Around the clock, scientists are monitoring the Earth beneath us, surveying the oceans and working to decipher the human body. Machines are employed to help but skilful human surveillance is needed at all hours too.
Synchrotron lights that race around in circles
Like the Large Hadron Particle Collider that lies below the border of France and Switzerland, scientists at the Australian Synchrotron are slinging electrons around a velodrome-of-sorts close to the speed of light. Magnets are used to keep the electrons on track and the brilliant radiation given off by the curved electron beam is funnelled down beamlines to experimental workstations.
It takes a lot of energy to get the electron beam up to speed so rather than shutting down the machine, and due to high demand, visiting scientists work on shifts through the night. By focusing the synchrotron light onto a sample and detecting how it scatters, or diffracts, scientists can model the three-dimensional structures of proteins, the building blocks and functional units in our bodies, to understand how they fit together. The synchrotron is also used to reveal the atomic structure of materials, which can be done by measuring the intensity of the energy momentarily absorbed by a sample.
on shaky ground
Meanwhile, seismologists are keeping a thumb on the pulse of the Earth. The Earthquake Alert Centre at Geoscience Australia is the national hub for monitoring steady vibrations, and occasional earthquakes, in regions of the Earth’s crust close to home. In tandem with the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre, scientists monitor data coming in from more than 60 stations dotted across the country and another 300 further afield – day and night, week in and week out.
The tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust fit together like a jigsaw, but they are constantly jostling for position. Sudden shifts between plates shoot waves of energy, or tremors, off in all directions. Seismographs used in the past would sketch earthquake activity on to paper, like drawing a line when someone is shaking your arm.
Now modern detectors feed readings into computer systems, delivering data within minutes of it being recorded hundreds of kilometres away. On the receiving end, on-duty seismologists verify automated alerts from the system and report (within 10 minutes) to the Bureau of Meteorology on the magnitude, time and location of earthquakes. Those which are magnitude 6.5 or greater in water less than 100 kilometres deep could trigger a tsunami.
All aboard the research vessel
Most days of the year, the Research Vessel (RV) Investigator is out at sea, traversing the Pacific and Southern Oceans, from the tropics down to the Antarctic ice edge. As the lead research vessel for the CSIRO, the Investigator invites oceanographers, geoscientists, atmospheric scientists and marine biologists aboard for voyages of up to 60 days.
To maximise research, seafaring scientists work through the night and storms – even schools of flying fish. Under the belly of the ship is sonar technology used to map the sea floor and assess passing marine life. The vessel is also laden with diverse sampling equipment that can be deployed to trail the ship – some robots are sent to explore beneath the Antarctic ice. Maintaining deep-water moorings, submerged for years at a time to measure changes in ocean temperature, salinity and currents, is also part of the job.
An app that decodes cancer
With scientists at the helm, genome sequencing machine have a big job to do. The human genome is the full set of genetic instructions encoded in DNA and used by every cell in our body. Each time a cell replicates, the DNA may be copied with a slight mistake or three; over time, these mutations accumulate. Cancers form when the number of genetic mutations passes a tipping point and cell growth runs unchecked.
Like reading a book one letter at a time and looking for spelling mistakes, genome sequencing puts a chemical microscope to the DNA code. It took over a decade the first time to map the full human genome, from start to finish, for the Human Genome Project. With improvements in technology, this can now be done in a matter of days – but the analysis of the data across many samples takes time and requires enormous computing power.
The Dream Lab is an app designed to alleviate this bottleneck by tapping into the processing power of our smart phones. Download the app, connect to Wi-Fi and every night while you sleep, your device – usually idle in the wee hours – will be used to compare mutation patterns in sequencing data from The Cancer Genome Atlas, helping scientists catch up with cancer. Since it was launched last year, more than 63,000 smart phone users have helped to slash nine months of vital cancer research time.