Celebrating our heroes of science

The IgNobel Stinker

The Stinker. Official mascot of the IgNobel Prizes

The winners of the 2014 IgNobel prizes have just been announced, and there’s an Australian among them. Peter K. Jonason from the University of Western Sydney shared the IgNobel for Psychology with Amy Jones and Minna Lyons, for providing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.

We are filled with admiration.

CSIRO wasn’t among the winners this year, but we’re going to take the opportunity to boast about our earlier winners.

In 2011, David Rentz (formerly of CSIRO) and Darryl Gwynne shared the IgNobel Prize for biology, for their groundbreaking discovery that a certain kind of Australian beetle attempts to mate with stubby bottles. Specifically, that male Buprestid beetles (jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles) had a particular attraction to brown stubbies – none of this fancy craft beer in clear glass for them. In true scientific spirit, having noticed this occurring, they took steps to confirm the mating hypothesis. They ruled out the beetles being attracted by beer residue – the stubby bottles were completely dry. Nor were the beetles interested in a discarded wine bottle nearby – suggesting the colour of the bottle was the source of the attraction.

They then placed several more stubby bottles within range of the male beetles, and found that these too were extremely appealing to the beetles. So appealing, in fact, that they didn’t give up of their own accord, but had to be physically dislodged from making their amorous advances.

This, of course, provides a valuable lesson about the unintended consequences of littering. Throwing away a stubby can cause grave disappointment for beetles.

But these are not our only IgNobelists.

In 2006, Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes took out the IgNobel in mathematics for working out the solution to a problem that has confounded photographers for many years: how many photos do you need to take to be sure no-one is blinking.

They managed to reduce it to a (fairly) simple rule of thumb. For groups of less than 20 people, take the number of people in the group and divide that number by three. If you take that number of photos you can be virtually certain one of them will be blink-free. If the light is bad, divide the number of people in the group by two, because there’s a greater chance people will be blinking whilst the shutter is open.

This doesn’t work as well when the groups get larger: the number of photos grows so large that the group is likely to lose patience. But as they point out, the more people in a photo, the less it matters if one of them is blinking. And you’ll be pleased to know this was all experimentally tested in the canteen at lunchtime.

So congratulations to this year’s winners, commiserations to the losers, and onwards and upwards for the spirit of inquiry that drives improbable research.

Next year, next year …


Queensland survey reveals lukewarm view of coal seam gas

By Andrea Walton, CSIRO; Rod McCrea, CSIRO, and Rosemary Leonard, CSIRO

Coal seam gas plant in Chinchilla Qld.

Residents in Queensland’s Western Downs region have mixed feelings towards coal seam gas (CSG) development taking place in their midst, according to our CSIRO survey.

More than two-thirds of locals described themselves as “tolerating” or “accepting” CSG, while only 22% had openly positive attitudes. However, just 9% of survey respondents rejected the industry outright.

Around half of the surveyed residents felt that their community was struggling to adapt to changes. Residents were also less optimistic about the future, with many predicting a decline in community wellbeing over the coming years.

Attitudes to coal seam gas

We conducted a representative survey of 400 people living in and around the towns of Chinchilla, Dalby, Miles and Tara, all of which are experiencing varying stages of CSG development. We asked people about their attitudes to CSG, as well as their opinions on the wellbeing and resilience of their communities in the face of both opportunities and challenges associated with rapid CSG development.

Opportunities include increased employment and business, new services and new facilities, and a more vibrant community, whereas the challenges include water and land management, traffic conditions and safety, and affordable housing.

There were mixed feelings towards CSG development in the region, with almost 70% saying they either “tolerate” or “accept” it. A minority (22%) “approve” or “embrace” it, while a smaller minority (9%) of respondents “reject” it.

Although these results indicate that attitudes to CSG are not strongly polarised in these communities, it is clear that some community members are strongly opposed to it.

CSG attitudesQueensland

Attitudes towards coal seam gas in Western Downs communities
CSIRO

In response to questions around how residents felt their community was dealing with CSG development in their region, about 50% felt that their community was struggling to adapt to the changes – either “resisting”, “not coping”, or “only just coping” with CSG development.

Queensland perceptions of CSG

Perceptions of community responses to coal seam gas development in the area
CSIRO

Other results show that more positive attitudes to CSG are associated with community perceptions of being resilient, the environment being managed well for the future, good employment and business opportunities, and resource companies, government, and business working effectively with residents to deal with changes.

Differences across the region

Residents in Chinchilla see their community as adapting to changes more effectively than people in the other areas we surveyed. This reflects a perception that Chinchilla has better employment and business opportunities than places like Dalby and Tara, where respondents were more likely to find these opportunities unsatisfactory.

