Misplaced outrage

So, the latest thing politicians are outraged about is the improper choice of entertainment at the Canberra Climate Change forum: a troupe of burlesque dancers stripping (only to their underwear; no nudity). The federal Environment Department and the Bureau of Rural Sciences have withdrawn their funding to the event in a beautiful gesture of censorship.

Here’s the organisers’ apology: “In retrospect the choice of entertainment was inappropriate for the occasion. We understand if the sponsors wish to withdraw.” Yes to the first sentence. No to the second.

The choice of entertainment was not merely inappropriate; it was downright stupid. But put it in context: this was forum about climate change, something that we, the citizens of the world (per capita, Australia is particularly guilty) are causing. Climate change is destroying our planet and the Australian government won’t ratify Kyoto. That is an outrage, not a few students taking some clothes off to a point that’s perfectly acceptable at the beach.

This is not a new point. Milos Forman’s biopic, The People vs Larry Flynt, the same point is made about war. Conservative (not necessarily political) types are far more outraged by anything of a sexual nature than they are about injustice. The fuss made about prostitution and pornography, if it will be made, should be secondary to the fuss made about environment and human rights. (As long as it’s not prostitution or porn that’s violating human rights, such as child pornography. That goes without saying.)

Sex sells and it’s always going to be more interesting than “boring” conservation issues. But if conservation doesn’t come first, there might not be anyone selling anything one day.


There were two prominent deaths today here in Australia.
Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter: the loud, boisterous champion of wildlife was killed by a sting ray barb in Queensland. Irwin’s death is tragic: a man “in his prime” killed in a freak accident, leaving behind a wife and two small children. But the nation is feeling this loss too. On MSN’s instant messenger program, people are adding (tu), which codes for a turtle symbol, to their names in his honour. Steve Irwin was a proud ambassador for Australia’s wildlife and did more for conservation than many less interesting, noble organisations. The environment needs more heroes like him.

Of slightly less note (judging by the hits on Google News, at least) is the death of a fine Australian author, Colin Thiele. Thiele was a master of his craft, best known for Storm Boy and The Water Trolley. When I was in Grade Five we studied Storm Boy and the short stories published with it. I cried through Storm Boy and laughed through The Lockout. But the story that affected me the most was The Shell. It’s been a long time since I read it, but if I remember correctly, the story was about a family who go down to the beach. The mother wants a beautiful shell that she can see, and she gets it, but her husband and son are swept out to sea. It was the first time I saw nature as something powerful impossible to bend to human will; fascinating and terrifying. Thiele obviously had a great respect for nature that was totally different from Irwin’s, but in the end, sadly, Irwin proved Thiele’s point.

The world we live in can be frightening and mysterious but I think that approaching it with Irwin’s enthusiasm is important. There are forces in nature that can overwhelm us, but there are also delicate and vulnerable aspects, and they need to be protected.

Agricultural revolution

Nationals Senator Ron Boswell recently dissed CSIRO for cutting funding to rural industry research by 5%.

(On a petty note, I’m wondering what the difference between the “livestock and wool industry”. Aren’t sheep livestock? But that’s not really the point…)

I agree with him that there should be more research funding, not less, dedicated to renewable resources. But I feel it’s a little incongruous to call for more research into agriculture as it currently exists in Australia at the same time as preaching about renewable resources. There aren’t many crops in Australia that are actually suitable to our arid climate. Cattle and sheep die in the drought; farms require subsidies for water and nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers to be economically viable; and many crops grown in Australia (such as cotton and rice) are extremely water-thirsty.

As mentioned in a post last year, Professor Michael Archer (Dean of Science, UNSW) is a fan of harnessing native flora and fauna for economic gain, rather than continuing to pound our unique environment with European crops. He goes into great detail in his book Going Native (co-written with Bob Beale, ISBN 0733615228). From kangaroo meat (despite some unresolved issues) to native grains as crops (kurrajong and several wattle species are just a few examples), agriculture in Australia needs to change.

So maybe Boswell is right and agriculture does need more research funding. It just shouldn’t focus on maintaining the status quo — we need an agricultural revolution.

Roo burger, anyone?

I just got home from an interesting panel put on by the ASC. Here’s my write-up…

First up was Mike Archer, palaeontologist and Dean of UNSW’s Faculty of Science.

According to Professor Archer, we need 1.5 million square kilometres of land to be set aside for conservation if we want to ensure the healthy evolution of species. Since it’s hardly practical to kick people off that much land to create national parks, instead we need to convince them that it’s worth their while.

