Kauri dieback fungus may have been in NZ for longer than previously believed

Phytophthora agathidicida (PTA), the fungus-like organism that causes kauri dieback, has been in New Zealand much longer than previously thought, a study led by Bio-Protection Research Centre researchers based at Massey University suggests.

Plant geneticist Dr Richard Winkworth and collaborators have been using genome sequencing to investigate when PTA arrived and how it has changed since arriving.

“It had been suggested that PTA arrived in New Zealand not long before the first diseased trees were found in the early 1970s,” Dr Winkworth says.

“However, our results suggest PTA was diversifying in New Zealand kauri forests around 300 years before that. It must have arrived even earlier. Humans may have brought it here – perhaps the pathogen was carried to New Zealand by Polynesian settlers or the earliest European explorers – or it may even have been here before humans arrived.”

The researchers have sequenced and analysed complete mitochondrial genomes of 17 PTA samples collected from sites across the geographical range of the disease.

“The samples we have collected suggest several genetic subgroups within PTA,” Dr Winkworth says.

“To better understand the history of spread through the kauri forests we need to increase our sample size. However, we do see, for example, that several genetic subgroups are present in the Waitākere Ranges, perhaps as the result of human activity.”

These results raise an important question: If PTA has been in New Zealand for at least the last 300 years, why has it only recently become a significant problem?

“The results suggest that the relationship between PTA and its host may have changed,” Dr Winkworth says.

There are several ways this might have happened. One is that genetic changes to PTA have made it more virulent. “It is a possibility, but our results suggest it is not as simple as a single pathogenic form evolving and spreading through the forest,” Dr Winkworth says.

An alternative is that environmental changes have resulted in the disease emerging. The research results are consistent with this possibility.

“Since humans arrived, we have been altering New Zealand environments. Perhaps the combination of heavily fragmenting the kauri forests together with ongoing human-mediated disturbance and climate change has led to emergence of the disease. Perhaps we introduced another pathogen that, in combination with PTA, results in disease.

“If we are to fight back effectively we need to better understand the relationship between when PTA arrived, its pattern of spread, and the emergence of kauri dieback disease,” Dr Winkworth says. “Identifying why kauri dieback disease emerged might help us to move beyond containment to managing and controlling it.”

The research team has also been developing a cheap, robust DNA test that is simple enough for community groups to use in the field, but that is as accurate as laboratory-based testing.

“We are hoping to evaluate the test in field trials in the next few months.” Dr Winkworth says. “We hope that this will make it easier to monitor where PTA is, both for the purposes of management but also to enable further research.”

This Massey University-led research has been largely funded by the Bio-Protection Research Centre, and has involved researcher contributions from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, Scion, and the University of Auckland.

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Grass-roots projects get $7.15m boost from Sustainable Farming Fund

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has welcomed 28 new projects under the Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF), and the new SFF Tere pilot scheme announced today.

The fund supports community-led projects at the grass-roots level to build productivity and resilience throughout the primary industries.

The 28 projects represent a combined investment of around $7.15 million.

“The SFF has enabled unique collaborations of farmers and growers, scientists and researchers, iwi, local government and many others that are making a real difference for our rural communities and the wider primary industries,” says Mr O’Connor.

“The SFF Tere pilot has been an opportunity to show we can take the SFF even further by enabling the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to increase investment in smaller projects.”

The name “SFF Tere” translates in English to be quick, swift or fast, which describes the nature of projects funded.

O’Connor had discussed the Sustainable Farming Fund with ministry officials and challenged them to develop an initiative that would enable investment in small SFF projects.

SFF Tere is the result and four SFF Tere projects, representing $271,000 in investment, have already been approved. They will get under way in the new calendar year.

Information about the 28 projects can be found HERE.

Life under the surface can be studied via systems using microchips

Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed new systems to study the life of microorganisms in the ground. Without any digging, the researchers can use microchips to see and analyse an invisible world that is filled with more species than any other ecosystem.