People who lived out of town reported lower levels of social interaction, services and facilities, employment and business opportunities, and overall community wellbeing than town residents. Although this may reflect general differences between rural and town life, those living out of town also had less favourable attitudes toward CSG (see the second chart above) and lower expectations of future community wellbeing .

Nevertheless, the overall average of community wellbeing across our whole survey was rated at 3.8 out of 5, which is robust and higher than many other Queensland regions when compared to similar items surveyed in a previous study.

Improving the situation

Our survey offers a snapshot of how people in Queensland’s Western Downs are feeling about the changes happening to their communities, and could form a basis for future strategies to support them.

The results suggest that investments made in wellbeing and resilience could lead to a more optimistic outlook for the future. In particular, three key areas that cause community dissatisfaction are road infrastructure, community participation in decision-making, and long-term environmental management.

However, we also found that while improving these things would benefit communities, these are not the most important factors for overall wellbeing. The things rated as most important are: services and facilities, community spirit and cohesion, a socially interactive community, personal safety, and environmental quality.

More optimistic outlooks for community wellbeing are associated with community resilience; especially good working relationships between groups, planning and leadership, supporting volunteers, and having access to information. Targeted investments are important but need to be combined with good collaboration between state and local governments, CSG companies, and local communities to enhance future community wellbeing.

Given that Queensland is more advanced than any other state in terms of CSG production, our study might also offer lessons for other regions of Australia that are facing the issue of CSG development, either now or in the future.

The Conversation

Andrea Walton is affiliated with CSIRO. She receives funding from GISERA. The Community Functioning and Wellbeing Project was funded by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaborative vehicle established to undertake publicly-reported independent research addressing the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industries. The governance structure for GISERA is designed to provide for and protect research independence and transparency of funded research.

Rod McCrea receives funding from the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaborative vehicle established to undertake publicly-reported independent research addressing the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industries. The governance structure for GISERA is designed to provide for and protect research independence and transparency of funded research.

Rosemary Leonard receives funding from GISERA.The Community Functioning and Wellbeing Project was funded by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaborative vehicle established to undertake publicly-reported independent research addressing the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industries. The governance structure for GISERA is designed to provide for and protect research independence and transparency of funded research. See http://www.gisera.org.au for more information about GISERA’s governance structure, funded projects, and research findings. She is a member of The Greens political party in Western Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


What’s in your porcini packet? You may find a new species … or three

By Nai Tran-Dinh, CSIRO and David Midgley, CSIRO

Mycologists – scientists who study fungi – estimate there are up to five million species of fungi on Earth. Of these, only about 2%, or 100,000 species, have been formally described. So where are the other 98% of fungi hiding?

At least three, it seems, were hiding in a supermarket packet of dried porcini mushrooms from China. Mycologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Suz from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, used DNA sequencing to identify three new species in a packet of dried porcini mushrooms purchased from a supermarket, and report their findings in the journal PeerJ today.

The internal transcribed spacer (ITS) is a DNA region commonly used to identify fungi. (In fact, it’s been called the “universal DNA barcode marker for fungi”.) In their PeerJ paper, Dentinger and Suz compared previously published ITS sequences for porcini and discovered significant differences in three of their packet of dried mushrooms, enough to mark them as new species.

Their work also highlighted the use of modern DNA sequencing technologies for identifying species in food, and for monitoring foods for quality and adherence to international regulations, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Fungi really are fascinating

Like an apple, a mushroom is the fruit of the fungus. It’s not the apple tree.

Porcini

Typical porcini (Boletus edulis var. clavipes) in its natural habitat. This is not one of the newly discovered species (which are only known from the dried remains in the packet).
Bryn Dentinger

Most of the fungus grows below the ground, in a vast network of root-like tubes called hyphae. How vast, you might ask? Well, in a case known as the “humongous fungus”, a single clone (individual) of the honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) has been shown to cover more than 900 hectares in Malheur National Forest in Oregon, USA. Estimates place the age of this gigantic fungal network at more than 2,000 years.

In Australia, some of our fungi are a little more modest in size, though perhaps bigger than you might guess. Nicole Sawyer and John Cairney at the University of Western Sydney have estimated the size of individuals of the Australian Elegant Blue Webcap (Cortinarius rotundisporus) at more than 30m in diameter – about the size of tennis court.

Despite the impressive size of some species, new species of fungi don’t get the same recognition as a new species of mammal, bird or reptile. But discoveries of novel species are the new norm in modern mycology – a change being driven by advances in our ability to sequence DNA.

It’s very important to better understand fungi, as they underpin the terrestrial biology of Earth. They associate with the vast majority of plants in a symbiosis called mycorrhiza.

Living both within plant roots, and out in the soil, they gather nutrients for the plant, and protect it against diseases and water stress, enhancing plant growth in exchange for sugars the plant produces via photosynthesis.