There have been interviews with farmers about the drought; in the background are dead cows… and bouncy kangaroos. Being native, they’re adapted to this habitat. Most farmers see kangaroos as competition for their cattle, so they have no interest in preserving them or their habitat (which houses many other species). Bribing these graziers won’t help the situation, it’s not reliable as it’s too easy to cheat that kind of system. There needs to be something inherent about that habitat itself that makes farmers want to look after it.

There are 200 million years of evolutionary distance between humans and kangaroos, which means that we don’t have many diseases in common. The only disease we can catch from kangaroos is toxoplasmosis, which we’re more likely to catch from cats, and which kills marsupials.

Basically, it’s all about sustainable use; just one way of practically conserving the environment.

The next speaker was John Kelly, spokesman for the Kangaroo Industry Association and an exporter of kangaroo meat.

According to Kelly, kangaroo has been the red meat of choice for 40 000 years; there’s just been a 100-year hiccup in its popularity. There are many advantages to eating roo meat. It’s low in “bad” fats and contains some “good” fats, has a wild, gamey taste, and good environmental credentials.

Sustainable kangaroo harvesting can prevent then from becoming over-populated and therefore over-grazing an area. For the past 30 years, kangaroo harvesting has been carefuly monitored and no negative effects on ecology have been observed. The RSPCA and the Australia Veterinary Association agree that an animal killed instantly in its own habitat is under much less stress than an animal that’s penned, starved, and then taken to place that smells of death to die. Roo harvesting also provides jobs and revenue to remote rural communities.

Next up was Ron Hacker, Chair of the Department of Agriculture.

He said that kangaroo populations have increase significantly since while settlement, especially in sheep farming areas, because of increased water supplies and removal of dingos.

Commercial harvesting doesn’t always help sustainable farming: it ceases to be commercially viable before reaching population levels that are found in drought conditions. This makes it a renewable resource that should be managed to suit everyone.

Then there were questions

What cuts sell the best?
The same as for beef, it is used for steaks and manufacturing, works well for salamis (but needs fat added). The tails are used in Korea, where it’s believed that one can acquire qualities from eating certain foods. The tail is believed to give the kangaroo its stamina.

What about conservation of the species?
There are seven main species of macropod. Of theses, the Western grey, the Eastern grey, the red and the wallaroo are abundant. It’s all about supply and demand: people don’t have the tradition to eat roo, but there’s also limited supply because of limited quotas of what can be harvested.

What’s to guarantee that kangaroo hunting won’t go the way that fishing and whaling has?
There is much less known about marine ecology compared to kangaroo ecology. We know a lot about them: their numbers are estimated annually, so the sustainable level of hunting them can be determined much more easily.

Many of the opponents of kangaroo harvesting (eg VIVA and PETA) have an agenda about all animals and don’t want any animals to be eaten or kept as pets. They’re moving towards being terrorist groups. They feed the idea that all wildlife is endangered, so we shouldn’t interact with it.

* * *

I’m not sure what I think of all this. I won’t eat roo meat regardless, as it’s not kosher. But I’d like to have a position. I suppose that I support them in theory, at least, but I’d like to know how likely hunters are to shoot a rare macropod species by mistake, and who’s really done this research. Because if it’s someone with a vested interest, it’s definitely fishy. And some of the things they said contradicted other statements: they said that they would be over-supplying if they harvested enough to bring populations down to drought levels, but also that the quotas limit their supply. So, the jury’s still out.

From Village Healer to Scientist: The History of Natural Product Chemistry

This article was originally published in OnSET.

(Note: for definitions of bolded terms, see glossary below)

Whether we are aware of them or not, natural products are ubiquitous in our lives. Many pharmaceuticals, pesticides and herbicides, food additives, and even some plastics are natural products, or derived from them. So what exactly are natural products?

Although in theory the term could be used to describe any substance derived from a microorganism, plant or animal, it is usually confined to describing secondary metabolites (Cannell, 1998). Natural products have recently become big business, but people have used them since ancient times.

Natural products in ancient times

Early cultures used specific products to cure specific diseases. Chances are that the ancient Egyptians had no idea that the Vitamin A in ox liver was what cured nyctalopia, but liver was used as a cure for this disease. In ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and other countries, a wide variety of plants, animal products and even stones were used as treatments for various ailments. These cures were discovered by trial and error (Porter, 1997).

As early as 800 AD, the Benedictine monks were using many natural medicines, including the poppy (Papaver somniferum), which was used to alleviate pain as well as an anaesthetic. The active ingredient, morphine, was only extracted in 1806… almost 1000 years later. It was marketed by Merck in 1826. Many other natural products such as quinine, which was the only effective anti-malarial at the time, were also isolated in the nineteenth century (Grabley & Thiericke, 1999). However, these drugs were also characterised largely by random experimentation, and many other structures could not be isolated until much later.

