On Wednesday we had a free day -- a very clever thing that I wish other conferences would imitate -- having a free day in the middle allows a bit of a mental breather to prevent burn out from all the scientific sessions. We used the time to go to Kuranda and environs. Kuranda is located in a rainforest and is reached through an aerial cable tram similar to that found in Palm Springs, California (but even more impressive given the length of the trip and the beauty of the scenery). The village itself is a bit of a tourist trap, as expected.
There's a nice, although small, museum called the "Rainforest Interpretation Centre" that helps visitors learn about the forest through exhibits and interactive displays. One of the oddest things was the three languages used -- English (of course), Japanese (understandably -- much like Hawaii, North Queensland seems to be a Mecca for Japanese tourists), and finally, German of all things! Of course I couldn't resist playing with interactive displays where "Welcher Baum ist das?" was asked. I understand that Europeans visit Australia, but why German in particular and not say, French and Spanish as well?
Thursday was back to science. Craig Cary talked about metagenomics in the Antarctic Dry Valleys -- I hadn't realized that there are ice-free deserts in Antarctica, but apparently there are, and there's cyanobacteria (in particular) living in them. About midway through the talk, Craig shifted gears and started talking about (I'm not making this up) mummified seals! Apparently, Antarctic explorers have long known about these naturally mummified seal corpses (some over a thousand years old) , but Craig was interested in investigating whether the microflora underneath the seals was different than in the surrounding soil. Not surprisingly it was -- the Antarctic deserts are very carbon and nitrogen starved and a slowly rotting thousand year old seal is a much better source of nutrients than anything else around. Craig even transplanted a seal from one place to another to see if he could influence the new environment in the same way, and the experiment worked.
Rick Cavicchioli talked about the genome of Methanococcoides burtonii. I liked that. These days traditional genome projects are somewhat unfashionable (and unfundable), but not everything has to be metagenomics (although Rick is doing that too). Amino acid comparisons with relatives living at higher temperatures were a major part of the story of this genome -- and that work was pioneered by my fellow blogger (and commenter) Neil Saunders, as Rick acknowledged.
I will try to write up a final writeup on the last talks soon. And yes, that is a real live koala with me in the picture.