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Ant Venom

Ant Venom

TRANSCRIPT

Comments

For those with an allergy to ant bites, just one nip from a Jack Jumper ant can cause extreme
illness and in the worst of cases death. But, a team of researchers in Tasmania have come up with
an ingenious treatment that reduces sensitivity to the insects allergens.

NARRATION

Few doctors have been stung by more ants than Simon Brown. But then he does go out of his way to
collect them.

Professor Simon Brown

You knock off the top of the nest and the ants come pouring out.

NARRATION

In Perth, Simon leads a project investigating the venomous ants of Australia.

Professor Simon Brown

The main group is the Genus Myrmecia, and so it's about ninety different species.

NARRATION

From their nest in a city park these bull-dog ants can sense us coming.

Professor Simon Brown

What I find fascinating about these is they're an ancient group of ants that were around with the
dinosaurs, so they've been lost in most other continents but they've survived in Australia.

NARRATION

Active hunters with keen vision, they swarm out of the nest and attack within seconds. Like wasps
they sting repeatedly from a venom sack in their tail.

Professor Simon Brown

Oh they really, really hurt. They ram the sting in and it's intensely painful. And it's very much
like a bee sting.

NARRATION

And like bee stings, ant stings are just as dangerous for causing anaphylactic shock. The risk
increases the more often you're stung. In South Eastern Australia most cases of ant allergy are due
to this notorious species, the Jack Jumper ant.

Mark Horstman

In Tasmania, three percent of the population, that's more than fourteen thousand people, have an
allergic reaction to the sting of the Jack Jumper ant. At the very least it can turn your life
upside down ; at the worst, it can kill you.

NARRATION

On the Freycinet Peninsula nine year old Lily loves just about any animal.

Lily Fisher

I like horses, chickens and dogs and I hate ants altogether, every kind of ant.

NARRATION

Living in the bush and working on the family oyster farm means that Jack Jumpers come with the
territory but it's a constant worry for a parent if your child is allergic to their sting.

Julia Fisher

The thought of Lily living the rest of her life having an allergy that would inhibit her doing so
many things, we bushwalk and things like that, was a really scary thought.

NARRATION

And then one day a few years ago while she was playing, Lily got stung.

Julia Fisher

And I noticed her lips were getting, going a blue colour and I thought, oh that's really, oh that's
really bad.

NARRATION

Julia guessed Lily was in anaphylactic shock and knew there wasn't much time to save her life.

Julia Fisher

Her face had all swollen up and her head had gone back and that's all she can remember.

NARRATION

Lily recovered in hospital overnight but the ever present danger of another ant attack left her
family desperate for a treatment that could lead to a cure.

Julia Fisher

Really desperate. I had spoken to a few people and they'd gone, "Oh well, you know that's, that's
the way it'll be for Lil" and I'm like, "No it won't be actually".

NARRATION

And help was at hand. Ten years ago Simon Brown had started trialling a treatment program at the
Royal Hobart Hospital.

Professor Simon Brown

There hadn't yet been a really rigorous scientific evaluation, and we didn't know if it worked for
ant venom.

NARRATION

The first challenge... collect the venom. Enter the 'Ant Busters'. Once a year the medical team
from the Jack Jumper Allergy Program go bush for a spring clean. Armed with vacuum cleaners and
quick reflexes their aim is to collect thousands of ants to supply enough venom to treat the
patients, without getting stung themselves. Next stop on the venom trail is the deep freeze where
the ants are kept to be dissected. It takes plenty of skill and steady hands to remove the venom
sack from the abdomen of each dead ant.

Judith Hawker

I've done a few thousand, at the very least a few thousand.

NARRATION

From here, the raw material is delivered to the pharmaceutical lab where the peptide proteins that
cause the allergic reactions in the venom are refined.

Mark Horstman

Weeks of processing in the lab ends up with this, concentrated venom. It takes about five hundred
ants to fill one vial.

