In this issue

Issue 68

Tasmania's ear on the sky
A glance at the weather map reveals how important Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are to Australia's climate, yet little is known about just how they exert so much influence on our weather. This is hardly surprising, given the storms and glacial cold th
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Foxes attacked
The fearsome fox, an introduced pest, has been and continues to be a disaster for our small native mammals, as well as a nuisance for farmers. The CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology has set up a program to devise an efficient method of control. The biologists' strategy centres on rendering the pests sterile by using their own immune systems to attack their gametes (eggs and sperm). In effect, the animals will be inoculated against themselves. But rather than injecting the animals, the researchers hope to use a virus, to which genes for proteins found on fox egg and sperm will be added, to perform the inoculation.
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Pulp mill research
The CSIRO is managing a $15 million pulp mill environmental research program on behalf of the federal government. The program, funded by the Commonwealth, States and industry, will play a key role in enhancing the existing standards and assessment procedures for the approval and operation of any new bleached eucalypt kraft pulp mills in Australia.
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Message received
The ingenious experiment that uses sound to monitor the oceans' temperature has reported its first successful transmissions. An underwater transmitter near Heard Island in the southern Indian Ocean sends sound waves around the globe, which are picked up at various recording stations. Sound travels faster in warmer water, and precise measurements of the travel times over several years will reveal whether average ocean temperatures are rising.
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CSIRO goes to Hollywood
The movie 'Arachnophobia' includes some Australian eight-legged stars. The CSIRO Division of Entomology provided advice when the producers were looking for spiders large and menacing enough to scuttle, lurk and generally provide inspiration for leading actor Jeff Daniels's fear of spiders. Keeping company in the movie with South American bird-eating spiders is Delena cancerides, a common and quite harmless Australian huntsman.
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The goal: sustainable development
If Australia is to maintain high living standards and a growing population without continuing environmental damage, it needs ESD - ecologically sustainable development. Is ESD an achievable goal? A major federal government project is attempting to come to grips with the complex issues involved, define the main areas needing action and determine what that action should be.
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How high could the sea rise?
Predictions of sea-level rise due to global warming range from minor to catastrophic. CSIRO oceanographers have developed a model to consider the complexities of the ever-changing oceans, with their great volume, massive currents and sensitivity to the influence of land masses and the atmosphere.
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Quick, complete waste destruction
Plascon, the plasma converter (also known as a plasma arc furnace) developed by the CSIRO Division of Manufacturing Technology, may be based on the same principles as lightning or the arc welder. It has a magical potential to destroy hazardous toxic wastes by breaking them down into their constituent elements and, because its high temperature prevents the formation of large molecules characteristic of hazardous chemicals, virtually eliminating the risk of 'leakage' of hazardous substances.
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Methuselah of the deep
In deep water off the north-western coast of Tasmania lives the orange roughy, but this excellent eating fish is now being threatened by overfishing. Only by careful monitoring of fish stock levels and by studying its growth patterns can this resource be maintained.
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Tracking climate change: air under the microscope
In an effort to predict future climate change, researchers are using three methods to help clarify climate-change predictions. Tree ring dating (dendrochronological) studies of forest trees from temperate and boreal (cold) regions such as Tasmania; ice core measurements from Antarctica and measurement of greenhouse and ozone-depleting gases through GASLAB (Global Atmospheric Sampling Laboratory), based at CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research. GASLAB takes clean air samples from around the world and analyses them for carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons.
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Fungi to control pests in the soil
Myco-insecticides are showing promise as a clean replacement for chemicals in some pest control applications. Larvae of scarab beetles which effect the roots of peanuts and cane sugar are one of the target populations for the new fungal insecticides. The soil fungus Metarhizium seems to be particularly effective as a biological control agent against these pests.
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Plants in the sun
An increase in ultraviolet exposure due to ozone depletion in the stratosphere would be bad news for us. Research is now showing that plants, including crop species, are also at risk. High ultraviolet-B exposure, particularly in peas, results in a loss of chlorophyll from the leaves, and a resultant drop in photosynthetic ability.
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Planning for future needs
Population movement in Australia is a major concern to regional planners in Australia. A population-forecasting package known as TEMPO was developed to predict future population distributions and their composition. Another package known as HOSPIM (Hospital Patient Spatial Impact Model) allows planners to develop strategies for hospital-related health care delivery.
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An elusive vitamin under the spotlight
The various forms of vitamin E, or tocopherol, are known to be antioxidants; that is, they prevent oxidation (the removal of electrons), which can damage a range of important biological compounds. Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain vitamin E to prevent this oxidation. Groups including the poor, the elderly, and some Aboriginal groups with generally a poor standard of nutrition are at risk. Diabetics could also benefit from an increased intake of vitamin E.
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Unwanted nitrates: the termite connection
Water from many bores in central Australia contains nitrate ions. Usually nitrates in rivers, and groundwater are a sign of pollution, or come from agricultural fertilisers. However, in central Australia with a sparse population and little application of fertilisers, this cannot be the case. Researchers have found that blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in soil produce nitrates. Termite mounds were also found to have staggering concentrations of nitrates, and with heavy rain, the nitrates can be leached down into the water table.
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No more 'bonsai' banana trees?
The banana aphid, Pentalonia nigronervosa, is a small, soft-bodied pest which occurs throughout the Pacific and, because it carries bunchy-top virus, is responsible for serious crop losses. Bunchy-top virus creates a virtual 'bonsai' banana, stunting the tree's growth and deforming its leaves. CSIRO researchers are working on introducing a parasitic wasp, Aphidius colemani, as a biological control agent for the banana aphid. Trials with the wasp are being carried out in Tonga.
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