Without their fungal assistants, plants as we know them would not exist. Other fungi are vital decomposers and return nutrients stored in organic matter to the soil. While the most fungi are beneficial, some fungi are devastating plant pathogens, while a small number of fungi can cause disease in humans such as ringworm, trichosporonosis or aspergillosis.

Close human relationships

Humans have also recruited an array of fungi to their cause. Products produced by fungi are used in medicine – many antibiotics come from fungi – and the production of a range of food products including soy sauce, blue cheese, bread, beer and wine.

New porcini dried

Some of the new porcini species reported in PeerJ today.
Bryn Dentinger

Numerous new fungi related to Malassezia (a yeast that causes dandruff in humans) have been found in marine subsurface sediments in the South China Sea by Chinese researchers from Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen) University, while scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US found the same Malassezia-like species from the Peru Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

The work in the Peru Trench used environmental RNA sequencing to guarantee that sequences observed were from environmental samples, and not contaminants from human skin.

Recent advances in modern DNA sequencing technology routinely yield millions of DNA fragments (reads) that can be quickly and accurately identified using classification tools. One such tool is the recently released Warcup ITS fungal identification set developed by CSIRO scientists in collaboration with the Ribosomal Database Project (RDP) and partners from the Western Illinois University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US.

The Warcup ITS dataset allows identification, to species level, of thousands of ITS sequences within minutes.

The use of modern DNA technologies and classification tools may allow development of bioactive compounds for medicine, enhanced agricultural productivity, environmental damage repair, industrial applications such as biofuels and enzymes, along with food identification and potentially new food sources … sometimes in places you’d least expect.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Less is more with the Water Use Efficiency Initiative

Wheat harvest in SA

A fine wheat crop. Image by John Coppi

Australia is not what you’d call over-burdened with water, and yet we grow vast amounts of wheat and other grains. To continue to do so, we need to use the water we have as efficiently as possible. To do more with less.

Together with the Grains Research and Development Corporation, we started a multi-pronged project to increase the water use efficiency of grain production in Australia. And it worked so well that two of our scientists, James Hunt and John Kirkegaard, have just shared a Eureka Prize for it.

Their research has shown that it’s possible to increase the long term average winter crop yield, without increasing input costs. This would lift the average Australian wheat yield by around 25 per cent across all regions. They have also shown an increase in the long term average yields of winter grain crops, including barley and canola.

To make sure they covered all types of climate and soil conditions, they worked with 16 regional grower groups and research institutions across Australia, from the WA Sandplain to Tasmania.

They studied the many factors that influence water use efficiency and looked into the kinds of management practices that lead to more efficient use of water.

Instead of looking at a single crop or a single paddock, the research focussed on the capacity of the whole farm, and then assessed the farm’s potential for production and profitability, as well as the risks that might be associated with a change in the water use regime.

Some of the results returned big numbers. Improved summer fallow management, including weed management and stubble retention can lead to a 60 per cent increase in grain yield. The use of a legume crop after two consecutive grain crops can lead to increases in a range between 16 and 83 per cent.

The results also revealed that matching nitrogen supply to the soil type produce yield increases of up to 91 per cent.

In a world that needs to be fed, these are important findings. If we can do more to work to our conditions, it’s an all-round win.

So big congratulations to James and John, for making less more.


Managing water across borders

Koshi River in Nepal

Koshi River in Nepal. Image by Amy North

As World Water Week draws to a close, we want to tell you about a water management project we’re involved with in the developing world.

The Koshi River basin covers some of the poorest parts of China, India and Nepal. The river stretches more than 700km, from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas, and finally feeds into the Ganges River. Millions of people live in the region – many of them in flood-prone areas – and rely on the river and the fertile floodplain for their livelihoods.

We’re helping to manage the river better and improve the circumstances of the people living there.

The area is subject to floods, droughts landslides and flows of debris. Erosion also leads to heavy sedimentation, and rivers have been known to change their course.

NASA image showing course change

This NASA satellite image shows a change of the Koshi River’s course.

The effects of climate change aren’t helping, either. Glaciers in the upper reaches of the Basin are melting, bringing water and sediments down to the plains. The people of the Koshi River Basin are in an increasingly vulnerable situation. The impacts of climate change are disturbing water supply and agricultural production. Adding more pressure, the demand for energy and food production is rising.

Raising the stakes even higher, the Koshi Basin also has areas of significant biodiversity, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Aid, we’re working with partners including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Water Management Institute and eWater  to develop an integrated modelling framework for the entire basin. We’re helping to develop water balance models that capture the relationship between climate (both rainfall and temperature) and stream-flow (and flood risk) in the Koshi River Basin.