NARRATION

The clinical trials determined the dose that was safe and proved the treatment had a success rate
of one hundred percent. Now there's a free immunotherapy program.

Christine Chuter

Okay which arm do you want that in?

NARRATION

With three hundred and fifteen people receiving active treatment.

Professor Simon Brown

It's funded by the Tasmanian government, not the richest government in Australia but it has to pay
for the whole cost of this program.

Christine Chuter

Our lovely bunch of motivated patients who are usually enthusiastic outdoors people, they're often
interested in bushwalking or gardening and being fit and active. And they come because they want to
return to that lifestyle.

NARRATION

They're here for immunotherapy which means injecting the same venom that triggers an allergic
reaction to teach the body not to react.

Professor Simon Brown

You're injecting very tiny doses, below the threshold that will cause an allergic reaction. You
gradually build it up and you build it up so gradually that the body is not quite reacting but it's
starting to develop a tolerance.

NARRATION

That means starting with injections once a week.

Nurse

Are you well?

Lily Fisher

Yep.

NARRATION

And easing to a maintenance dose once every three months over a period of five years. Lily still
has two more years of injections to go.

Mark Horstman

So Lily, what happened?

Lily Fisher

Nothing except a bit of a red mark.

Mark Horstman

If you've got that much on your arm what does that tell you about the treatment you're getting
here?

Lily Fisher

Um, it's helping. A lot.

NARRATION

She's already taking the ultimate test.

Lily Fisher

I think that one over there.

NARRATION

After a year or more of treatment, patients can decide to take the sting challenge. People once
severely allergic to ant venom are deliberately stung by a live ant twice in one hour. Today it's
Elaine's turn.

Christine Chuter

So I'll just put it here.

Elaine Crisp

Yes the sting challenge, this is the bit that's, it's quite frightening, you know I'm finally
having done something that I've been trying to avoid for two years.

And even if I'm not allergic anymore, which I'm pretty sure I'm not because it seems to work really
well, it still hurts.

Christine Chuter

It looks like it's trying to put its stinger in. Sing out when it gets you.

NARRATION

It seems a drastic and risky test. But it offers brave Elaine some certainty and she is in a safe
place.

Elaine Crisp

Ow!

Christine Chuter

Sorry. Good work. Fifty seconds to go.

Elaine Crisp

It's stinging very well.

Christine Chuter

It's stinging well now.

NARRATION

The experience in Tasmania is relevant on the mainland too wherever people suffer ant allergies.
Now at the WA Institute for Medical Research, Simon Brown has identified the main groups of
venomous ants in Australia that cause anaphylaxis. And there are four of them. In addition to the
Jack Jumper in Southern Australia and several species of Bulldog ants in Western Australia, there
are other types of Jumper ants that live in Eastern Australia.

Professor Simon Brown

And then there's the tiny little green head ant which is a different genus altogether which is
clustered around Queensland and Northern New South Wales. The good news is that most people that
are allergic to ant stings on mainland Australia are reactive to the Jack Jumper and the venom
extract we have in Tasmania will work.

NARRATION

But because immunotherapy for native insects is not covered by our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
the treatment is very expensive.

Professor Simon Brown

It is frustrating that bee venom immunotherapy or for people who are allergic to honey bees or even
European Wasps or Paper Wasps can get treatment fully covered by the PBS. But Jack Jumper treatment
is not.

NARRATION

It's one hour after Elaine's sting challenge and the success of her treatment is clear.

Mark Horstman

Where did you get stung?

Elaine Crisp

One here, one here. It's already started going down.

Mark Horstman

How different is that from the last time you were stung by an ant like that?

Elaine Crisp

The last time I was stung I had swelling of my throat and my tongue, this time all I've got is a
small amount of swelling on my forearm, that's a pretty good result.

Mark Horstman

That's amazing. You could have died last time?

Elaine Crisp

Oh yes.

Christine Chuter

Thank you very much.

NARRATION

For all involved,the Jack Jumper Program is a life-changing experience.

Elaine Crisp

Although obviously there'll still be that little bit of wariness it makes me a lot more free.

