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Issue 70




New uses for native plants
CSIRO researchers have developed two native plants for unusual settings. As a suitable grass for roadside verges, Hume wallaby grass Danthonia richardsonii has been well accepted by landscape planners. One of our prettiest native plants, Geraldton waxflower Chamelaucium uncinatum has been developed as a miniature which will be suitable for indoor use.
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Bay health study
An ambitious environmental research project under way in Melbourne seeks to determine the health of Port Phillip Bay. Commissioned by Melbourne Water, the project will investigate in detail the water quality of the bay (including the level of contamination by toxic chemicals), determine its capacity to assimilate nutrients now and in the future, and assess the health of fish living in the Bay.
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Battling bushfires by computer
The CSIRO Division of Forestry Bushfire Research Group have developed a National Bushfire Model that predicts, on a portable computer, the spread, shape and behaviour of bushfires in a variety of landscapes. It also displays fire patterns together with vegetation types, roads, water and resources (such as settlements) under threat. The model gives firefighters reliable, precise information on a bushfire's path, its flame height, intensity and rate of spread and the behaviour of flanking fires, based on digitised maps and real-time weather reports.
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Spotlight on our forests
Australia is losing its native forests at a rate of at least 1,500 square kilometres a year, according to the Resource Assessment Commission. And in some States, deforestation appears to be occurring at a faster rate today than throughout most of the last 200 years. The Commission warns that clearing, mainly for agriculture and grazing, threatens the survival of some forest types, such as the Queensland brigalow, and that deforestation on unreserved public and private land is cause for concern. Deforestation and excessive logging also have serious implications for biological diversity.
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Plant engineering keeps pests at bay
CSIRO scientists have developed a commercial variety of cotton that is genetically engineered to resist a major insect pest. The new transgenic cotton plant contains an extra gene, inserted into its genetic information to make it produce a substance that is poisonous to the Heliothis caterpillar, an insect that eats the plant's leaves and flower buds. A second development awaiting field trial is a transgenic cotton plant resistant to the weedicide 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), a chemical heavily used on wheat crops. The creation and release of genetically modified plants - especially herbicide-resistant crops - is a controversial issue, but the researchers believe the benefits in this instance far outweigh the alleged risks to the environment.
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Transgenic potato
Australia's first transgenic plant is a potato destined for use in the snack food industry. The genetically modified Atlantic variety is the result of 2 years' work by a research team at CSIRO's Division of Plant Industry. The transgenic potato contains a synthetic gene, constructed in the laboratory, that makes the plant resistant to potato leaf roll virus, the most serious viral infection of potatoes world-wide.
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Gene manipulation - the debate
Genetic manipulation is not a new science - it has been practised by plant and animal breeders for centuries. What is new is that, with techniques developed in molecular biology, scientists can now manipulate genes much more precisely, cutting and slicing DNA almost at will. They also have a much bigger gene pool to draw on, making it possible to insert into organisms genes collected from bacteria, viruses or totally unrelated plants and animals. Creating 'transgenic' organisms in this fashion has its controversies. Opinion research commissioned by CSIRO found that many people have concern about genetic engineering. Some, including scientists, are concerned about the impact of genetic engineering on world agricultural trade.
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Preventing acid spills from farm land
Fish kills have been reported from both the Tweed and Macleay Rivers on the NSW north coast. Pesticides from canefields, sewage overflow and mine runoff had all been suspected, but without foundation. Researchers found that at times of flooding, iron pyrite was released from the soil, and then oxidised to form sulphuric acid and so create an actual acid sulphate soil. The acid affects aquatic food chains, reducing populations of fishes and crustaceans. Methods to control the acid sulphate soil problem are outlined.
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Red spot disease: the acid connection
Australian fisheries biologists suspect there is a link between runoff from acid sulphate soils and red spot disease or epizootic ulcerative syndrome (EUS), an ulcerative skin disease of estuarine fish. Researchers have shown that the primary cause of mortality in affected fish is the invasion of skin and underlying muscle by an aquatic fungus, Aphanomyces. It appears that changes in estuary water quality (including high acidity) may damage the skin of fish exposed to these changes.
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Smog moves west as Sydney grows
Smog levels are down over inner Sydney, but the outlook in the expanding western suburbs is causing much concern, particularly in the Hawkesbury Basin, Parramatta River Valley and Liverpool Basin. The only real hope is to control the level of photochemical smog formation through a lowering of the emissions of nitrogen oxides, currently produced by motor vehicles and factories. However, lowering nitrogen oxide levels will be a far more difficult strategy than existing pollution controls.
