By Carlie Devine
A new digital X-ray unit is creating sublime images that are helping taxonomists sort the fish from the fish.
Thanks to their new Digital X-ray Unit, the Australian National Fish Collection (ANFC) is producing stunningly detailed digital images. The unit is one of a few in Australia with micro-focus (magnification) capabilities critical to the naming and classification of fish species.
ANFC ichthyologist John Pogonoski says there have been quite a few ‘A-ha’ moments, such as when he recently confirmed the identification of a tiny coral reef fish located in the Great Barrier Reef that had not been seen since it was first collected in the 1870s.
“The fish wasn’t much larger than my thumbnail and I needed to check for the presence of a tiny bone – needless to say the task was made much easier using the Digital X-ray”, John said.
To maximise the potential of the system, John has learned digital X-ray image capture and enhancement techniques from an image specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, where similar systems have been used for about 10 years.
Digital X-rays have a much larger tonal range than previous film X-rays, rendering the final images clearer for scientists to interpret, and after a bit of image enhancement, they transform into beautiful black and white artworks.
The numbers and arrangements of skeletal elements of fishes, such as vertebrae and fin rays, are often unique to individual species, so this information can be the decisive piece of evidence to confirm their identification.
Accurate species identification is necessary to understand distributional ranges, preferred habitats and biology of individual species, so in theory the better the identification of a species, the more equipped conservation, fishery and resource managers are to manage ecosystems.
“Current estimates show the Australian fish fauna to number around 5000 species, and additional species continue to be discovered”, John said.
“With such a large fauna to document by a dwindling number of fish taxonomists, we need to take advantage of tools that increase the speed and accuracy of fish identification.”
Interested in fish? Check out FishMap, a spatial mapping tool for Australian marine fishes.
It’s amazing to think that in a country where almost half of adult Australians own a smart device, there are some people who simply don’t use the internet at all. Despite living in a country which is often known for early adoption of technology, there are still a staggering four million or one in five Australians who aren’t online.
For the past 12 months our researchers have been collecting fresh insights and evidence to better understand the impact and opportunities offered by next generation broadband as well as advice on the necessary steps needed to mitigate the associated risks. We’ve compiled our findings into the Broadband Impacts Report, a collection of comprehensive community surveys and interviews with businesses as well as detailed analyses of existing data sources and peer-reviewed economic and social research.
We found that by and large Australian households, businesses and governments are currently not prepared to fully take advantage of the services afforded by next generation broadband. However, across the board we also found that by giving more people and businesses the skills and confidence to use these broadband services effectively, will not only have a positive impact on their quality of life and business success, but also create broader economic benefits.
This infographic explains some of the key findings from the Broadband Impacts and Challenges Report (click for full size):
Learn more about our work in Broadband Innovation.
Media: Dan Chamberlain. P: +61 2 9372 4491 M: 0477 708 849 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Raja Jurdak, Autonomous Systems Researcher
Less than a month to go and we’ll be making new year’s resolutions. No doubt many of us will have ‘get fit’ somewhere on the list. One way to do that and be good to the environment is by ditching the car, skipping the bus, missing the train and…getting on a bike.
Public bikes are being installed by city councils in Melbourne and Brisbane to help alleviate traffic congestion on the daily commute to work. But very few people have made the switch from four wheels to two. So what’s keeping us away from public bikes?
Our autonomous systems team explored this question in a recent study and found that a major turn-off was cost. Since public bikes only offer free hires up to 30 minutes, users often limit their trips to half an hour to avoid paying. But of course that might not be long enough to get from A to B. So making longer hiring periods free could help increase uptake.
And now we’re going one pedal further to help understand public bike usage patterns at a finer scale.
We’re developing tiny solar-powered tracking devices to monitor where public bikes get taken. The trackers, called Camazotz, are about the size of a 50 cent coin and were originally designed for tracking flying foxes.
By attaching them to public bikes, city councils can use the data for planning new stations, designing incentive schemes, and managing public bike systems to increase uptake.
Camazotz can sense, collect and transmit data on a bikes precise GPS location and state of movement. It basically creates a sensor network from a fleet of bikes. While GPS systems typically use a lot of energy, this super lightweight device draws on the suns energy to power its battery making it much more efficient.
