Wonders of science honoured in Eureka prizes

The Eureka Prizes, which recognise scientific achievement in 18 categories, were announced at an awards dinner at the Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday night.

Rick McRae from the ACT Emergency Services Agency and colleague Jason Sharples from the University of NSW were nominated for the Environmental Research prize for their work into the causes and effects of catastrophic firestorms, which used field data collected during extreme bushfires, particularly the 2003 ACT fires.

But they were pipped for the prize by research led by Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania. The research showed dingoes could aid in the recovery of degraded lands and help protect threatened species.

A chance discovery by researchers from Melbourne and Monash universities won the researchers the Eureka prize for scientific research this year.

The team - Lars Kjer-Nielsen, Jim McCluskey and Jamie Rossjohn - identified that it was a building block of vitamin B produced by the bacteria that stimulated the cells into action, triggering an immune response.

The work, which was published in Nature, has implications for the development of new treatments for a range of conditions from tuberculosis to irritable bowel syndrome.


''We needed to know at the molecular level what the cells recognised in bacteria and yeast,'' Melbourne University immunologist Jim McCluskey said. ''Recreating that molecule would then be a starting point for developing a vaccine.''

The night's top award, the Eureka prize for leadership in science, was won by internationally recognised nanotechnology expert Frank Caruso from Melbourne University.

A materials scientist, Professor Caruso is best known for developing materials at the nano scale. These can be used to improve vaccines or to generate sharper imaging from MRI scans.

He was also a member of the team that won the Eureka prize for interdisciplinary scientific research. Led by Melbourne University's Lloyd Hollenberg, the group developed nano-scale diamond sensors that can light up the insides of cells. The work will enable researchers to see what goes on inside a living cell in unprecedented detail.

David Wilson, from the University of NSW, won the Eureka prize for emerging leader in science for convincing Armenia to treat its HIV patients with life-saving drugs instead of an unproven local medicine.

Since Dr Wilson intervened in 2011, the country's AIDS-related deaths have declined from about 34 per cent to 0.3 per cent.

Bridie Smith, Nicky Phillips