Julia Fisher

The research is so, so important for a child of this age to actually overcome that and be able to
live a normal life. I think it's an amazing thing to have it.

Neurotoxins

Neurotoxins

TRANSCRIPT

Comments

Which is worse - a snake bite or a funnel web bite? A fun look at the venom of our deadliest snakes
and spiders.

NARRATION

Do the Taipan or Tiger snakes make you nervous? Well that's not the only effect they'll have on
your nervous system.

The venom of choice for Australia's deadliest snakes is the neurotoxin. The neurotoxin is a nasty
little drop that paralyses part of the nervous system.First it blocks the receptor molecules that
carry the signals which tell your muscles to contract. This makes it hard to see, swallow or even
breathe.

Next enzymes start turning your muscles into an all you can eat smorgasbord. Finally the plot and
our blood thicken as clotting agents surge into overdrive until they are all used up.

Funnel Web neurotoxin works quite differently by flooding our bodies with adrenalin, it's like
bungy jumping off a rollercoaster on a snowboard.

Although both are deadly, the snakes pack much more venom firepower, so given the choice always go
the Funnel Web.

UG99

UG99

TRANSCRIPT

Comments

The ABC acknowledges the provision of free goods and services by the not-for-profit organisation,
The Crawford Fund, which promotes and supports international agricultural research and development.

A virulent fungus is marching its way through the wheat fields of Kenya. Australian scientists have
joined an international team determined to beat this threat to world food security.

NARRATION

The small scale farmers in Kenya's Great Rift Valley are on the front line in a battle against a
new disease. And if the fight is not won here it could ignite a war around the world. It's a fungal
infection that can completely wipe out a wheat crop.

Professor Robert Park

Wheat is our most important crop and is arguably the most damaging of all the pathogens of wheat,
it destroys crops.

Sridhar Bhavani

The small scale farmers are almost experiencing hundred percent losses every year.

NARRATION

UG99 is a particularly virulent strain of a fungal disease known as stem rust. Robert Park from the
University of Sydney has been following the global spread and adaptation of this disease.

Professor Robert Park

There were some lines that had been sent to Uganda from Mexico and we knew that those lines had a
resistance gene called SR31 that was protecting them against stem rust. We had never seen a race of
stem rust virulent on that particular gene in the past and in Uganda, in the nursery, these lines
were heavily infected so this was quite suspicious.

NARRATION

Out in the fields of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute I'm introduced to UG99 by molecular
breeder, Sridhar Bhavani.

Sridhar Bhavani

So you could see there's a whole patch of stem rust infestation and what actually happens is it
actually stops the conduction of water and nutrients from the soils to the sink and under severe
conditions what actually happens is it just breaks like that.

Dr Paul Willis

Right. What we've got in front of us looks like it's been pretty badly knocked about.

Sridhar Bhavani

Yes the heads do not have any grain, they're completely chaffy.

NARRATION

To make matters worse here in Equatorial Africa you can grow wheat all year round. You can
literally find a field of seedlings...

Dr Paul Willis

... right next to a field that's ready for harvest. Now for a pathogen like UG99 that needs to
strike the host at just the right stage of its lifecycle, it's always going to find something to
feed on.

NARRATION

The more the plant pathologists looked into UG99, the more they realised that this is a really
nasty package.Stem rusts are so destructive both the USA and the USSR investigated their use as a
biological weapon. The Yanks even built a bomb, the M115, filled with feathers loaded with fungal
spores. But even without the deliberate hand of humanity, UG99 is spreading rapidly. Catching a
lift on the prevailing winds, microscopic spores have already spread as far north as Iran. More
worrying for Australia is the recent spread of this disease into Southern Africa, giving UG99 a
direct route into our backyard.

Professor Robert Park

The presence of UG99 in Southern Africa is an added concern for us. It puts us more in the firing
line.

NARRATION

To try and get some idea of just how vulnerable the Australian wheat crop is to UG99...