Lots of research is going into what make bike schemes work so there’ll be even more reason for us get on our bikes in 2014.
“I want it to work, but I don’t want to know anything about it.” Is that how you feel about electricity?
Fair enough. It’s a service that’s largely invisible to most people (except when the lights are on, of course!) and in our already busy, option-filled lives it might feel like a hassle to have one more thing to think about.
But what if Australia’s electricity future was less mysterious and gave you, the customer, more say in how you tailor your electricity use to best meet your needs?
Think of it like the telecommunications industry. Over a few decades we have seen a massive shift from a one-size-fits-all landline telephone system to a range of mobile and entertainment services that mean you may never have to watch pre-programmed, free-to-air TV again!
The potential for change in the electricity sector is enormous and now is the time to start the national discussion that helps us decide…where to from here?
The Future Grid Forum brought together the best thinkers from CSIRO, the electricity industry, government and community to explore potential futures for how Australia generates and consumes electricity in the decades up to 2050.
Do you want things to stay as they are? Maybe you’re at the forefront of technology adoption and want to lead the charge into a brave new world of customising your electricity use? Are you keen to disconnect from the grid or realise a 100 per cent renewables future?
Well, fire up the DeLorean. These infographics explain the four scenarios developed by the Future Grid Forum and give you a glimpse into what might come next.
More than A$17 billion worth of crops grown in Australia annually is attributed to agricultural pesticides. That’s a staggering 68% of the A$26 billion industry, according to a recent Deloitte report commissioned by CropLife Australia. So should we all pat ourselves on the back and eat up?
Most of us want cheap, perfect-looking produce and farmers want to make a decent living. Agricultural pesticides have undoubtedly reduced food loss and helped farmers provide the unblemished produce we have grown so used to.
But pesticides also represent a significant source of risk for human and wildlife health, and pollution into our waterways. Should we be concerned about these “costs”, and how do we account for them?
What are the costs of pesticides?
Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) are applied over large areas in agriculture and urban settings. Their use represents an important source of diffuse chemical pollution that is difficult to monitor and difficult to control.
The overuse and reliance on pesticides has resulted in weeds and insects developing resistance to insecticides and herbicides. This results in excessive, ever-increasing pesticide use in an attempt to get on top of the problem.
For example, in the early 90s the overuse of insecticides resulted in resistant cotton bollworm (a serious moth pest of cotton), which nearly brought the cotton industry to its knees. New technology — genetically modified cotton expressing a bacterial toxin that kills only moths including the bollworm — has been a saviour to the industry and insecticide use has reduced by 87%.
Australia also has the worst weed resistance problem in the world, and many herbicides are no longer an option for control. Producing crops at a profit may be at risk, and the only way to get on top of the problem is likely to be by non-chemical means.
Pests developing resistance to pesticides isn’t the only problem. The use of “broad-spectrum” insecticides also wipes out all the good insects — the ones that eat the pests munching away at crops. Consequently, other pest insects that escaped the initial spray are able to grow large populations unchecked.
Unfortunately broad-spectrum pesticides are some of the cheapest chemicals in Australia costing only A$1.50 per hectare to apply in grain crops, making them an obvious choice for many farmers. These issues in themselves are challenging to manage not to mention the cost to human health and wildlife.
Insects are animals with neurological systems, and many insecticides, particularly organophosphates — a widely used class of insecticides — are neurotoxins to insects and to humans. Organophosphates are still widely used in agriculture in Australia even though many have been banned in the EU, and banned or restricted in the USA. Rarely do we ever measure these costs.
What are the alternatives?
The challenge is to reduce the risk from excessive pesticide exposure while maintaining and increasing the level of crop productivity. What are our alternatives?
There is an extensive range of policy instruments used by many countries to address human and ecosystem health concerns and pesticide pollution of water and air. These include regulation; payments to encourage lower use and more accurate application; pesticide taxes to encourage greater use efficiency by farmers; and advice and information for farmers on “best practice”.
For example, in 2008 the French government launched “EcoPhyto Plan” with a goal to reduce the use of pesticides and plant protection products by 50% by 2018, with an annual budget of €41 million (A$61 million).
In 2009 the EU adopted “Integrated Pest Management”: legislation to achieve sustainable use of pesticides, and prioritise non-chemical methods. The legislation takes effect in 2014.