Natural products in the twentieth century

The trial and error method of discovering new medicines continued into the twentieth century. Alexander Fleming, the British microbiologist who discovered the effects of some fungi on bacteria, essentially made his discovery by being careless and not practicing aseptic technique. He left a Petri dish of Staphylococcus aureus open when he went on a holiday. It was accidentally contaminated with Penicillium notatum¸ which inhibited the growth of the bacteria, apparently by excreting an antibacterial substance. Chemists Earnest Chain, his Australian co-worker, Howard Florey, and their team later purified penicillin and conducted animal and human trials with it, bringing it to the market in 1941 (The Nobel e-Museum, 2003).

Many secondary metabolites that were discovered after penicillin in the 1940s and 1950s were effective antibiotics but too toxic for human use. Some of these were usefully administered to animals. In the 1960s-70s, research turned to improving yields of existing biopharmaceuticals, as well as chemically altering them to reduce their side effects or improve their activity against micro-organisms (Grabley & Thiericke, 1999).

As a result, over 73 different variations of the beta-lactam antibiotics (including penicillin and cephalosporins) are available. Of these, 40 varieties are used to treat human disease in hospitals. The prevalence of beta-lactam antibiotics, coupled with the ease with which bacteria can mutate and share genetic information, has led to widespread resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics. A famous example of antibiotic resistance in bacteria is that of Staphylococcus aureus. Golden Staph, as it is commonly known, causes many problems in hospitals where bacterial infection spreads rapidly and patients may be more susceptible to disease than they are usually (Therrien & Levesque, 2000).

Natural products today

More recently, the competitive nature of the pharmaceutical industry in particular has brought natural product chemistry to a crossroads. Developing new drugs is profitable, and the pharmaceutical industry is constantly growing. New innovations such as High Throughput Screening (HTS), which involves automated, miniaturised assay techniques, have made it much easier to determine the potential uses of a new compound. State-of-the-art HTS machines can test up to 10,000 compounds in one week, a big improvement on the 10,000 per year that were tested in the mid-80s (Grabley & Thiericke, 1999).

These developments are fantastic both for the pharmaceutical industry and the consumer. However, the natural product industry is finding it difficult to keep up with the demand for new compounds to test. This is pushing the industry further, as marine biologists, microbiologists, ecologists, biotechnologists, biochemists and chemists team up to find new organisms with novel compounds, mainly from previously untested environments (Grabley & Thiericke, 1999). Advances in biotechnology mean that it is no longer necessary to collect large amounts of environmental samples in order to test for a new pharmaceutical. Rather, the sample is cultured in the laboratory where biotechnologists can create a clone library. The gene responsible for the production of the natural product of interest can then be isolated more easily, and the natural product itself can be produced in Escherichia coli (Lodish et al, 2000).

Ultimately though, natural product chemistry is still waiting for a breakthrough that will bring discovery of new compounds up to speed with the discovery of potential uses for these compounds.


Antibiotics: secondary metabolites that either kill microbes or hamper their growth.

Aseptic technique: maintaining sterility and avoiding contamination of laboratory instruments and microbial cultures.

Biopharmaceuticals: Medicines that are made from compounds produced by living organisms, such as penicillin.

Clone library: an organism’s DNA is fragmented and copied into a laboratory organism such as E. coli, allowing for easier analysis of the original organism’s genes and metabolism.

High Throughput Screening (HTS): robotic and computerised methods of testing samples and analysing data, which allow many samples to be tested in a short amount of time.

Nyctalopia: night blindness, the inability to see clearly in dim light.

Secondary metabolites: compounds produced by an organism that are not essential for its survival but may be useful to the organism.


  • Cannell RJP (ed). (1998) Natural products isolation. Humana Press, Totowa, N.J.
  • Grabley S, Thiericke R (eds.) (1999) Drug discovery from nature. Springer, Berlin.
  • Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky L, et al (2000) Molecular Cell Biology (4th Ed) WH Freeman and Company, New York.
  • The Nobel e-Museum (2003). The Discovery of Penicillin. Available at: http://www.nobel.se/medicine/educational/penicillin/ (accessed Jul 05).
  • Porter, R. (1997) The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  • Therrien C, Levesque RC (2000) Molecular basis of antibiotic resistance and -lactamase inhibition by mechanism-based inactivators: perspectives and future directions. FEMS Microbiology Reviews 24: 251-262