Predicting firestorms; what we don’t know about rice; and have you seen a sawfish?

Media bulletins

We’re back this week with three stories:

You can read more about each of these stories below, including details of scientists to interview.

Kind regards,

Niall


The shape of a perfect storm: saving lives by predicting firestorms

 

Scientists available for interview – details and photos below.

Correction: an earlier version stated the tool is being formally trialed by the NSW Rural Fire SERVICE. It is currently in use, but formal trials ended in 2016.

A fully developed pyrocumulus cloud, formed from the smoke plume of the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon

Firestorms are a nightmare for emergency services and anyone in their path. They occur when a bushfire meets a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental conditions and creates a thunderstorm.

Dr Rachel Badlan and Associate Professor Jason Sharples are part of a team of experts from UNSW Canberra and ACT Emergency Services that has found the shape of a fire is an important factor in whether it will turn into a firestorm.

Fires that form expansive areas of active flame, rather than spreading as a relatively thin fire-front, are more likely to produce higher smoke plumes and turn into firestorms, the researchers found.

This finding is being used to underpin further development of a predictive model for firestorms. The model was trialed in the 2015 and 2016 fire seasons by the ACT Emergency Services Agency and the NSW Rural Fire Service, and now forms part of the national dialogue around extreme bushfire development.  

The model will help identify the most dangerous fires and better determine the best deployment of fire resources, saving more lives and restricting the damage when firestorms strike.

“Thunderstorms generated by the heat from a fire are the most dangerous manifestation of a bushfire. These firestorms create their own weather with lightning, strong winds, and even tornadoes that spread fire in multiple directions. These ingredients make them impossible for firefighters to put out,” says Rachel, who is a postdoctoral fellow at UNSW Canberra.

“Before this model, there was no way to predict which fires would become firestorms. Previous work attributes these firestorms solely to the total energy released by the fire, however, we have found the shape of a fire is a vital factor in the development of firestorms,” Rachel says.

The team used advanced computer models to incorporate details of the environment (terrain, wind, and atmosphere) and the fire’s shape, size and intensity, to determine how high the plume will be.

This information then tells the researchers about the potential for a fire to develop into a firestorm (known as a pyrocumulonimbus).

“With firestorms commonly occurring in Australia—more than 50 since 2001—and set to increase due to hotter and drier conditions, it’s vital that fire managers can determine which fires are likely to transition into a firestorm so that evacuation may occur as early as possible,” Rachel says.

Rachel won the 2018 Fresh Science ACT competition for the work.

Fresh Science is a national competition run by Science in Public, which helps early-career researchers find and share their stories of discovery.

Fresh Science ACT is supported by Inspiring the ACT at the Canberra Innovation Network, Australian National University and UNSW Canberra.

Read more at: www.researchgate.net/publication/323412690_The_role_of_deep_flaming_in_violent_pyroconvection

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A fully developed pyrocumulus cloud during the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon

A developing pyrocumulus during the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon

Image: Dr Rachel Badlan and colleagues have developed a predictive model for firestorms. Credit: UNSW Camnerra

The quest for the missing proteins in rice

 

Researchers have identified over 5,700 new proteins in rice and are calling for a global effort to find the remaining missing proteins, in a new study co-authored by Macquarie University.

The international team of scientists from Australia, Iran and Japan say there’s an estimated 35,000 proteins encoded by the rice genome, and yet we still don’t have experimental evidence for 82 per cent of them.

This is important because rice is the major food source for more than half the world’s population, and in order for it to grow in warmer climates and with less water we will need to better understand rice at the molecular level.

“The genome of rice was completed and published in 2001,” says Professor Paul Haynes from Macquarie University, and a co-author on the study. “So surely we know enough about it now that we should be able to manipulate how it grows to meet our needs? Well, we don’t.”

“What we have for rice, like most of the well-studied plant and animal species, is a good first approximation of what the gene sequence actually encodes for, but there is still a very large amount of information yet to be confirmed.”

Rice is Australia’s ninth largest agricultural export and generates approximately $800 million in revenue each year, but this productivity comes at a significant cost.

Australian farmers use large amounts of water to irrigate their crops. The increasing demand for this water is threatening the sustainability of their rice production.

“It is imperative that we find ways to make rice better adapted to environments with warmer climates and less available water,” says Paul.

One way to do this would be to give commercial rice varieties some of the characteristics of native Australian varieties of rice, he says.

