Sewage pollution test
Shark attack is far from being the biggest risk associated with your next trip to the beach. At Sydney's beaches in particular, the greatest danger to swimmers until very recently was the household toilet - the beginning of a trail that led from an overworked sewage system to the discharge of inadequately treated sewage into the sea from ocean outfalls. Extended outfalls - built to discharge sewage further out at sea have improved the situation in Sydney, but water quality and sewage pollution must be constantly monitored to check the outfalls' performance. Conventional monitoring of sewage pollution takes more than 24 hours. Now, a simple test for detecting faecal coliform bacteria in sea water provides a useful 'early warning' - it takes just 60 minutes to produce a reliable indication not only of the presence of coliform bacteria, but also of the abundance of bacteria and hence the extent of pollution.
A 24-hour watch
Orbiting 800 kilometres above the Earth's surface, ERS-1 - the European Space Agency's first remote-sensing satellite - is adding a rich new layer of detail to what we know of our planet. The first of a new generation of remote-sensing spacecraft, ERS-1 is devoted to gathering climatic and weather data critical to global environmental problems, and to improving weather forecasting through collecting information on global wind and wave movements. It carries a state-of-the-art radar altimeter that will be used to measure wave heights, especially in polar regions where ground measurements are impossible and Along-Track Scanning Radiometer (ATSC), an advanced infrared scanner that provides precise measurements of ocean surface temperatures.
Towards sustainable agriculture
CSIRO's $2.2 million-a-year Land and Water Care Program aims at developing ways to conserve soil and control salinity; to sustain production and restore degraded areas in rangelands and cropping land; to maintain livestock and pasture productivity; and to re-establish trees on land that is eroded, waterlogged or saline. Researchers estimate that about half of Australia's agricultural land is already degraded in some way and that the lost production costs some $1.2 billion per year. Achieving an ecologically sustainable future for Australian agriculture is clearly a major challenge.
Looking after the land at Uluru
Aboriginal inhabitants of Central Australia have learned to use the land's resources so well over tens of thousands of years that they have established a culture of astonishing richness. Their myths, songs and art celebrate the ordered dimensions of the land and reveal the depth of their knowledge of the plants, the animals and the land itself. That depth of knowledge stems from a need to know not only the natural history of the desert but also how to manage it. This article describes the management of Uluru National Park, including the wildlife survey which took place between 1987 and 1990. Involvement of the traditional owners was central to the success of the survey.
Some plant plankton, such as the marine alga Phaecystis pouchetti, emit a sulphurous gas - (CH3)2S or dimethylsulphide (known as DMS) - as a part of plant metabolism. These primitive plants produce an enormous amount of DMS in total: one estimate puts the global production at 16 million tonnes of sulphur a year, more than the total sulphur output from the world's volcanoes. Much of this escapes into the atmosphere and may be involved in cloud formation. Investigations are proceeding into whether the gas emitted by marine plankton may be reducing greenhouse warming.
New approaches to rabbit and fox control
Viruses genetically engineered to sterilise pest animals may bring relief to a ravaged land. A three-pronged approach to rabbit control through immunosterilisation (also being researched for fox control), improved efficiency in the delivery of the myxoma virus and investigations into rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) is under way.
Measuring the impact of lead
Lead is one of man's oldest toxic pollutants - the legacy of centuries of mining and smelting of lead ore. Icecore samples collected in the Northern Hemisphere indicate that the background level of this metal in the environment, far from smelters and cities, has been rising steadily since 800 BC, and is today 400 times higher than before smelting began. The article describes several studies of lead as a health hazard to children. It is thought that exposure to lead, before or after birth, has an enduring effect on childhood neuropsychological development.
A close look at biological diversity
Biodiversity is commonly measured in three ways - by counting species, assessments of genetic variation and analysis of the structure of ecosystems. Although Australia has extensive national parks and wildlife reserves (more than 42 million hectares), the selection of sites for these has been largely ad hoc, with the result that many species and vegetation communities are not represented. A related problem is how best to manage a reserve once it has been established, especially if it is not as large as scientists would prefer. This article describes the Wog Wog habitat study, which is attempting to establish the impact of habitat fragmentation on the diversity of life in a eucalypt forest.
More seed from 'miniature' eucalypts
Australia's magnificent eucalypts represent more than an essential element of our distinctive flora: they are also important sources of quality wood for building, pulpwood for paper-making and so on. Many commercially important species grow to heights of at least 20 metres, making collection of seed possible only with machinery such as cherry-pickers. Some are also notoriously poor producers of seed, so it is difficult to obtain viable quantities of seed from individual trees with desirable characteristics. Since 1987, CSIRO's Division of Forestry has been growing miniature eucalypts that produce seeds rather than vegetation growth.
A promising power source for the future
The CSIRO has signed a $30 million research contract with Australian business and energy authorities to develop an advanced ceramic fuel cell for electricity generation. If successful, the technology will dramatically cut noxious emissions from the power plants of the future and could lead to the development of a new manufacturing industry in Australia. Ceramic fuel cells can run on natural gas, coal gas or hydrogen, and convert the chemical energy in the fuel directly into electricity. Unlike conventional power plants, they do not first have to burn the fuel to create heat; instead, it combines electro-chemically with oxygen ions to form water, electrical energy and, when natural or coal gas is used, carbon dioxide. Greater concern about pollution and energy conservation has increased interest in them as an alternative source of clean energy.
Tests for gluten and residues
Australians who suffer from coeliac disease must think about everything they eat or drink and choose only those items that do not contain gluten proteins found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten occurs naturally in flour. Coeliac disease prevents absorption of food by the small intestine. CSIRO's Wheat Research Unit have developed test kits for detecting heat-staple gluten proteins in foodstuffs. The kits use monoclonal antibodies that will bind only to gluten molecules; an enzyme reaction after the antibodies have bound to the gluten causes a colour change that indicates not only the presence of gluten in a sample, but also the amount present. The scientists have also developed test kits to analyse pesticide residues in stored grain.
What we are, what we eat
What you eat, it appears, can reveal more about your personality than Rorschach's famous inkblots. If you cannot lose weight, the answer may not be to try another dreary diet, but to see a behavioural psychologist. According to the preliminary findings of an intriguing experiment under way in Adelaide, personality seems to play a significant role in the selection of the types of food we consume.