MPI scholarship for more accurate ways of measuring soil nutrients

After three years travelling the world, Northlander Thomas Corbett is ready to do a doctorate.

At Fieldays last week the Waikato University student was awarded a Ministry of Primary Industries’ doctoral scholarship, worth up to $50,000, to develop a nitrate/nitrite and phosphate sensor for freshwater that he hopes will be easy to use, accurate and affordable, to measure the impacts of run-off and leaching.

Thomas says understanding the effects of run-off and leaching is fundamental to the sustainability of primary production, and requires accurate measurements.

His sensor will be based on the Diffusive Gradients in Thin Films technique, able to be deployed over days or weeks to provide time-weighted average concentration of a nutrient.

Thomas says getting an average concentration rather than a one-off sampling will provide a land owner with much greater certainty of hotspots of nutrient losses and allow targeted mitigation strategies.

Souce: Waikato University


Entries open for New Zealand’s most illustrious science prize

Entries for the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes are open, offering awards with a combined value of $1 million across five categories.

The Government introduced the prizes in 2009 to raise the profile and prestige of science among New Zealanders, to raise awareness of its contribution to economic wealth and to highlight its role in solving future challenges through innovation.

The major prize, worth $500,000, is presented to an individual or team whose research has had significant impact in New Zealand or internationally. Previous winners have been recognised for research in areas ranging from health to climate change to new energy technologies.

In 2017, the Prime Minister’s Science Prize was awarded to the research team that helped the New Zealand kiwifruit industry claw its way back from the brink of destruction after the discovery of a vine-killing disease. The multi-disciplinary team, led by Plant & Food Research CEO Dr Bruce Campbell, was awarded the prize for its rapid and successful response to Psa (Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae).

Dr Campbell says winning this prestigious prize will

“ … help to accelerate the strong positioning of New Zealand internationally as the pre-eminent area for ensuring food security.”

“The prize money will be invested in developing the next generation of science technologies to protect plants against biosecurity threats and help us to attract world-leading international collaborators with expertise from the human medical, animal and plant disease fields.”

Other prize categories include the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist prize, worth $200,000, which is open to outstanding scientists who have completed their PhD in the previous eight years, and the Prime Minister’s $150,000 Science Teacher Prize. Last year that prize was won by Sarah Johns from Nelson College for Girls, who says:

“Winning the Prime Minister Science Teacher Prize is humbling, because I work alongside a lot of fantastic teachers and I really love what I do. It hovers between a hobby and career, so I’m grateful for the affirmation of the processes I use to fuel the teaching and learning that occurs in partnership with my students. I’m really proud of my work and passionate about it, so I feel honoured by the recognition.”

In addition, nominations are being sought for the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, worth $100,000 and the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize, worth $50,000.

Entries close for all but the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize on Wednesday 5 September 2018. The Future Scientist Prizes closes on 30 October 2018.

The Prime Minister’s Science Prize categories are:

The Prime Minister’s Science Prize, $500,000

This will be awarded to an individual or team for a transformative scientific discovery or achievement, which has had a significant economic, health, social and/or environmental impact in the last five years on New Zealand or internationally

The Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize, $200,000

This will be awarded to an outstanding emerging scientist who has had their PhD conferred, within the past eight years (i.e. from 1 January 2010 onwards)

The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize, $150,000

This will be awarded to a registered teacher who has been teaching science, mathematics, technology, pūtaiao, hangarau or pāngarau learning areas of the New Zealand curriculum to school-age children in a primary, intermediate or secondary New Zealand registered school.

The Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, $100,000

This will be awarded to a practising scientist who can demonstrate an interest, passion and aptitude for science communication and public engagement, or to a person who has developed expertise in public engagement with, or communication of, complex scientific or technological information to the public or science community.

The Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize, $50,000 tertiary scholarship

This will be awarded to a Year 12 or Year 13 student for outstanding achievement in carrying out a practical and innovative science, mathematics, technology or engineering project.

To find out more and to lodge entries visit HERE. 

Source:  Royal Society of New Zealand 

Almost $1.2m secured in health research funding to reduce the burden of leptospirosis

A Massey-led study has been awarded $1,199,841 from the latest Health Research Council of New Zealand funding round to undertake a nationwide case-control study of the disease leptospirosis.

A common workplace hazard in the agricultural sector, leptospirosis can cause disease and death in animals. It can also transfer to humans through direct or indirect contact with infected urine or contaminated water, resulting in anything from a minor flu-like sickness to admission to hospital and long-term illness.