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Effects of photochemical smog
The main constituents of photochemical smog are ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Although ozone is widely considered the chief indicator of photochemical smog, nitrogen dioxide is an important pollutant in its own right, affecting human and plant health and playing a role in the formation of acid rain. Ozone, a powerful oxidising gas, readily attacks living tissue. In humans it can cause sore throats, inflammation and discharges in the nasal passages. Ozone also attacks plants during the growing season at low concentrations, especially citrus fruits, potatoes, legumes and soyabeans, affecting their ability to photosynthesise. Combined with other compounds in photochemical smog, the gas damages buildings and degrades rubber, clothing and paint dyes, resulting in substantial economic costs.
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An ingenious smog monitor
CSIRO's Airtrak air-monitoring system has proved an invaluable tool in studying Sydney's smog problems. Airtrak has three components: a photolytic chamber in which air is stirred and illuminated by ultraviolet lamps to trigger smog-forming reactions, a high-performance nitric oxide detector, and computer algorithms for interpreting data and predicting smog levels.
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Trees that resist insect attack
Some eucalypts are much more susceptible than others to insect attack. About 20 to 30 years ago, botanists noticed that some specimens of candle-bark were resistant to Christmas beetles, some red gums to psyllid lerps and some red box to sawfly. The type and quantity of oils in the leaf provide at least part of the reason. This variation not only occurs between species but within species as well, so that one part of an individual organism may be susceptible but another part could be resistant. Biologists call this genetic variability within an individual, mosaicism. Researchers are now breeding replacement trees from these resistant lines.
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A marauding weed in check
The aquatic fern Salvinia molesta, known as salvinia, is one of the world's 'greatest' water weeds, as it chokes lakes and waterways. However, the introduction of the tiny South American weevil Cyrtobagous salviniae is one of the main biological weapons keeping the weed in check. The weevils have been successfully introduced into Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, India and South Africa.
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Water hyacinth and alligator weed
When the CSIRO Division of Entomology began research into biological control of water weeds, it tackled each of Australia's main water-weed species - water hyacinth, salvinia and alligator weed - at the same time, knowing that if only one species were con
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Metals in the wilderness
Tasmania's south-west is famous for its wilderness, beautiful rivers and rugged coastline. But all is not quite as pristine as these images suggest. The central west coast's Macquarie Harbour, and the lower part of the King River that drains into it, have higher than normal levels of heavy metals (manganese, copper, cadmium, nickel and zinc) and petroleum-derived hydrocarbons. Results of the analyses clearly showed that the King River is the conduit by which the heavy metals enter Macquarie Harbour. The sampling showed very high levels of heavy metals in this river, which carries discharged water from the Mt Lyell copper mine near Queenstown.
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Monitoring environmental stress
Biotest, is a new and powerful system to measure environmental stress in organisms, which has been developed and refined using Australian species. It works like this: any organism, whether plant or animal, under stress from, say, heavy metal pollution begins to lose homeostasis - the ability to maintain its physical development at an optimal level. A decline in homeostatic efficiency may result in changes to the organism's biochemical functions, chromosomes, physical appearance or ability to defend itself against infection and parasites; in short, it may lose fitness. These homeostatic changes provide the foundation for what promises to be a reliable, cheap and universal method of environmental assessment.
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Fishing in paradise
Tropical ocean islands like the Solomon Islands, Kiribati or the Maldives have little with which to earn foreign currency other than tourism and fishing. In the Solomons, two types of fishing occur; tuna fishing in the open ocean, and reef fishing in the coral lagoon. However tuna fishing needs need live bait - from the lagoon - causing a resource-use conflict with the locals who rely on the lagoon fish for an important part of their diet. Two studies have been carried out in the Solomons on how bait-fish affect the reef fishery, and the place of bait-fish in the ecology of the lagoons.
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Avoiding volcanic clouds
Volcanic ash is a menace to pilots since neither human eyes nor conventional radar can distinguish between volcanic ash clouds and those composed of water or ice. CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research has developed AVADS - Airborne Volcanic Ash Detection System - a multi-channel infrared radiometer that utilises techniques and instrumentation based on satellite radiometers to discriminate between different types of clouds at distances of up to 100 kilometres. The system offers instant read-outs on the composition and movement of cloud formations and, because it is especially sensitive to the low concentrations of ash at the edges of clouds, allows pilots vital minutes in which to take evasive action.
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