Sridhar Bhavani

And what we're looking at here is a few of the, map, mapping populations from Australia.

NARRATION

Robert brings Australian wheat varieties to Kenya and exposes them to the disease.

Professor Robert Park

What we've found is that quite a few of our varieties are susceptible to UG99.

NARRATION

The first line of defence again UG99 would be fungicides. But there's a catch to using agricultural
chemicals.Tabitha Muthoni's story is typical for a small scale wheat farmer in Kenya.

Tabitha Muthoni

It's expensive. I use cheaper options and I don't do it that frequently. I sprayed the fungicide
and again I notice another infestation.

NARRATION

The second line of defence relies on the wheats own genetic arsenal. And that is the foundation of
a multinational war being waged against UG99.

Sridhar Bhavani

What we've got here is materials that we receive from several developing counties. As you can see
there's Australia, there's China, Nepal, Bangladesh. So everyone wants to test their material and
see if it is actually resistant to UG99.

NARRATION

And plants that survive exposure to UG99 are likely to be carrying some genetic trick that maybe
useful in developing new stem rust-resistant wheat breeds.

Sridhar Bhavani

So far we've characterised close to about fifty genes for steam rust resistance.

NARRATION

The most promising resistance gene identified so far is called SR2.

Sridhar Bhavani

Can you see this blackening here?

Dr Paul Willis

Oh yeah, yeah.

Sridhar Bhavani

Which is actually accumulation of melanin pigment, which is linked to this gene.

Dr Paul Willis

So this SR2 gene in combination with other resistance genes in the wheat may be the answer to UG99?

Sridhar Bhavani

That's exactly right.

NARRATION

Once useful genes are identified, the wheat strains are crossbred to strengthen the plant's genetic
defences.

Dr Paul Willis

And this looks like the hope for the future. It's a strain of wheat called, 'King Bird' that was
developed by CIMMYT and is now deployed all around the world. And it looks like it's got very high
levels of resistance against UG99.

NARRATION

But UG99 is a rapidly evolving disease and one new strain of wheat may not be enough to stop it. So
while the main battle front today is here in Africa, UG99 still threatens the wheat crop of the
world.

Turbulence

Turbulence

TRANSCRIPT

Comments

Graham visits a state-of-the-art wind tunnel at Melbourne University where research into turbulence
and drag could lead to cheaper air travel.

NARRATION

Up to half the cost of a plane ticket is fuel and most of the fuel is to overcome drag. What
savings could be made if drag could be reduced?

Professor Ivan Marusic

If we could reduce the fuel bill on an aircraft by ten percent that would work out to about fifteen
billion dollars a year in fuel cost savings globally. So it's a huge number.

NARRATION

Engineers are on the case studying the flow around wings. In this water tank, red dye goes over the
wing and green dye under, revealing the flow downstream in full and beautiful detail. With this
setup you can actually see what happens when an aeroplane stalls.

Dr Graham Phillips

At the moment we've got a nice smooth flow over the top and the bottom of the wing. But if you
increase the angle of the wing and the angle of attack, you can see that flow just breaking up a
little bit there, and all of a sudden it separates away from the top of the wing, it's stalled,
next thing is, your plane plummets out of the sky.

NARRATION

But this kind of smooth flow, laminar flow is not what produces much of the drag. Rather, it's
caused by an invisible skin of micro turbulence around the plane. You can see this turbulence by
putting a rod in a smoke filled wind tunnel. Upstream the flow's smooth, laminar. But downstream
the whirlpools and eddies of turbulence are clearly visible. These cause drag. Turbulence is not
just associated with flight, it's very common throughout nature, it's there whenever the wind blows
or the ocean flows. Indeed turbulence's drag is vital to our world. It'd be a very different place
if all flows were smooth laminar wakes.

Professor Ivan Marusic

For example, if we looked at the Yarra River and we assumed it was just a laminar flow, so sheets
sliding over each other, and you did a quick calculation, the speed of the Yarra River would be
twenty kilometres per second.