The three-year study will attempt to address gaps in knowledge about leptospirosis to  inform control strategies by identifying risk factors, sources and pathways for human infection. The study will recruit 150 incident cases, including patients from GP practices, hospitals and recruited through Medical Officers of Health.

The principal investigator, Massey’s Associate Professor Jackie Benschop, says the ultimate goal is to reduce the increasing burden of the disease in New Zealand.

“Two-thirds of patients are hospitalised, many suffer long after infection and numbers are increasing – 91 in the first half of 2017 compared to 33 in 2016 and we are tracking for a high number in 2018,” she says.

“The use of protective equipment does not necessarily prevent infection, animal vaccines do not cover all strains, and it is popping up where people had previously thought it would not. The disease is placing an unacceptable burden on New Zealanders in the agricultural industries and in rural communities.

“We and others have been doing a lot of work on the infection, but with this study the focus is on those ill with the disease. We aim to provide an improved evidence base for policies and practices to lower the incidence and health consequences of leptospirosis in New Zealand and contribute new knowledge about this globally important emerging health hazard.

“Direct benefit will occur through the reduction in incident cases, a more productive work force, and potentially provision of information to reduce livestock infection and identification of new animal vaccine candidate strains.”

The study will seek to understand existing and emerging environmental pathways by employing molecular tools, genomics and modelling from other disease studies. This will include a study of risk factors, infecting species, and sources of infection.

“We have observed that the demography of patients is changing,” says Dr Benschop.

“Our pilot work suggests the disease patterns are changing with more rodent sources and environmental pathways, including flooding, becoming increasingly important in disease transmission, with more women affected, as well as more patients employed outside of the traditional high risk occupations.”

Traditionally the disease is thought to infect pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, rodents and possums, but cases have been found in animals not previously considered as carriers, such as domestic cats, alpacas and horses, so these too will be investigated so for decisions to be made about widening vaccine targets.

“Our environment is changing, the disease is changing with it, so we must keep studying it as these changes occur, to understand the developing risks,” she says.

The study’s findings will aid the development of intervention and control strategies and assessment criteria for the Accident Compensation Corporation.

“ACC access can be challenging for those with the disease or suspected of having the disease. ACC receives approximately 30 claims annually, 75 per cent of which are from farmers and 12 per cent from meat workers. Apparently many people are not claiming ACC partly because there is under diagnosis of leptospirosis,” Dr Benschop says.

“We will explore associations between attributes of cases with accepted claims and those with rejected claims, including the level of support from the patient’s employer to make an ACC claim, patient’s interaction with their GP and other factors.”

It’s time to look, too, at people’s attitudes.

Detailed in-person interviews of 30 cases with occupational exposure will be conducted including assessment of work-place attitudes to personal protective equipment and decisions on vaccination of animals.”

School of People, Environment and Planning’s Dr Gerard Prinsen will lead the qualitative interviews.

Dr Prinsen and Dr Benschop have demonstrated the success qualitative interviews in investigating attitudes to red meat safety in butcher and meat sellers in Northern Tanzania.

The work will be undertaken with the University of Otago, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, with GPs and within several departments within Massey University, including the Centre for Public Health Research and the Institute of Fundamental Sciences.

Simon Bridges and climate change – two perspectives on National’s position

The Science Media Centre features observations by climate change scientist James Renwick on National’s newly announced position on climate change policy. Commentators at Point of Order have expressed an opinion, too.

Climate change is not a partisan issue and the need to take big steps to reduce emissions is urgent, climate scientist James Renwick writes on The Spinoff.  So the opposition’s support for a Climate Change Commission is very welcome.

The SMC gives us an excerpt (but you can read in full ):

In climate policy-land, things are all go here in New Zealand. The coalition government has got its Zero Carbon Bill out for public consultation, no new offshore oil exploration permits will be issued, and the Climate Change Commission is being set up. And now the leader of the opposition National Party, Simon Bridges, has come out in support of the Climate Change Commission and is looking for cross-party agreement on climate policy.

Wow. What a difference a year (and an election) makes. Not too long ago, the National government was unsupportive of the idea of a commission, was disinclined to shift climate change policy much, and then prime minister Bill English seemed pretty lukewarm about the whole climate change thing in general. Wherever Simon Bridges’ new passion for climate change action has come from, it is very welcome. Climate change is not a partisan issue, and the need to take significant action to reduce emissions is urgent. If all parties in parliament can agree on a way forward, there is a lot of hope that we’ll see meaningful and long-lasting policies implemented that genuinely reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

So, this is a big deal.