These plants grow vigorously in many wild areas across Australian without additional watering, in part because their roots grow longer and penetrate deeper into the soil allowing the plants better access to underground reserves of both water and nutrients.

“If we could somehow transform commercial rice varieties so that they grow deeper roots, thereby increasing water uptake efficiency while still retaining high grain yields, we could produce more sustainable plants that would help to future-proof the Australian rice industry,” says Paul.

And that’s why finding rice’s remaining missing proteins is so critical.

Missing proteins are ones that appear to be encoded in the rice’s genes but have not been experimentally confirmed to exist in the rice itself.

The idea of missing proteins originally arose from researchers working on the human genome, says Paul, but it’s equally applicable to important cereal crops like rice.

The Human Proteome Project is making a map of all the proteins encoded by the human genome, to advance the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Paul’s team took a similar approach when they looked at rice.

Initially they found that 98.5 per cent of the proteins in rice are considered missing. However by mining publicly available datasets and matching this data with information from the rice genome they were able to reduce this percentage of missing proteins to 82 per cent.

“If we are to continue to feed the ever-increasing number of people on our planet, we really need to produce rice which is more sustainable in terms of better water use and better nutrient uptake, while still maintaining current levels of grain production,” says Paul.

“This will require us to understand rice at the molecular level in a way that we have never done previously.

“It is only by understanding in great detail what happens inside a particular cell that we can really understand what goes on at the whole organism level, and how we can potentially change how that particular organism responds to an external set of circumstances or stimuli.”

The team hopes this study will form the basis of a large-scale scale international collaborative project aimed at identifying all the remaining missing proteins in rice.

The study was published in Molecular Plant and co-authored by researchers from Macquarie University, the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran, the University of Tehran, and the University of Tsukuba.

Rahiminejad M, Ledari MT, Mirzaei M, Ghorbanzadeh Z, Kavousi K, Reza Ghaffari R, Haynes PA, Komatsu S, Salekdeh GH. The Quest for Missing Proteins in Rice.Molecular Plant, January 2019.

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Release at: www.scienceinpublic.com.au/media-releases/missing-proteins-rice

Have you seen a sawfish?

Background information and photos, plus HD footage of sawfish available athttps://saw.fish and www.scienceinpublic.com.au/media-releases/have-you-seen-a-sawfish

From Sydney to Cairns to Darwin to Perth, we want to hear about your sightings – a live fish, a saw on the wall of your local pub, or a photo from your family album.  

“Your sightings, no matter how long ago they happened, will help us work out how many sawfish there used to be, how many remain, and how we can help them recover,” says Dr Barbara Wueringer, a zoologist and the director of Sharks and Rays Australia (SARA).

Forty years ago, sawfish were regularly seen off Sydney and the east coast, and Perth and up the west coast. Today they’re rarely seen outside of the Gulf of Carpentaria, NT and the Kimberley.

Please report your sightings at https://saw.fish

Sawfish can grow to six metres with saws as long as two metres. The saw can detect the electrical impulses of fish. Then with one slash it can cut smaller fish in half. It’s so streamlined that many prey fish may not detect it. But the saw gets caught in nets, and in the past it was a prized fishing trophy.

“Today it’s rare to see large sawfish,” says Barbara.

“Most reports are three metres or smaller. But we could be wrong. There may still be some big ones out there.”

“These are beautiful creatures,” says Jessica Hudgins, a marine biologist researching sawfish at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.

“They’re so unique and special. They’re a big part of Australian history and culture. It would be tragic if we lost them forever.”

“For four out of five species, the waters of Northern Australia may contain their last populations. As sawfish are slowly retreating to remote parts of the continent it’s critical that we find out what’s out there, and how we can help them,” says Barbara.

Barbara is leading an investigation in Queensland to identify where sawfish still occur and in what numbers.

“We’re working with local Indigenous Ranger groups, fishers, and landowners, and with scientists from around the world.

“But to make a real difference we’re now calling for wider public participation. Through this citizen science initiative you can make the difference to sawfish survival.”

SARA is based in Cairns. Their research is supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation (based in Geneva) and the US-based Shark Conservation Fund.

All sightings generated by the project will be shared with Team Sawfish at Murdoch University, WA and sawfish researchers from Charles Darwin University, NT.

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For interview:

Social media: 

@SharksAndRaysAU on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.