NARRATION

That's seventy-two thousand kilometres an hour. There'd be no Yarra River without turbulence.

Professor Ivan Marusic

We've been working on it for over a hundred years and still we have very limited knowledge or
understanding of the turbulent processes.

NARRATION

So to study it in unprecedented detail over fourteen years, Melbourne University engineers built a
very impressive wind tunnel dedicated to reducing drag.

Dr Graham Phillips

Now this is the opening of the wind tunnel, air is drawn in through here, via the giant fan, but
what happens on the other side is the key.

NARRATION

The air passes through a series of baffles which gently turn it through a one hundred and eighty
degree bend. Then a series of meshes make the flow completely smooth, ready to enter the impressive
working section of the tunnel.

Professor Ivan Marusic

What makes our tunnel unique is we have a working section which extends over twenty-seven metres,
that's much larger than any other wind tunnel in the world for this flow quality.

NARRATION

Turbulence is not a random mess like it might appear. A sheet of laser light through the flow
reveals the patterns.

Dr Nicholas Hutchins

I guess the motions within that layer, everybody used to believe that they were quasi random.
There's repeating patterns or features within that turbulence that we can learn about and if we can
learn what those features are, we can learn to control them.

NARRATION

Control them and drag's reduced. This might be done by putting tiny actuators over the outside of
the plane to subtly change the flow.

Dr Nicholas Hutchins

So the actuator could be tiny flaps that pop up from the surface, or it could be micro jets that
pulse in such a way that you're going to destroy those turbulent eddies close to the surface.

NARRATION

Another way to reduce turbulence is to take inspiration from nature.

Dolphins can swim faster than expected because of vibrations in their soft, flexible skin.

Professor Ivan Marusic

It's believed that what happens there is that you would get a travelling wave set up in the skin of
the dolphin in a way again interacting with the turbulent flow, producing conditions where they can
travel at much higher speeds as to if you were simply a solid rigid surface.

NARRATION

But the easiest animal for us to copy is the shark. It's skin is stiffer but less smooth.

Professor Ivan Marusic

If you were to rub the surface of a shark it'll be particularly rough in one direction but not in
the other. So there's definitely a textured surface to it.

NARRATION

Here's the close up. This textured skin has evolved to minimise turbulence.

Dr Nicholas Hutchins

Through methods that we don't entirely understand it somehow manages to reduce the turbulence close
to the surface of the shark and hence reduce drag.

NARRATION

One day the outside of aeroplanes may resemble shark's skin.

Dr Graham Phillips

Here's one of the surfaces they're planning to test. Now it's covered in a whole lot of very fine
ridges, they're less than half a millimetre apart and they're set up in quite an interesting way.
Here they tend to push the flow, or in this case my fingers together, here they push it apart. Now
they're going to lay a whole lot of these tiles in the wind tunnel.

NARRATION

By testing different groove arrangements they hope to find the one that best reduces drag.

It's early days yet and researchers are just starting to unlock some of turbulence's complex
motions. But the results from this incredible new wind tunnel will emerge over the next few years.

Dolphin Power

Dolphin Power

TRANSCRIPT

Comments

How do dolphins generate speeds of more than 30km/hr? Professor Wei and his team at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in New York, have found the answer by analysing the movement of bubbles
around their bodies as they swim.

NARRATION

The remarkable speed at which dolphins swim has puzzled scientists for some time. Early estimates
of dolphin muscle power couldn't explain how they'd reach speeds of over thirty kilometres an
hour.Until Professor Timothy Wei and his colleagues decided to measure dolphin power.

They videotaped two Bottle Nosed dolphins as they swam through water filled with tiny air bubbles.
Special software tracked the movement of these bubbles calculating the force generated. Dolphins
turned out to be ten times stronger than previously thought, generating up to a hundred and eighty
kilograms of force at peak performance. By comparison Olympic swimmers peak at around thirty-two
kilograms of force.

So when it comes to winning gold, my money's on a dolphin.