You can keep reading here… 

Point of Order quotes Bridges as saying climate change is the most significant environmental issue  for NZ.  “We need to deal with  it as an important long-term issue and provide certainty on it”. 

The blog goes on to say:

On the  face of it  Bridges seems  to be  departing  from National’s previous line  on climate change. But he’s   quick  to  point out  it  was the National   govt which signed NZ up to the Paris Climate Accord.

I did, actually, as Associate Climate Minister, with Tim Groser… What we’re saying is we are stepping up on the framework that’s enduring. We need to be practical, have sensible environmental solutions. We don’t want to see the disruptive damage to the economy quickly.We don’t want to see real costs imposed on hard-working Kiwi households overnight.

“But what we will do, just like I think this government will as well, is we’ll take the advice from that climate commission, we’ll be accountable in terms of how we decide on the advice”.

To a question on  Q&A  from Corin Dann, whether  under National there would  be a return to the formula of more intensive dairy farming, big irrigation, driving more production, Bridges responded:

I think certainly we wouldn’t want to see significantly more cows. I think the reality is what we have got to do… we’ve got to invest a lot more in science and innovation and technology to get those solutions. And then you might start to be able to do some of the things that we were talking about, which is have an ETS that begins to bite”.

So what should we make of this?

Point of Order considers things through a political prism:

Bridges’  call for an  all-party  approach  to   climate  change  has  a political  subtlety about it which may have escaped those  whose  focus  has largely been confined to his  appearance, his   diction or  his hair-do.

How can his  call for  bipartisanship on climate  change be  refused?  If either  Labour  or the Greens turn  it  down,  it makes  each look  politically inept, even  cheapskate   (as if  we haven’t  seen already how  politically  inept  some ministers are)?

And what about the acting  PM?  How statesmanlike would it be if he refused to join the party  on climate change?.

The  danger  in an all-party  approach  to  climate  change  is  pointed in the direction of the Green  Party.  It’s  the  issue  which  attracts   votes to them from  middle-of-the-roaders, and even some  who might otherwise  tick National.

But if National is as  active on climate change  as everyone  else, then  why  vote for the  Greens (many of whose other policies   are  so far left that even Labour won’t accept them) ?

It could  pull back crucial support from the  centre.  In that  case Bridges  may prove to be a  lot smarter, politically, than  so far has been recognised.

Nitrogen-reducing plantain recognised with Fieldays Award

A plantain that started life as a common weed has been recognised for its contribution to the future of farming with an Innovation Award from Fieldays.

Ecotain is an environmentally functional plantain that significantly reduces nitrogen leaching on livestock farms.

It was officially launched in September 2017 when proprietary seed company Agricom announced major research findings that showed Ecotain reduces nitrogen leaching from the urine patch, an area containing high concentrations of nitrogen from animals’ urine.

Ecotain won the Launch NZ Innovation Award, which recognises innovative products being launched into New Zealand’s agricultural market. Each year, the Innovation Awards attract dozens of entries across multiple categories, and winners are announced at the Innovation Breakfast.

This year also marks Fieldays’ 50th year of showcasing agriculture and innovation, with the theme being the “Future of Farming”.

Initial research from Agricom, alongside Lincoln and Massey universities and Plant + Food Research, found Ecotain can function in pasture systems to reduce nitrogen leaching in four ways, known as dilute, reduce, delay and restrict. Consuming Ecotain increases the volume of cows’ urine which dilutes the concentration of nitrogen, it reduces the total amount of dietary nitrogen in animals’ urine, it delays the process of turning ammonium into nitrate in the urine patch, and it restricts the accumulation of nitrate in soils growing Ecotain.

Agricom’s lead scientist Dr Glenn Judson says he’s proud to receive the Innovation Award as acknowledgement of a “big year” for his team.

“As with most research projects, Ecotain has been a hugely collaborative effort and we are fortunate to have the support and expertise of some of New Zealand’s best researchers and scientists joining us along the way.”

He says the Innovation Award tops off the positive industry response Ecotain has received so far.

“It’s great to see excitement in the industry that finally we may have a tool to solve nitrate leaching from livestock farms, and receiving the Innovation Award tells us we’re moving in the right direction.