This strategy will include a range of alternative management strategies to pesticides that can help control pests.
For pest insects, we can grow new crop varieties more tolerant to pest damage. We can manage weeds in fields and around field edges. We can conserve insect predators such as spiders and ladybirds. And we can selectively use insecticides that leave predators unharmed.
Research has also shown that native vegetation on farms can support these insect predators and native fauna. Managing vegetation to promote beneficial insects is known as “pest suppressive landscapes”, which could be a part of integrated pest management.
Another method may be crop rotation that produces “biofumigation” activity, such as mustards which produce a compound that inhibits fungal growth. These strategies can reduce soil-borne pathogens and break the disease cycle.
Where next for Australia?
If we compare pesticide sales and crop production in Australia we find that both increased from the early 1990s to early 2000s.
But for many OECD countries we now find that crop production has been decoupled from growth in pesticides. Instead, crop production has been boosted by other factors including education and training, payments for beneficial pest management, pesticide taxes, new pesticide products that can be used in smaller doses, and the expansion of organic farming.
In Australia there is actually very little data on pesticide use and environmental impact. This makes it difficult to judge how Australia is tracking against other countries, and how our flora and fauna are responding with continued exposure to these toxins.
Many groups and public lead alliances have expressed serious concerns about the way pesticides are regulated in Australia and about the implications for human health and the environment; several dozen pesticides banned in Europe are currently registered and used commonly in Australia.
Protecting crops against damage from weeds, insect pests and disease is an ongoing challenge. Integrated approaches, where chemical control is but one option — not the only option, and support for innovation from science, industry and farmers — will see us tackle these challenges.
Greater support for the development and registration of “softer chemicals” that are less toxic to the farm workers, and the environment, is needed. Australian farming is one of our most trusted industries precisely because we take steps to protect our people and our environment. We can’t get complacent if we’re to maintain that trust.
While Hong Kong has just reported its first case of the deadly H7N9 bird flu indicating that the virus may be spreading across China, Australia is reporting an egg shortage over Christmas as a result of the recent H7N2 cases in NSW. So how does the virus keep reinventing itself to cause issues across the world?
As over 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in people originate in animals, whenever we hear of a new virus outbreak we jump to find the source.
That’s not to vilify the animal species responsible, but to enable scientists to characterise the virus, track its path, assess its level of virulence and its potential impact on animal and human populations. While some recent viruses such as SARS and MERS have been tracked to bats, in the case of avian influenza in people, the source is birds.
Finding the source of influenza
As well as “bird flu” in the past there have also been reports of “swine flu”. In fact both these flu viruses belong to a group known as influenza A, and all influenza A viruses originally come from wild water fowl.
These complex viruses have evolved over time to become infectious to domestic birds such as farmed and back-yard poultry, pigs, horses, other domestic and wild animals and of course people. Cross-species transmissions can occur from time to time.
Viruses that infect more than one species frequently have natural hosts in which they replicate but do not cause obvious disease. The pathogen and host exist in harmony with each other and examples include Hendra, Nipah and SARS viruses in bats, Hanta viruses in rodents and influenza viruses in wild water birds.
On the whole, naturally occurring avian influenza (AI) viruses do not cause disease in wild bird populations. However, if wild water fowl are shedding virus and come in contact with domestic poultry, their food or water, either directly or via their excretions, AI can enter a poultry farm.
Once on a farm, the virus can be transmitted and maintained in the poultry in low pathogenic form, or certain strains can mutate to become highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the new host with a high fatality rate.
In the case of farmed chickens, the close contact between these birds can lead to rapid transmission and in some countries infection has jumped from the poultry to other species such as pigs and humans.
Influenza virus evolution
There are a range of different influenza virus subtypes differentiated by the external proteins of the virus: haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). It is generally recognised there are 16 different H types and 9 different N types.
Only some viruses of the H7 and H5 subtypes progress to be highly pathogenic in poultry through the process of mutation. Other H types may cause low-level disease but do not show the highly pathogenic mutations that can occur with H7 and H5 strains.
Avian influenza is an RNA virus with eight segments to its genome which makes it prone to re-assortment. When two or more influenza strains infect a host the genetic material can mix thereby producing a new strain or genotype. These genotypes can be tracked over time and the lineage identified for each of the genomic segments.
