SMC Heads-Up: Drought outlook, GM fungus

Column – Science Media Centre

In This Issue: Drought update; SAVVY success; Icing on the fungus; Squid family ties; New from the SMC; Sciblogs highlights; Research highlights; Policy News; Sci-tech eventsSMC Heads-Up: Drought outlook, GM fungus and upskilling science communicators
Issue 223 22 – 28 March 2013

Experts discuss ‘Big Dry’
NIWA scientists said today that the outlook for the next few months is likely to be ‘near normal’ rainfall, but it will take some time for the land to recover from the current drought conditions.

The Science Media Centre held an online background briefing for journalists with scientists from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) to share recent data and answer questions about the current drought conditions.

You can listen to the briefing and view presenter slides on the Science Media Centre website.

Speaking at this briefing, Climate Scientist Dr Andrew Tait explained the drought in terms of soil moisture.

“We’ve had a little bit of help from the recent rain,” he said.

“But there are still a lot of areas that are particularly dry and it will take quite some time to get soil moistures back to where they would normally at this time.

“That’s a key consideration when thinking about how long this drought is going to last.”

Hydrologist Roddy Henderson also noted that river levels had also suffered with much of the country recording river flow values that are in the lowest 10 per cent ever recorded.

Climate scientist, Dr Brett Mullan, placed the current drought in a historical context, saying it appears to be the worst or worst equal in 70 years for large parts of the North Island.

Looking forward he noted, “in terms of the outlook, no immediate prospects of relief in the North Island for the next ten days but longer term we’re expecting things to get back to normal.”

Finally, Chief Scientist Dr David Wratt spoke about the link between climate change and dry conditions.

“Overall we do expect drought to become more frequent as the century progresses,” he said.

“We are going to have some years that are wetter than normal and others that are drier than normal, but the chances of drought are going to go up.”

Auckland SAVVY success
Twelve keen scientists were put through their paces in Auckland in mid-March in the latest of the Science Media Centre’s national series of media skills workshops.

Over two full days, the scientists had the chance to improve their on-camera presence, learn how enthusiastic they can be without losing credibility, brainstorm compelling ways to explain tough concepts, and practice saying what they really mean to say.

At the end of the intensive media training programme, scientists got to hone their best science story pitches before a panel of senior journalists from TVNZ, TV3, New Zealand Geographic and the New Zealand Herald.
Feedback from participants in the course:
“What sets this experience apart is in-depth information regarding how the news process works and real reporters/professionals’ feedback. The practice pitch to news reporters was fantastic!”

“I honestly thought this was an amazing course. We had just enough time to cover the important things, were exposed to some great people and got a real insight into the media world with hands-on experience.”

Read more about the Auckland SAVVY workshop and check out photos here.

Science Media SAVVY got off the ground last year with a very successful workshop in Christchurch and a Wellington work shop is currently being planned for mid-2013.

‘Icing sugar fungus’ GM concern
Lincoln University researchers were in the media spotlight this week when news broke that a fungus used in their research and assumed to be a naturally occurring variety was in fact likely a genetically modified strain.
The fungus was found outside labs designed to handle GM material.

Lincoln University informed authorities on 7 March that it had evidence to suggest a fungus (Beauveria bassiana, also known as Icing Sugar Fungus) that had been supplied to the University for research, was potentially a strain modified genetically to include a marker so it could be traced in plants.

The fungus was believed to have been a wild strain that is already present in the environment and so was being researched in restricted laboratories but outside approved GM containment facilities.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is working with Lincoln University to make sure that all of the known samples and plant materials containing the fungus have been contained or destroyed.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s principal scientist, Dr Geoff Ridley, says the potential risk to humans or animals is very low.

“There is no evidence to suggest that genetic modifications that may have been made to the fungus in these labs have increased any health or environmental risk.”

B. bassiana is a fungus that occurs naturally in soils throughout the world (including New Zealand) and infects a wide range of insect species. I is used as a biological insecticide to control a number of insect pests.

You can read news coverage of the investigation and media statements from the organisations involved on the Science Media Centre website.
On the science radar…
Skinny microscopes get inside the body, Voyager and the verge of the solar system, a tough landing on Europa, deep sea microbes and rusty rockets resurface.