New Zealand National Fieldays CEO Peter Nation says the awards judges were impressed with Ecotain’s scientific backing and the potential it has for the future of farming in New Zealand.

“It was clear a lot of research had gone into developing Ecotain, and given the theme of Fieldays this year – the Future of Farming – it was great to see science being used with the future of farming in mind,” says Mr Nation.

“One of the reasons New Zealand is so well-regarded for its agricultural innovations is because those within the industry aren’t afraid to step outside the box and think about solutions to problems in a different way.

“My congratulations to Ecotain and to all of the Innovation Awards winners this year.”

The Fieldays Innovation Awards highlights innovation across several industry areas, including dairy and drystock farming, horticulture, information and communication technology, cloud and mobile-based software, animal health and genetics, water and waste management, environment and clean-tech, animal and farm management, farm safety and leading research.

Source:  HMC Communications

Science investment to support Mycoplasma bovis fight

The Coalition Government is investing $30 million over two years in scientific research to support the fight against Mycoplasma bovis, says Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor.

The Government would continue to call on all the available domestic and international scientific expertise to track and eradicate the disease. he said.

“This investment will enable us to address the bigger picture scientific challenge and research new tools in the fight against the disease.

“No other country has attempted eradication, and our farming systems are unique, so there are questions that have never been adequately explored by scientists.

“At the top of the list of priorities will be developing a single animal test. This will help us to provide greater clarity to affected farmers, and help us to understand the spread of the disease and to focus our efforts where they are most needed.”

The work will be overseen by a Ministry for Primary Industries’ led Strategic Science Advisory Group.

“The group will work on ensuring we have the tools we need to better manage and understand the disease, so we can be faster, more efficient and more effective in our response to it,” Mr O’Connor said.

The newly-appointed MPI Departmental Science Adviser, Dr John Roche, will assemble and lead the group, which will include both international and domestic scientific expertise.

Dr Roche has a PhD in ruminant nutrition from the National University of Ireland and has most recently worked as a principal scientist at DairyNZ and adjunct professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland.

Source: Minister of Agriculture and Biosecurity


What makes mānuka nectar attractive to bees?

The latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of Botany is available for access, the Royal Society of New Zealand advises on its website. Highlighted is an article from a Plant and Food Research team that is investigating some of the factors influencing mānuka nectars powerful healing properties.

The New Zealand Journal of Botany aims to share peer-reviewed research relevant to the botany, mycology, and phycology of New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere. It welcomes submissions relevant to all aspects of the botany, mycology, and phycology of the South Pacific, Australia, South America, and Southern Africa.

The latest issue (issue 56 volume 2) contains a range of articles including one authored by Bruce Smallfield, Nigel Joyce and John van Klink from Plant and Food Research.

Relatively little is known about mānuka nectar and the factors controlling its production. In this Plant and Food research team’s article ‘Developmental and compositional changes in Leptospermum scoparium nectar and their relevance to mānuka honey bioactives and markers’, the variation in nectar composition throughout mānuka flower development was measured in greenhouse cultivated plants.

Mānuka honey is recognised as one of the most unique and beneficial forms of honey in the world and is renowned for its medicinal properties. It’s uses range from healing sore throats and stomach aches to a natural antibacterial agent for treating gingivitis and superficial wounds.

The UMF label seen on mānuka honey jars stands for ‘Unique Mānuka Factor’, which rates the potency of the honey.

The bioactivity of mānuka honey is thought to come from methylglyoxal (MG), with increased concentrations of the compound strengthening the antibiotic effect. This journal article records the observation that concentrations of sugars and of dihydroxyacetone (the precursor to MG) increased throughout the mānuka flowers development and maximised just prior to the flower’s degradation.

Other patterns of mānuka compound markers followed a similar trend throughout the flowers lifespan. The results of the study suggest that the biosynthesis of mānuka’s special properties occurs in the floral tissues of the plant.

Mānuka honey production now plays a significant role in New Zealand’s agricultural economy and further research into the complex interactions in nectar production could help maximise mānuka honey yields.

Although it is difficult to control which plants bees visit, developing knowledge of both the genetics and the chemistry influencing flower attractiveness is an area of research that warrants further investigation. The mānuka genome has recently been mapped, which will provide researchers with new tools to further investigate mānuka diversity.

The full article is available for access in the latest issue of New Zealand Journal of Botany at Taylor and Francis Online.

Source: Royal Society of New Zealand