The major H7 virus lineages can be traced to either one of Europe and Asia (Eurasia), Australia, or Nth American origins. On this basis, gene sequencing of virus from an influenza outbreak can be used to determine whether it is likely to be an exotic strain newly introduced from another region, or derived from viruses already circulating in the local environment.
The Avian Influenza situation in Australia
While Australian water fowl remain predominantly local to our continent, there are many wild migratory birds such as shore birds and waders that travel across the world to share Australia’s waterways. A few of these migratory birds could potentially infect local wild water fowl.
The devastating H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza strain has not ever been detected in either Australian wild or domesticated birds. All previous highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in Australian poultry have been caused by H7 viruses.
Low pathogenic viruses with an H7 haemagglutinin similar to that found in the current H7N2 outbreak and the earlier H7N7 outbreak in NSW have been detected in past unrelated samples from Australian wild water fowl.
Genetic tracking gives support to the belief that outbreaks such as the October 2013 H7N2 are the result of transmission of a low pathogenic virus from a wild bird reservoir to the poultry farm, where it then turned highly pathogenic as it spread among the farmed chickens.
Both the 2012 H7N7 and 2013 H7N2 are of Australian H7 lineage which has been circulating naturally here for many years.
Predictive genetic analysis
Genetic markers have been identified on H5 and H7 viruses that are associated with their potential to cause disease in people. The H7N9 virus in China in February 2013, though a low pathogenic avian virus, has certain genetic markers that are believed to be associated with its being more transmissible to and pathogenic in mammalian hosts.
Unlike the Chinese H7N9, the Australian H7N2 and H7N7 strains are more typical avian influenza A viruses that do not contain the same genetic markers that are a concern for disease in people.
The importance of biosecurity
Avian influenza will remain prevalent around the world so long as there are migratory birds. Biosecurity measures can mitigate the risk but whilst poultry, their food or water remain in potential contact with wild birds there remains a low possibility of the poultry becoming infected.
Biosecurity at the farm level is therefore vitally important to mitigate the risk of AI infection and biosecurity precautions to prevent disease outbreaks should be an everyday practice for all bird owners, whether large scale or back-yard poultry farmers.
This year’s Tokyo Motor Show featured the full gamut of the car world’s creativity – from sporty tractors and sleek roadsters to minute commuter vehicles and hydrogen-powered prime movers. The next-generation Mars Rover and a giant statue of a toddler weeing even made an appearance.
But discreetly hidden amongst the glitz, glamour and occasional wackiness of this super-charged event – deep inside the bowels of the newly unveiled Honda Odyssey – was one of CSIRO’s quiet achievers: the UltraBattery.
The UltraBattery is a clever combination of the traditional lead-acid battery (found in cars) and a supercapacitor (like the one that powers your camera flash), resulting in an economical, super fast-charging battery with long-life power.
In its first commercial vehicle installation, the UltraBattery will give the Odyssey’s engine the oomph of power it needs when accelerating – previously a challenge for conventional batteries in cars with idle start-stop (that’s where a car’s engine turns off briefly when you’re idling at the lights, for example). This will save you fuel and reduce emissions without making you look like a loser stalled when the light turns green.
The UltraBattery produces 50% more power than conventional battery systems, with a life cycle that is at least four times longer. It’s also about 70% cheaper than batteries currently used in hybrid-electric vehicles, and up to 95% of the material in the battery can be recycled.
This little energy storage marvel has a range of applications, including hybrid vehicles, renewable energy storage, remote area power supply, emergency power backup and forklift trucks. It’s won its Melbourne inventors – recently retired Dr Lan Lam and his team – many accolades at home and abroad, and has been successfully installed in large-scale solar power plants in New Mexico, United States, and King Island off the coast of Tasmania as part of Australia’s largest renewable energy storage system.
In a nifty example of helping drive innovation in Australia, CSIRO’s technology has been licensed to the Furukawa Battery Company (Japan) and East Penn Manufacturing (United States) for motor vehicle applications through the US, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Canada and China; and to CSIRO spin-out company Ecoult for stationary applications.
Australians will have a chance to take the UltraBattery for a spin when the new Odyssey steers its way onto our shores early next year.