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Biological sciences exhibition sheds light on the meaning of life


2 October 2012

Biologists are continually finding links and relationships between animal species, particularly in the field of evolution. Under Mike Thompson, research on live birth (viviparity) is tracing links between skinks, like this three-toed skink (Saiphos equalis), and cancer in humans. [Image: N Pezaro]
Biologists are continually finding links and relationships between animal species, particularly in the field of evolution. Under Mike Thompson, research on live birth (viviparity) is tracing links between skinks, like this three-toed skink (Saiphos equalis), and cancer in humans. [Image: N Pezaro]

A new University of Sydney exhibition chronicles some of Australia's most significant advances in the biological sciences during the past half-century.

The Meaning of Life: Celebrating 50 years of Biological Sciences at the Macleay Museum marks the anniversary of the Schools of Zoology and Botany's amalgamation into the School of Biological Sciences in 1963.

The merger capitalised on the new ways zoologists and botanists were working together, driven by advances in genetics and ecology. "The breadth and vitality of the school's research today demonstrates the success of their vision," says Head of School Professor Robyn Overall.

The new school was further invigorated through new teaching methods (it won prizes for the early use of televised lectures) that gave students the necessary understanding in biochemistry and genetics.

Biological sciences have continued to advance rapidly, marked by a surge in the understanding of genetic sequences, rapid computerisation and a growing emphasis on conservation. The school's researchers have examined life forms in every conceivable habitat, some of which are detailed below.


Cane toads

The introduction of cane toads to Queensland in 1935 by sugar cane farmers looking to contain destructive beetles proved infamous; the toads' toxic skin and rapid breeding rate played havoc on native species such as snakes and freshwater crocodiles. Herpetologist Professor Rick Shine turned his attention to the toads when they invaded his research station in the Northern Territory and has been trying to curtail them ever since even teaching native species to shun toads from their diets. The Meaning of Life exhibition looks at his landmark discovery from observing the toads that species evolve through space as well as time.


Marine Ecology One Tree Island Station

"I had a lot of aspiring Jacques Cousteaus," says longstanding school staff member Emeritus Professor Tony Larkum. The interests of Professor Larkum's students saw him switch career paths from chemistry to marine biology soon his arrival to the University in 1969.

Professor Larkum was a founding member of the University's research program at One Tree Island Research Station in the Great Barrier Reef. The station, with its pristine environment and easy access, has underpinned the school's leading role in building human understanding of marine fish and evolution, and how ecology works. In particular, the station has allowed researchers to monitor how changes to habitat - climate change, for example - impact on marine species.

Professor Larkum's work in identifying chlorophyll types vital to the existence of microscopic blue-green algae, one of the earth's oldest life forms, is also profiled and its potential application in telecommunications and eco-fuels examined.

One Tree Island is also featured through an engaging digital artwork created by artist and University academic Dr onacloV with two design students.


Life in the Simpson Desert

Professor of Terrestrial Ecology Chris Dickman has a long running fascination with the Simpson Desert. When he first set foot in the desert in 1990 he was amazed by its abundance of small mammals, lizards, birds, grasses and wildflowers. The Simpson has fuelled his research - arid zone ecology - ever since. Professor Dickman leads regular expeditions to the desert to monitor animal populations and ensure their continued presence in Australia's central deserts. With his team of researchers, students and volunteers he has discovered the amazing adaptations that frogs and desert mice use to cope with extreme conditions, how floods, wildfires and invasive species affect native small mammals and how so many species seem to appear and disappear at different times and places in the desert.

The Meaning of Life pulls together some of Professor Dickman's research group's key findings, offering a valuable lesson on how patterns of biodiversity impact on our environment.

Employing stunning photography, a world of memorabilia, spectacular butterflies and interactive elements, the exhibition invites you to don a lab coat, peer down a microscope and expand your views on the meaning of life.


Exhibition details

What: The Meaning of Life: Celebrating 50 years of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney 

Where: Macleay Museum, Gosper Lane, off Science Road, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions 

When: 28 September until 8 March 2013

Opening hours: Monday to Friday 10am to 4.30pm, first Saturday of the month, 12 to 4pm, closed public holidays

Cost: Free


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Media enquiries: Jocelyn Prasad, 02 9114 1382, jocelyn.prasad@sydney.edu.au

Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au