• Tectonic breakthrough with UC San Diego

    • A research team from the University of Sydney and the University of San Diego may have settled a long-running dispute over the date of the tectonic upheaval that led to the formation of the Asian continent.

    • The modern map of Asia began to take shape when the tectonic plate of India, moving at 15 centimetres per year, rammed into the Eurasian land mass millions of years ago.
    • The collision unleashed shockwaves that led to the formation of the Himalayas and sent ripples along the seafloor to the south.

    • Newly published research by Professor Dietmar Mueller and Dr Kara Matthews from the School of Geosciences, with Professor David Sandwell from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, provides the strongest evidence to date about when the collision occurred, suggesting that it took place about 47 million years ago.

    • Their research makes use of detailed maps of the ocean floor compiled from satellite data about the Earth’s gravity field.

    • The key to the breakthrough was the discovery in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, of an oceanic microplate – a small piece of ocean crust the size of Tasmania – which was almost certainly dislodged by the shockwaves following the collision.The date when that occurred can be worked out from geomagnetic data. “The ocean floor acts like a tape recorder as it records the successive reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field during seafloor spreading,” said Professor Mueller.

    • He added: “The timing of the India-Eurasia collision has been a major and long-standing controversy in plate tectonics and our research has produced the most precise date for the collision so far available.”

    • The University of Sydney and the Scripps Institution are both members of the EarthByte Group, an international partnership of universities, research centres and industry groups, which has developed the GPlates open-source plate reconstruction software.Professer Mueller, Professor Sandwell and Dr Matthews – who is now at the University of Oxford – are also collaborating on a book chapter looking at the origins of seafloor tectonic fabric and new microplate discoveries in the Pacific Ocean.

  • Motion perception with Utrecht

    • Imagine being a surgeon and being able to walk through a 3D representation of the body before you perform a complex operation.

    • Imagine being a trainee police officer and being able to experience a virtual reality bank robbery where the robbers and their weapons are alarmingly lifelike, but not lethal.

    • Both scenarios are among the potential spin-offs from some intriguing research being carried out by scientists at the University’s School of Psychology in collaboration with Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

    • The two universities are leaders in the field of perception in dynamic environments – the study of what people do in a situation where both the environment and their own position are moving.

    • “How do we detect and calculate motion when we are moving ourselves?” asks Professor Frans Verstraten, the McCaughey Chair in Psychology at Sydney and a former grad-student and professor at Utrecht University.

    • “We can do it our brains are very good at compensating for our own movement in the world, at discounting the distortions in the projection of the world on the retina caused by our own movements.”

    • The research makes use of advanced facilities at the School of Psychology that enable people to be studied in a controlled environment, such as a highly immersive virtual reality laboratory or a pod looking like a space capsule – built with the help of NASA – that allows both the seated observer and what he sees to be moved.

    • “Essentially we are looking at how the brain works and how people behave under different conditions, which opens up multiple areas of research interest,” says Professor Verstraten.

    • The Virtual Reality environment, for example, opens up opportunities for new kinds of research with moving observers, including clinically relevant questions and solutions. Researchers in the School of Psychology are collaborating with colleagues in the Brain and Mind Centre on neuroscience and childhood development, and with the Gambling Treatment Clinic on treatments for problem gambling.

    • There is also commercial and outside interest in other work, such as the effectiveness of advertising or signage – do people really understand the pictograms they see at a foreign airport? – to potential treatments for phobias. One of the questions is whether experiences in the virtual world also apply to the real world. So if you place an arachnophobe in a room full of virtual spiders, will they experience any benefits in the real world?

    • It’s a far cry from the popular image of what psychologists do, admits Professor Verstraten. “Lots of people still think a psychology lab consists of a collection of leather couches,” he says. “A visit to the high tech labs in Sydney and Utrecht should quickly change their minds.”

  • Wheat production innovation with India

    • For hundreds of millions of people in India, wheat is an essential part of their daily diet and their major source of calories.

    • India relies on its wheat crop to feed its huge rural and urban poor population; increased wheat production is a key food production goal on the sub-continent.

    • But since the Green Revolution the yield increase from wheat crops has slowed and new approaches are urgently needed to regain traction and boost wheat production.

    • The University of Sydney is one of the partners in a project that uses an innovative hybrid wheat system that is superior to anything developed before and that does not involve environmentally harmful chemicals or genetic engineering.

    • Professor Richard Trethowan, Director of the University’s IA Watson Grains Research Centre, said: “On-farm yields of maize, soybean and lately rice have all benefited from the introduction of hybrids. When two inbred lines are crossed, a more vigorous strain is produced.

    • “But due to problems with seed production, wheat hybrids have never been commercially viable despite yield gains of 10-15 per cent and increased yield stability, which is vital in a warming and more variable climate.”

    • The project involves partners from India (the Indian Agricultural Research Institute), Pakistan (the University of Agriculture Faisalabad) and the UK agriculture group KWS. It builds on an ingenious male sterility system, the key element in hybrid seed production, which has been developed over the past 30 years.

    • Professor Trethowan added: “Essential to the success of project is the Indian breeders’ invaluable local knowledge of wheat, the environment and markets.

    • “Currently, almost all Indian wheat varieties originate from public breeding programs, so the only way to make an impact is through these organisations.”

    • Australian researchers at the University of Sydney and GCI are world experts in their fields of science and KWS provides state of the art molecular laboratory facilities. The project is funded through Innovate UK.

    • Sydney researchers are working with Indian partners on several other projects to improve wheat production in India involving a variety of ideas: the use of molecular marker technologies to develop new strains; optimisation of the crop canopy to assist grain growth; and the development of new strains carrying genes from related species of grain.