We’re also working on characterising the seasonality and variability of stream flow, and, if possible, the expected trends in stream-flow. We’ll also develop techniques for understanding the likelihood of particular stream-flow estimates.

We aim to use the research and knowledge gained from these projects to allow a regionally coordinated approach to developing and managing the Koshi Basin’s water resources. The people of the area, and the environment, should both benefit.


99.999% certainty humans are driving global warming: new study

Gambling for high stakes

Would you take a gamble with these odds? Image by Kraevski Vitaly Shutterstock

By Philip Kokic, CSIRO; Mark Howden, CSIRO, and Steven Crimp, CSIRO

There is less than 1 chance in 100,000 that global average temperature over the past 60 years would have been as high without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, our new research shows.

Published in the journal Climate Risk Management today, our research is the first to quantify the probability of historical changes in global temperatures and examines the links to greenhouse gas emissions using rigorous statistical techniques.

Our new CSIRO work provides an objective assessment linking global temperature increases to human activity, which points to a close to certain probability exceeding 99.999%.

Our work extends existing approaches undertaken internationally to detect climate change and attribute it to human or natural causes. The 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report provided an expert consensus that:

It is extremely likely [defined as 95-100% certainty] that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic [human-caused] increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.

Decades of extraordinary temperatures

July 2014 was the 353rd consecutive month in which global land and ocean average surface temperature exceeded the 20th-century monthly average. The last time the global average surface temperature fell below that 20th-century monthly average was in February 1985, as reported by the US-based National Climate Data Center.

This means that anyone born after February 1985 has not lived a single month where the global temperature was below the long-term average for that month.

We developed a statistical model that related global temperature to various well-known drivers of temperature variation, including El Niño, solar radiation, volcanic aerosols and greenhouse gas concentrations. We tested it to make sure it worked on the historical record and then re-ran it with and without the human influence of greenhouse gas emissions.

Our analysis showed that the probability of getting the same run of warmer-than-average months without the human influence was less than 1 chance in 100,000.

We do not use physical models of Earth’s climate, but observational data and rigorous statistical analysis, which has the advantage that it provides independent validation of the results.

Detecting and measuring human influence

Our research team also explored the chance of relatively short periods of declining global temperature. We found that rather than being an indicator that global warming is not occurring, the observed number of cooling periods in the past 60 years strongly reinforces the case for human influence.

We identified periods of declining temperature by using a moving 10-year window (1950 to 1959, 1951 to 1960, 1952 to 1961, etc.) through the entire 60-year record. We identified 11 such short time periods where global temperatures declined.

Our analysis showed that in the absence of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, there would have been more than twice as many periods of short-term cooling than are found in the observed data.

There was less than 1 chance in 100,000 of observing 11 or fewer such events without the effects of human greenhouse gas emissions.

Good risk management is all about identifying the most likely causes of a problem, and then acting to reduce those risks. Some of the projected impacts of climate change can be avoided, reduced or delayed by effective reduction in global net greenhouse gas emissions and by effective adaptation to the changing climate.

Ignoring the problem is no longer an option. If we are thinking about action to respond to climate change or doing nothing, with a probability exceeding 99.999% that the warming we are seeing is human-induced, we certainly shouldn’t be taking the chance of doing nothing.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Science scholarships – a vocation vacation

Hammer orchid project

One project is on the evolution of the hammer orchid

Those long summer holidays are getting closer. Some people go somewhere exotic, some chill out at home, and some come and do science with us.

Applications for our vacation scholarships are now open. Every year we make about 200 offers to promising undergraduates who are in the advanced stages of their degrees. The successful applicants get to work on real projects, in science, engineering or related fields like science communication, and get paid to do it. Scholarships are available in all states and the ACT, in a wide range of subject areas. Fancy working on a bird-scarer robot? Or mapping the gene that makes some wine taste salty? Describing a new fossil beetle from the Jurassic? 

Fossil beetle from the Jurassic

A fossil beetle from the Jurassic.

And it doesn’t necessarily stop there, Some vacation scholars have been offered the opportunity to do their honours or PhD projects with us, while others have been given jobs. If nothing else, former vacation scholars like computer scientist Samantha Connolly say their scholarships helped them build great networks.

‘After I left’, she says, ‘I was able to host a Women in Engineering High Tea networking event at CSIRO for Engineers Australia, and to run a robotics workshop for CSIRO’s Double Helix Club. CSIRO is great for allowing its staff to participate in community engagement. My supervisor let me take a few days off to run a robotics workshop, and I was even able to bring in a few robots to show CSIRO employees’.

The scholarships generally start in late November or early December, and run for eight to 12 weeks.  There are some mandatory requirements. Applications close at 11:30 pm AEST Sunday 14 September.

And yes, there IS a link to everything you need to know.


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