NCRIS case studies illustrate the real-life outcomes of research conducted at NCRIS facilities, and demonstrate the social and economic return from the Government’s investment in national research infrastructure.
Table of contents
A connected COVID-19 Response
The connectedness of the NCRIS network ensures Australia is prepared in a crisis. In 2020, many projects pivoted to support Australian and international COVID-19 research in a wide variety of ways. This included growing virus samples, developing and testing vaccines, improving diagnostics and treatments, manufacturing critical supplies, and supporting the research sector through the disruption the pandemic caused.
Mango farmers supported by data
Timing is everything to Australian mango farmers. The Australian Research Data Commons NCRIS project supported researchers from Central Queensland University to develop an innovative product called FruitMaps, which translates data from sensors located in mango farms to help farmers better estimate the size of their crops and the best time for harvesting. This lets them to employ the optimal number of pickers and packers at the ideal time.
World-first discovery of the genetic cause of Lupus
In a world first, researchers using NCRIS project Phenomics Australia’s Genome Engineering services have shown that previously ignored rare genetic mutations are a major cause of lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that targets the body's healthy tissue, causing significant damage, inflammation and pain. Lupus currently has no cure. The finding makes way for life-saving personalised treatment for lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
Bilingual environmental tracking through the Tracks App
Indigenous rangers from the Central Land Council (CLC) in the Northern Territory can now track threatened species in both English and Warlpiri using the Tracks App, a comprehensive data collection, storage and management system supported by the Atlas of Living Australia NCRIS project. It was first used during the “Bilby Blitz”, a data collection which informed one of the first national threatened species plans developed using significant input from Aboriginal people.
Turning spinifex grass into high-end materials
Australian spinifex grass has some very useful properties at the cellular level – including that the cells themselves are very long and thin. The Australian National Fabrication Facility and Microscopy Australia NCRIS projects are supporting The University of Queensland and Dugalinji Aboriginal Corporation as they commercialise this research discovery into an Australian advanced manufacturing business, turning spinifex grass into paper products and high-end medical supplies. The image to the right is of spinifex up close, and more information is available.
Australia’s world-leading weather and climate modelling capability
The National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) NCRIS project supports Australia’s world-leading weather and climate modelling capability, ACCESS. ACCESS is used Australia-wide to support health, agriculture, bushfire and natural disaster management, and will soon become an independent NCRIS project. NCI also supports the Bureau of Meteorology’s Regional Weather Analysis for Australia, a ground-breaking dataset with three decades of detailed weather data from wind-speed to soil wetness.
Artificial Intelligence to save sight
Using NCRIS project Pawsey’s supercomputer, a team at CSIRO’s Australian e-Health Research Centre in Western Australia have developed an artificial intelligence program called “Dr Grader” to detect diabetic retinopathy simply by taking a photo of a patient’s eye. The condition can cause irreversible blindness if not treated, and it is the world’s leading cause of vision loss. Dr Grader is being rolled out internationally, and more information is available.
Wheat plays a major role in food security across the globe, but it’s only moderately tolerant of salt – and almost 70 per cent of Australia’s wheat belt is affected by salt to some degree. A project between the NCRIS Australian Plant Phenomics Facility, the University of Adelaide and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics has found several genes associated with helping wheat to tolerate salt with less impact on the crop’s yields – genes which have previously been very hard to pinpoint.
Uncovering a new layer of history in southwest Victoria
A research team at the University of Melbourne and Curtin University set out to confirm the age of volcanic rocks in southwest Victoria, using a new age-dating technique enabled by the AuScope NCRIS project. They found that the age-dated rock, combined with the archaeological evidence and the rich oral traditions of local Gunditjmara people, suggest human occupation in the area 37,000 years ago, when these volcanoes threw ash and lava across the landscape. Read more about it.
Local tests for local grapevine viruses
Grapevine leaf-roll viruses are a major problem for grape growers across Australia – they can reduce crop yields by up to 70%. NCRIS project Pawsey is supporting diagnostic tests that can keep up with local plant virus variations. With Pawsey’s supercomputing resources, researchers at Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development have significantly improved diagnostic capability for the virus. Vineyard owners can now identify and remove infected vines before the virus spreads. Find out more information.
Astronomy tech for better telecommunications
Astronomers use fibre bundles to capture light from the Universe, and researchers at the University of Sydney and the Australian Astronomical Observatory, supported by NCRIS’s Astronomy Australia, have designed a “photonic lantern” to filter out unwanted extra light from a signal. This photonic lantern technology can be added to existing fibreoptic cables to increase their bandwidth and has already been taken up by companies such as Nokia, Phoenix photonics and Optoscribe
Using waste to clean the planet
A new polymer made from industrial waste materials has been developed at Flinders University, with help from NCRIS projects Microscopy Australia and the Australian National Fabrication Facility. The polymer can securely bind toxic forms of mercury and remove it from the environment. The same polymer can also soak up oil like a sponge, allowing oil spills to be removed from water, the oil recovered, and the polymer regenerated for further use. The polymer is being commercialised for environmental remediation – cleaning up contaminated soil and water in Australia and around the world. Find out more information.
