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Category Archives: Science

Science news and research from Australian universities

Controlling fear by modifying DNA

Controlling fear by modifying DNA

For many people, fear of flying or of spiders skittering across the lounge room floor is more than just a momentary increase in heart rate and a pair of sweaty palms.

It’s a hard-core phobia that can lead to crippling anxiety, but an international team of researchers, including neuroscientists from The University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), may have found a way to silence the gene that feeds this fear.

QBI senior research fellow Dr Timothy Bredy said the team had shed new light on the processes involved in loosening the grip of fear-related memories, particularly those implicated in conditions such as phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr Bredy said they had discovered a novel mechanism of gene regulation associated with fear extinction, an inhibitory learning process thought to be critical for controlling fear when the response was no longer required.

“Rather than being static, the way genes function is incredibly dynamic and can be altered by our daily life experiences, with emotionally relevant events having a pronounced impact,” Dr Bredy said.

He said that by understanding the fundamental relationship between the way in which DNA functions without a change in the underlying sequence, future targets for therapeutic intervention in fear-related anxiety disorders could be developed.

“This may be achieved through the selective enhancement of memory for fear extinction by targeting genes that are subject to this novel mode of epigenetic regulation,” he said.

Mr Xiang Li, a PhD candidate and the study’s lead author, said fear extinction was a clear example of rapid behavioural adaptation, and that impairments in this process were critically involved in the development of fear-related anxiety disorders.

“What is most exciting is that we have revealed an epigenetic state that appears to be quite specific for fear extinction,” Mr Li said.

Dr Bredy said this was the first comprehensive analysis of how fear extinction was influenced by modifying DNA.

“It highlights the adaptive significance of experience-dependent changes in the chromatin landscape in the adult brain,” he said.

The collaborative research is being done by a team from QBI, the University of California, Irvine, and Harvard University.

The study was published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Media: Dr Timothy Bredy, +61 7 3346 6391,

Great Barrier Reef coral cores reveal 2011 flood damage

Scientists have gained new insight into the damage done to coral in the Southern Great Barrier Reef by river run-off caused by intense weather events like the 2011 floods. Core samples obtained from corals around the Keppel Islands reveals the way flood plumes from Queensland’s Fitzroy River catchment have impacted reefs as far as 50kmContinue Reading

Local dig uncovers new species of ancient fish

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) working on the New South Wales south coast have discovered a new species of ancient fish, after unearthing the largest fossilised lobe-finned fish skull ever found in rocks of Devonian age. The descendants of these ancient fish evolved into the first land animals. Dr Gavin Young from theContinue Reading

Is eye size related to genetics or environment?

Researchers at The University of Western Australia in collaboration with the University of Queensland and the Australian Museum are trying to understand how fish see at depths. In the deep sea, and particularly between 200m and 1km, eyes need to adapt to see in dark conditions and to see bioluminescence, a type of light emittedContinue Reading

Major asteroid impact discovered in Central Australia

Research from The Australian National University (ANU) has identified one of the most extensive asteroid impact zones on Earth. The discovery comes in the lead-up to the passing of a 45-meter-wide asteroid very close to Earth this weekend. Located in northeast South Australia, the East Warburton Basin contains evidence of a 30,000-square kilometre shock-metamorphosed terrainContinue Reading

Global warming could corrode shallow reefs sooner

Shallow coral reefs may be even more susceptible to increasing acidity caused by heightened levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans than previously recognised. In the same way that small increases in global temperature can lead to more extremely hot, record-breaking days, new research reveals small increases in overall ocean acidity can leadContinue Reading

Water-saving’s unintended consequences

Water-saving’s unintended consequences

Water conservation has unintended consequences for residents and water managers, according to new research. Victoria University PhD student Nyoman Marleni found reducing and replacing potable water lead to smellier sewers and more corrosion in sewer pipes. Everybody talks about the benefits of water saving measures but it’s important to remember the same amount of wasteContinue Reading

Man in the moon tunes into Earth’s radio

Man in the moon tunes into Earth’s radio

If you ever thought what happens on Earth stays on Earth, think again. Astronomers have now reported that we are sending more signals into space than we know, and we might not be the only ones in the Universe listening in. PhD researcher Mr Ben McKinley from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and AstrophysicsContinue Reading

New neighbours? Closest single Sun-like star may have habitable planet

New neighbours? Closest single Sun-like star may have habitable planet

One of the closest stars to Earth, Tau Ceti, may host five planets – with one in the star’s habitable zone  - an international team of astronomers has discovered. Only 12 light years away, Tau Ceti is the closest single star that  astronomers consider to be like our Sun. It is visible with the nakedContinue Reading

Everyone loves a falling slinky

Everyone loves a falling slinky

If a slinky is not at the top of your Christmas list you might want to think again. Making a slinky walk down steps or draping it over your arm to imitate a robot is fun but the coiled spring toy hides a more intriguing capability. “Hold a slinky by its top and let itContinue Reading

Supramolecules spin promises for future

Microscopic particles that can be made to switch their magnetic state could mean computers of the future will be able to store much more data in much less space. A family of supramolecules that possess this “spin crossover” capacity, along with some other interesting attributes, have attracted the attention of Professor Stuart Batten of the School of Chemistryat MonashContinue Reading

Sea level rise impacting NT’s unique river systems

Sea level rise impacting NT’s unique river systems

Charles Darwin University researchers are modelling the possible future impacts of sea-level rise on some of the Northern Territory’s iconic river systems. CDU Water Resources Engineer Mike Miloshis said the rivers of the Top End were at risk from saline intrusion due to sea-level rise, which is believed to be caused by an increase inContinue Reading

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