In one spoonful of soil there are more microorganisms (fungi and bacteria) than there are people on Earth. But it is an impenetrable world for researchers.

“Our soil chips could revolutionise how we study microbiological processes in the ground. Finally, we can follow what actually happens down the ground under a microscope in real-time,” says Edith Hammer, associate senior lecturer the Department of Biology in Lund.

For a long time, experiments using petri dishes and real soil have been the traditional way of exploring life in the ground.

What the researchers have done is create models of soil structures and ecosystems in microchips. With these, the researchers can study the life that takes place in the labyrinth systems of the soil — systems which they are now able to build on the same scale as the microorganisms themselves.

Using a technology called microfluidics, the researchers can produce relatively realistic soil models. The models are made of a silicone polymer and simulate the structure of the soil with components of organic and inorganic material, mazelike passageways, water and unevenly distributed nutrients on which the microorganisms feed.

“Our systems are transparent — this is probably what fascinates people the most. It allows us to look directly at all processes and behaviours in the ground. We see how the microorganisms move, search for food, choose where they are going and how they compete with each other, but also cooperate,” says Edith Hammer.

“The microorganisms are ecosystem engineers. We see how they change their environment by creating or blocking passageways with their cells. The bacteria in the soil tunnel system have to fight hard against the forces of water to move at all,” she says.

The researchers are confident the method will increase knowledge of the structures in the soil and the importance of the organisms living there. Eventually, this will lead to better recommendations for how to use soil in a sustainable way that preserves the ground’s functions.

The new microchips were developed in collaboration between biologists and engineers at the faculties of science and engineering in Lund, together with their colleagues in Amsterdam.

Manuka Health welcomes efforts to authenticate New Zealand Manuka honey

Manuka Health has welcomed New Zealand’s new official Manuka honey definition.

The finalised scientific definition released by the Ministry for Primary Industries specifies a set of five science-based markers which identify the origin of Manuka honey.

These markers need to be present for the product to be called New Zealand Manuka honey.

Depending on the minimum level of one of the new markers, phenyllactic acid (3-PLA), the honey will be defined as monofloral or multifloral Manuka honey. Only honey that meets the new standard will be certified for export as New Zealand Manuka honey.

Manuka Health supports the Government’s efforts to protect authentic Manuka honey producers from imitation and tampering.

John Kippenberger, Manuka Health’s chief executive, said:

“It’s critical that New Zealand protects Manuka honey on the global market, where we see increasing adulteration and false claims of this highly valued product.

“New Zealand is the only source of authentic Manuka honey and we have needed a clearer scientific definition that delineates genuine, premium product from the fakes.

“MPI’s work is another step to safeguard the value of New Zealand Manuka honey. They have addressed some of the industry concerns and tightened some of the parameters; while we hoped that more feedback from the consultation period with industry would be included in MPI’s finalised definition, we believe that this is a good start to protect our industry.”

A target set by the government and industry is to grow the value of New Zealand Manuka honey to $1.2 billion a year by 2028.

Mr Kippenberger said the definition was important for customers around the world.

“It reassures them that New Zealand-exported Manuka honey is genuine.”

Authentication is the first step in classifying Manuka honey by its New Zealand origin. In addition, the rating of Manuka honey is an important guide for consumers and methylglyoxal (MGO) remains the lead, internationally recognised and scientifically researched component linked to the potency and grading of Manuka honey.

Biosecurity Minister disappointed by further findings of Mycoplasma bovis

Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor says he’s “deeply disappointed’’ by the detection of cow disease Mycoplasma bovis on farms near Hastings and Winton.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has identified four new properties as positive for the bacterial cattle disease and strongly suspects it is present on one further property.

One of the latest infected properties is in the Hastings district, the other three are within a farming enterprise in Winton.

The suspect property is near Ashburton.

“The fact the disease has been found in the North Island is disappointing to me and, no doubt, will be for farmers too,’’ Mr O’Connor says.

Mr O’Connor says officials are working hard to track the disease.

“We are still unable to identify the source of the disease and that concerns me.”