High-tech pollen mapping and forecasting
The AusPollen project provides allergy and asthma patients with accurate, relevant, local information on pollen levels in the air. AusPollen is using satellite data from the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network NCRIS project, together with on-ground time-lapse cameras and pollen monitors, to track grass pollen sources, their evolution, and impact areas. More accurate pollen forecasts will help alleviate the medical and socioeconomic burden costs of allergic diseases, which are estimated at $30 billion a year. More information is available.
Seismometers in Schools
The AuScope NCRIS project has placed research-quality seismometers in 42 schools across the country, as part of a program to build geology skills and create valuable research data. They’ve developed support and educational materials for teachers, and the website both helps students and teachers engage with the program and displays the data from these school-based seismometers. This data is used by research agencies across Australia and the world. In February 2020, the seismometer at St Joseph's College in WA captured the sonic boom of a fireball meteor that was seen streaking across the skies from Albany to Bunbury. Find out more about these seismometers at Seismometers in Schools.
Engineering Dengue-resistant mosquitos
The Dengue virus is devastating. It infects more than 390 million people every year, more than half the world’s population is at risk, and these numbers are expected to climb. The NCRIS-supported Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness has worked with the University of California San Diego to genetically engineer mosquitoes that are resistant to spreading Dengue – and in a critical breakthrough, that are resistant to spreading all four of the Dengue strains. Read more about it.
Printable Solar Cells
A team of University of Newcastle researchers has been showing off their ultra-light, printable solar cells that are produced at a rate of hundreds of metres a day, using printing capabilities from Australian National Fabrication Facility NCRIS project. They can be printed on standard printing technology, but instead of ink and paper, a photovoltaic liquid and plastic are used. This means that as the world sees the decline of the printing industry, struggling factories could be repurposed to start printing solar panels instead. A successful proof-of-concept trial has been completed in partnership with logistics company CHEP. The panels have been on the roof of CHEP's pallet reconditioning facility in the Hunter Valley for almost 2 years. Find out more.
A virtual lab to help premature infants
The Australian Research Data Commons NCRIS project co-funded the Characterisation Virtual Laboratory, a free, cloud-based resource that makes turning complex images and microscopy data into accessible information simple and fast. It allows researchers to run and modify virtual experiments, without needing them to have powerful computers or sophisticated computer skills. This recently allowed researchers to test the safety of a drug designed to promote lung development in premature infants with severe lung disease. That testing has been put into practice, giving doctors more confidence about the safety of using these drug therapies. Find out more.
The Element of Surprise in our universe
Researchers at the Heavy Ion Accelerator NCRIS project have made precise new measurements of the way that carbon is made in stars. They found that carbon – the building block of all life – is produced 34 per cent faster than we previously thought. This dramatic result has big implications for our understanding of the universe – from figuring out the age of stars, to the likelihood of black holes or a supernova being born, to how stars produce elements. Read more about the discovery.
Ancient star explosions revealed in the deep sea
A mystery surrounding our solar system is unfolding thanks to supernova particles found in deep-sea sediments. Professor Anton Wallner, a nuclear physicist at ANU, led a study which shows the Earth has been travelling for the last 33,000 years through a cloud of radioactive dust. They were able to demonstrate this with equipment from the Heavy Ion Accelerator (HIA) NCRIS project, which has the highest sensitivity mass spectrometry measurements in the world. The finding is fascinating because it doesn't seem to line up with the time our solar system has spent in the current local interstellar cloud, sparking further investigation. Read more about it.
Forests are natures shock absorbers
Sudden changes in temperature dramatically affect our ecosystem, and we need to understand how our plants respond to weather like this to help them through it. A study using data from NCRIS’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network has found that forests and wetlands are remarkably protective when it comes to lessening the impacts of extreme weather – and that’s in both natural and human-modified landscapes. Find out more here.
Stress-testing 3D printed metals
Studies at the NCRIS-supported Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering have found that the orientation of a shape while it’s being 3D printed – also called “additive manufacturing” – has a significant impact on how it handles stress. That stress can distort or warp the part, both while it’s being printed and later when it’s being used, so knowing the best orientation to print it in is a big production advantage. More information is available.
Radiocarbon dating rock art in the Kimberley
A collaboration led by the University of Melbourne in cooperation with Traditional Owners in the Kimberley, has used fossilised mud wasp nests to find dates for the oldest Aboriginal rock art. Radiocarbon dating at ANSTO's NCRIS-enabled Centre for Accelerator Science provided the evidence that the painting was between 17,500 and 17,100 years old. The pioneering technique involved dating microscopic amounts of carbon in the form of charcoal in the nests. The work was undertaken with the permission and participation of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, Rangers and Traditional Owners in the Kimberley. Find out more.