Single species for giant squid
A new study comparing the DNA of a giant squid held at Te Papa with samples from 42 of its relatives from around the globe has revealed that mysterious sea creatures comprise a single, yet extremely spread out, species.

An international team of researchers has determined that all giant squid are members of the same species, Architeuthis dux, refuting previous arguments that there were more than 20 different species in the giant squid family. The findings were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week.

In the new study, researchers analysed a total of 43 samples from individual squid from around the worlds oceans (15 of which came from New Zealand waters) and found that giant squid from all over the globe were remarkably genetically similar, representing one – very spread out – breeding population. The researchers found no substantial genetic differences between samples from regions as far apart as Florida and Japan.

The authors suggest that the global giant squid population may be so similar due to young larval squid drifting throughout the world’s oceans currents. The widespread nature of their travels means no geographically distinct populations have become established.

They also note that this planet-wide interbreeding, or panmictic, population is unique among studied marine organisms

You can read a round up of media reports on the research on the Science Media Centre website.

Quoted: 3News

“We’re really at the point where there are enough elephants dying naturally that you could get tusks from natural deaths to supply a lot of those Asian markets without pushing prices higher.”

– Dr Brendan Moyle, Massey University

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Anthrax: Experts comment on an outbreak of anthrax in New South Wales, Australia, which killed up to 40 cattle and resulted in quarantined farms.

In the news:

Auckland quakes: Read media coverage of the Auckland’s weekend shake-up.

GM Fungus: Authorities are investigating a potential breach of GM requirements at Lincoln University following the discovery of a genetically modified fungus outside of approved containment laboratories.

Reflections on Science:
Bioethics: We should challenge boundaries society takes for granted – but must “tread carefully”, writes bioethics expert Prof Gareth Jones in the Otago Daily Times.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Valuing Science in New Zealand – ‘How do you put a dollar value on science?’, asks Shaun Hendy ahead of the NZAS conference.
A Measure of Science

Monday Micro – roller derby micro! – Siouxsie Wiles highlights recent research showing donning a pair of roller-skates and elbowing people is an excellent way to trade skin bacteria.
Infectious Thoughts

Open access good for businesses too – Grant Jacobs reflects on the benefits of making research available to independent researchers and small businesses.
Code for Life

Is maths real? – Marcus Wilson gets philosophical about maths and physics.
Physics Stop
Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Caffeine curbs crash rate: Long distance truckies who consume caffeinated substances such as coffee or energy drinks while driving are significantly less likely to crash than those who do not, according to a new Australian study. Researchers found that drivers who consumed caffeine to help them stay awake were 63% less likely to crash than drivers who did not take caffeinated substances.

Books getting less emotional: A linguistic analysis of scanned novels held in the GoogleBooks database has revealed how the content of fiction is changing in response to historical and cultural trends. The study found that while on the whole books contain less emotional words, there was an increase in fear-related terms towards the end of the 20th century.

3D displays to go mobile?: A new glasses-free, three-dimensional (3D) display that is particularly well suited for mobile devices has been developed. The new approach uses diffractive optics to produce 3D images, both static and moving, that can be viewed from multiple angles, even when the device is tilted. Images and video available.

Sandy robots: Drawing inspiration from desert animals such as lizards, US military funded scientists have designed a six-legged robotic device that moves efficiently across a bed of dry, loose grains, similar to sand. The development of a robot able move efficiently on sand could have implications for future robots sent to explore other planets.

Skim milk paradox: A longitudinal US study of over 10,000 children has found that normal-weight 2-year olds who drink low fat milk are 57% more likely to be obese or overweight by age 4, compared to those who drink full fat milk. The authors suggest that this could be because fat increases the feeling of fullness and reduces appetite for other fatty/calorie dense foods.
Archive of Disease in Childhood
Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Court OKs pork imports: The Court of Appeal has dismissed NZ Pork’s appeal against MPIs decision to allow pork imports from countries known to harbour certain porcine diseases.

Free vaccine for at-risk kids: The Ministry of Health has announced that children under the age of five with significant respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, will be able to get the influenza vaccine free.
Upcoming sci-tech events
What if… Judges could understand forensic experts? – “What-if Wednesday” lecture from Professor Joep Sonnemans – 27 March, Christchurch.
Mad on radium: New Zealand in the atomic age – Cafe Scientifique with Rebecca Priestley – 28 March, lower Hutt.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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