Mr O’Connor says he will meet with officials to discuss the next steps in dealing with the outbreak.

“I understand this is tough for farmers, people working on these properties and people in these close-knit communities, but everyone is working hard to find solutions.’’

The Hastings and Ashburton properties were identified through MPI’s tracing programme and the Winton property was identified through the industry milk testing programme.

All of the movements were prior to July 21, when the disease was first detected and notified to MPI.

The Hastings and Winton properties were placed under a Restricted Place Notice under the Biosecurity Act. This effectively places them in quarantine lockdown – restricting the movement of animals and other risk goods on and off the farm.

The suspect property is under voluntary movement controls until its status is confirmed.

Mr O’Connor says it is possible further infected properties could be found.

The bacteria can spend some time in an animal before it is found or they show signs of the disease, which makes our job harder, he says.

Scientists claim Callaghan Innovation is focused too much on economic gain

Callaghan Innovation has been criticised by some scientists who claim it cares more about economic gain than the science behind it.

The Crown agency was created to strengthen the ties between the science and business community through grants.

But University of Auckland physics professor Shaun Hendy is reported by Radio New Zealand as saying it hadn’t worked well, and there had been too much focus on economic gain.

He wanted the agency to be given a mandate to make broader links.

“Not just with the business sector, but the social sector, the government sector, so right across New Zealand society – Callaghan could be that bridge.

“These days we’ve got to look a lot more broadly. We’ve got to look at social impact – social enterprise for example – and look at the environment as well.”

Callaghan Innovation’s briefing paper to the incoming minister says the agency is projecting an expenditure this year of $307m including $204m on grants.

Radio New Zealand noted the agency had been named in memory of award-winning scientist Sir Paul Callaghan, a leader in the field of nanotechnology and magnetic resonance, and founding director of the MacDiarmid Institute.

He was a champion of science and technology being the key to diversifying New Zealand’s economy.

Nicola Gaston, a principal investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute, told Radio New Zealand she feared that vision had been skewed in recent years.

“I think it was a message that scientists needed to hear at the time … but since he said that we have had so many changes in our science system.

“I feel like we’ve gone too far.”

Dr Gaston said the Government should look at how Callaghan Innovation was running.

“My feeling is there’s just been so much of a one-dimensional push towards increasing commercial research.”

Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods referred to her Government’s intention to introduce a research and development tax credit. She said this would help keep the ideal balance between research and business.

“The balance between grants and R&D tax credits will tip things and will have businesses able to make a whole lot more of their decisions about the research and development that they’re going to invest in internally without going through the grants process.”

Ms Wood said she had expressed a concern about the funds being held by one organisation.

But although this was a difficult thing to manage, she credited Callaghan with having done a reasonable job of it.

Ministry to boost its biosecurity team for the summer rush

Thirty-two new quarantine officers will graduate from their training today, bolstering the Ministry for Primary Industries’ biosecurity defences at the border.

The ministry’s Border Clearance Services director, Steve Gilbert, says half the graduates will assist with biosecurity screening of travellers arriving at Auckland Airport over the summer.

“We’re expecting the busiest summer on record for visitor arrivals at international airports, especially in Auckland.

“The new officers will have a frontline role to protect New Zealand from invasive pests or diseases that could damage our economy or natural environment.”

The graduates include five officers who will work as biosecurity detector dog handlers and five more who will shortly undergo detector dog programme training.

So far this year, the ministry has employed 73 new officers from three intakes.

It now employs around 540 frontline staff, up from 500 last year.

It has also contracted personnel to help with Chinese-language translations and with cleaning shoes and sportswear.

“MPI is quickly becoming the biggest shoe-cleaning operation in New Zealand, and it’s all for biosecurity,” says Mr Gilbert.

He says MPI will be looking for 40 more officers in its latest recruitment drive, starting later this month.

In the year to July 2017, 6.48 million passengers arrived at New Zealand’s five international airports. Under conservative estimates, the ministry is projecting a 2.5 million increase in the number of passenger arrivals over the next five years.