marie Curie lecture next week, she discusses how this knowledge can be used to design new enzymes and to selectively target pathogenic microbes. Emily will present her lecture about the Wonderful World of Enzymes on Wednesday, November 9, at 6.30pm, at the Auckland Museum auditorium.

University of Auckland chemist Cather Simpson will also present a Marie Curie lecture next week, on Tuesday November 8, at 7.30pm, in the University of Canterbury’s law building. Her talk, The Light Fantastic, explores the different uses of light energy, from the generation of electricity to heat production and even the treatment of cancer. Our Changing World spoke to Cather earlier this year and you can listen to the interview about Molecular Dragons here.

These two lectures are the last in the Marie Curie lecture series, a year-long national tour of talks by female New Zealand chemists in honour of Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her ground-breaking studies in radium and polonium.

Volcano Research

Gill Jolly, head of volcanology at GNS Science talks to Alison Ballance about her research into volcanoes and eruption predictions, the role of Geonet in collecting all the volcanic hazard monitoring information from around New Zealand, the volcano alert system on Mt Ruapehu and working on active volcanoes in Vanuatu.

Magnetic Nanoparticles

Magnetic nanoparticles Peter Ferguson crop

Peter Ferguson in the lab (image: VUW)

Magnetic resonance imaging or MRI uses a powerful magnetic field to create detailed images inside the body. Contrast agents made from magnetic materials can improve the resolution of these images, and the more magnetic the material, the better the contrast.

PhD candidate Peter Ferguson has been looking at iron (Fe) nanoparticles as a source for new contrast agents. Current contrast agents are often gadolinium (Gd)-based which can have biocompatability problems, or use iron oxide (FeOx), which is not as magnetic as iron itself. The magnetic nanoparticles may one day be used in cancer therapy, for example, they could be used in conjunction with cancer vaccines to ensure that a patient’s own white blood cells are actually creating an immune response, or in a process called magnetic hyperthermia, where an alternating magnetic field (AMF) is used to "flip" the poles of the magnetic nanoparticles to create heat, and hopefully kill tumour cells. Ruth Beran spoke with Peter Ferguson, and one of his PhD supervisors Richard Tilley from Victoria University, in a laboratory at the Malaghan Institute.

The magnetic nanoparticles research is funded by the Foundation of Research Science and Technology, the MacDiarmid Institute, the Wellington Medical Research Foundation, and the Health Research Council. Collaborators on the project include the Malaghan Institute’s Ian Hermans (who also co-supervised Peter Ferguson's PhD); Victoria University’s Soshan Cheong and Dave Herman; the MacDiarmid Institute’s Kirk Feindel, Mark Hunter and Paul Callaghan; and Angela Slocombe at the radiology department of Wellington Hospital.

Magenetic Iron nanoparticles

A transmission electron microscopy (TEM) image showing the iron nanoparticles (Fe NPs) (left) compared to iron oxide nanoparticles (FeOx NPs) (right). (image: Soshan Cheong, MacDiarmid Institute)

New RSNZ Fellows

Twelve top New Zealand basic and applied science and humanities researchers have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand this week. In addition, the society also elected Donna Eberhart-Phillips, a seismologist at the University of California, Davis, as an Honorary Fellow.

Scott’s Last Journey

terra nova hut

A hundred years ago this week, Robert Falcon Scott set off from his hut at Cape Evans, pictured above, on his journey to the South Pole.

He was well aware of his rival by that stage, and wrote in his diary in October 1911 that he was unsure what to think of Amundsen’s chances. “If he gets to the Pole, it must be before we do, as he is bound to travel fast with dogs and pretty certain to start early. On this account I decided at a very early date to act exactly as I should have done had he not existed. Any attempt to race must have wrecked my plan, besides which it doesn’t appear the sort of thing one is out for.”

Scott’s party departed on November 1, 1911, with ponies in tow, including the “little devil Christopher” whom Oates had to hold with all his might just to get him harnessed. A day earlier Scott had written that his diary now began the “first chapter of our history. The future is in the lap of the gods; I can think of nothing left undone to deserve success.”

The team’s first task was to cross The Barrier, as the Ross Sea Ice Shelf was known then. By Sunday, November 5, 1911, they reached camp 3, where Scott found a note from Evans, who had been travelling with a motor and had to abandon it when one cylinder cracked. The motor party proceeded as a man-hauling party instead, as it had been agreed beforehand. However, Scott was pleased wit the performance of the ponies. “We are all much cheered by this performance. It shows a hardening up of ponies which have been well trained; even Oates is pleased!”

oates bunk

The tenements: Oates' bunk is easily identified by the horse tack.  (images: V Meduna)

Our Changing World will track Scott's journey, first once a month and then week by week as his party reaches the Polar Plateau, to mark the centenary of the discovery of the South Pole.

Next Week

Extremophile geothermal microbes, Auckland volcanoes, science story telling, and a field trip to a greenhouse gas monitoring station at Barig Head.