New antibiotics from platypus milk
Platypus produce milk, but they don't have teats like most mammals – instead, they concentrate milk to their belly and feed their young by sweating it out. But platypus milk being exposed to the outside world like this leaves their babies in danger from harmful bacteria. Researchers have identified a unique antibacterial protein in their milk that seems to be the animal's defence against those bacteria in a study supported by the Therapeutic Innovation Australia NCRIS project. This unique protein – nicknamed “Shirley Temple” for its unusual ringlet shape – could create new antibiotics to help with the global issue of antibiotic resistance. Find out more information.
Keeping our seafood safe
The Integrated Marine Observing System NCRIS project collects and shares data about Australia’s oceans. This enabled a Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) to develop a model for each oyster growing region in South Australia that uses real-time data to predict emergencies up to 3 days in advance. It was originally created for quick emergency responses to Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome, a disease that’s caused major problems for the oyster industry, and the model can also track other pathogens, harmful algae blooms, chemicals, toxins, oil spills and parasites. It was previously used to track to a potentially harmful algae bloom in the Boston Bay area. Read the FRDC report.
Dr Tamim Darwish of NCRIS’s National Deuteration Facility project won an award for his work on how deuteration of skin cells could replace animal testing in the cosmetics industry. Deuteration means to replace the hydrogen atoms in a molecule with deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen. Doing this helps researchers better understand those molecules and how they interact with other molecules. The detailed understanding that deuteration gives us could replace animal testing – a key issue for the cosmetics industry – and create new cosmetic products as well. Read more about the story.
Honeybee venom targets aggressive breast cancer
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian women, with one in seven diagnosed by the age of 85. Honeybee venom’s biggest component, melittin, has been found to selectively kill various types of cancer cells, and recent research supported by the Microscopy Australia and National Imaging Facility NCRIS projects has figured out how. Melittin disrupts the outer layer (membrane) of cancer cells, making it much harder for the cancer cells to send messages and spread. The effect was strongest in cells from the most aggressive and hardest to treat forms of breast cancer, and that melittin also helped make drug treatments for those cancers more effective – possibly because disrupting that outer layer made it easier for drugs to get into the cancer cells. Read more about the story.
Imaging to treat epilepsy
Over 250,000 Australians live with epilepsy, a chronic disorder of the brain. Some cases can be controlled through lifestyle and medication, but for many, brain surgery is required to manage the seizures. Highly detailed, time-sensitive images are needed of each patient’s brain to identify the area that requires surgery (the “epileptogenic zone”). The National Imaging Facility NCRIS project has been helping pioneer a non-invasive method for getting these images when other options can’t pick up the level of detail required. It’s already being applied to patients and has informed several successful surgeries. These include an adult patient who went from 500 debilitating seizures per month down to zero, a 10-year-old going from 200 leg-related incidents a day (which often caused falls) to none, and another adult who went from having major speech issues to working as a speech therapist themselves. Find out more.
Data to help target social support
The Population Health Research Network NCRIS project combines data about people in Australia from state, territory and federal governments, and helps government and researchers to use this data. In the Northern Territory and South Australia, this has included supporting governments to combine data from sources like hospitals to better target their services for child development, child protection, homelessness and drug and mental health services. In Tasmania, a project mapped the state’s Chronic Kidney Disease sufferers to help the state target their support services – and in the process created a searchable dataset for many chronic diseases in the state. Read more about it in PHRN’s Annual review.
Predicting fire risk in Melbourne
A researcher used data from the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN) NCRIS project to demonstrate that number of residential fires in Melbourne fluctuates based on the seasons. Winter (June-August) recorded the highest fire rates, while March, April and November recorded the lowest. Thanks to AURIN, the researcher was also able to compare several complex sets of data to map out which areas of Melbourne had the highest fire risk, showing that the inner subregions of Melbourne had a higher risk than with the outer ones. Find out more about this research project.
Skin Cancer Genomic Database
Melanoma is the largest cancer killer of young Australians. New therapies have revolutionised patient care, but it’s hard to predict which patients will respond well to them. Being able to predict this creates better patient outcomes and improves health economics, as the treatments are expensive. The Bioplatforms Australia NCRIS project partnered with the Melanoma Institute Australia and QIMR Berghoefer to create the Melanoma Genomics Framework, a data resource that contains whole genome sequences from 500 melanoma patients. This gives researchers the genomic data they need to identify the types of melanoma that respond best to specific treatments, and the mutations causing melanoma to be targeted by future treatments. It also lets medical professionals identify which patients will respond best to which treatments. Find out more about the project.