$13 million for leading-edge biotech research in the Bay of Plenty

Dr Marie Magnuson

Dr Marie Magnuson … turning algae into tucker and tonics.

The Government and the University of Waikato are investing $13 million in a new research programme in Tauranga aimed at helping tackle some of the biggest issues facing New Zealand’s primary sector, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced today.

The project, part of the Entrepreneurial Universities programme administered by the Tertiary Education Commission, will be set up in Tauranga by a prominent Australian-based expert, Dr Marie Magnusson.

The Government is committing approximately $4 million over five years to the programme, while the University of Waikato has pledged $9 million.

The work will focus on algal biotechnology, using science to grow a new and valuable industry.

Mr Hipkins said this type of research and technology

” … will be critical as we look for solutions for things like reducing cattle methane emissions, limiting nutrient run-off from pasture, and fighting agricultural and horticultural diseases in an environmentally sustainable way.”

The first stage of the project will examine options for growing macroalgal species like kelp and sea lettuce alongside existing mussel farms. Later stages will extract valuable bioproducts for use in fertilisers, animal feed supplements, cosmetics, human foods and other initiatives.

Other goals include addressing some of the country’s pressing primary sector issues by reducing methane emissions from cattle through improving feed, and creating environmentally benign solutions to agriculture and horticulture pathogens like PSA.

Dr Magnusson, who will move to Tauranga from Queensland, will lead a team of new researchers and technical staff, guided by University of Waikato staff including Chair of Coastal Science Professor Chris Battershill.

They will be based at the Coastal Marine Field Station at Sulphur Point in Tauranga, with work due to start in September.

Relying on strong science, the products the researchers develop will be targeted for markets where there is demand, with an eye to industry development, and future job creation in the Bay of Plenty and the rest of the country.

New Zealand’s aquaculture industry was worth nearly $500 million in 2015, and is estimated to grow to $1 billion by 2025, with the project aiming to contribute significantly to that growth.

The initiative will work with organisations locally, nationally and internationally, and partner with private companies where appropriate. Staff will work with local iwi and Māori businesses in the region as a priority.

The University of Waikato will be backing the research and entrepreneurial work with an increase in undergraduate and graduate teaching, including offering an Aquaculture major.

Over the next three years, the initiative is expected to bring from 15 to 20 world-leading researchers and their teams to New Zealand.

Biography of Dr Marie Magnusson

Dr Marie Magnusson is a Senior Research Fellow in the James Cook University College of Science and Engineering with over 10 years of experience in the fields of algal biology, biochemistry, and product development.

She completed her B.Sc. in 2003 at Göteborg University in Sweden followed by an M.Sc. in 2004. Her Ph.D. (2005-2009) was at James Cook University in phycology and marine pollution.

Following her graduate studies, Dr Magnusson undertook two post-doctoral fellowships at James Cook University in microalgal biomass evaluation and macroalgae end product research and development.

Dr Magnusson is currently Program Leader and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Macroalgal Resources and Biotechnology (MACRO) at James Cook University.

Her research is focused on ways to utilise algae (macro and micro) and algal extracts to develop human food and nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products for improved health outcomes, and to develop biotechnology products based on algal polysaccharides with unique gelling and functional properties.

Sources: Minister of Education; University of Waikato

 

Wounded plants send out alarms to warn their neighbors

Uh, oh. How sensitive will you be to the feelings of the grass when you next mow the lawn – and how will vegans respond to the news?

University of Delaware studies of Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mustard weed, have found that when a leaf was nicked, the injured plant sent out an emergency alert to neighboring plants which began beefing up their defenses.

A wounded plant will warn its neighbors of danger, says Harsh Bais, an associate professor of plant and soil sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“It doesn’t shout or text, but it gets the message across. The communication signals are in the form of airborne chemicals released mainly from the leaves.”

Connor Sweeney, a high school student, delved into work in Bais’s lab at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute after school, on weekends and during summer breaks, culturing an estimated thousand Arabidopsis plants for experiments. Seeds were placed in Petri plates and test tubes containing agar, a gelatinous growing medium.

Each batch of seeds would germinate after about six days, transforming into delicate-stemmed three-inch plants with bright-green leaves.

One day in the lab, Sweeney put two plants a few centimeters apart on the same Petri plate and made two small cuts on the leaf of one to simulate an insect’s attack.

What happened next, as Sweeney says, was “an unexpected surprise.”

The next day, the roots on the uninjured neighbour plant had grown noticeably longer and more robust–with more lateral roots poking out from the primary root.

“It was crazy–I didn’t believe it at first,” Bais says. “I would have expected the injured plant to put more resources into growing roots. But we didn’t see that.”

Bais asked Sweeney to repeat the experiment multiple times, partitioning the plants to rule out any communication between the root systems. In previous research, Bais had shown how soil bacteria living among the roots can signal leaf pores, called stomata, to close up to keep invasive pathogens out.

“The reason why the uninjured plant is putting out more roots is to forage and acquire more nutrients to strengthen its defenses,” Bais says. “So we began looking for compounds that trigger root growth.”

Sweeney measured auxin, a key plant growth hormone, and found more of this gene expressed in neighboring plants when an injured plant was around. He also confirmed that neighbour plants of injured plants express a gene that corresponds to a malate transporter (ALMT-1). Malate attracts beneficial soil microbes, including Bacillus subtilis, which Bais and his colleagues discovered several years ago.

Apparently, uninjured plants that are in close proximity to injured ones and that have increased malate transporter associate more with these microbes. These beneficials bond with the roots of the uninjured plants to boost their defenses.

“So the injured plant is sending signals through the air. It’s not releasing these chemicals to help itself, but to alert its plant neighbors,” Bais said.

What are these mysterious concoctions, known scientifically as volatile organic compounds, and how long do they persist in the atmosphere or in soil for that matter–is it like a spritz of perfume or the lingering aroma of fresh-cooked popcorn?

“We don’t know yet,” says Bais, who has already started this next leg of the research. “But if you go through a field of grass after it’s been mowed or a crop field after harvesting, you’ll smell these compounds.”

Sweeney first visited the Delaware Biotechnology Institute as an eighth grader, for a boot camp on basic laboratory procedures, which sparked his interest in research. He has since won the 2016 Delaware BioGENEius Challenge, was a 2016 international BioGENEius Challenge finalist and was named a semifinalist in the 2017 Regeneron Science Talent Search. Later this year he will head off to MIT, double-majoring in economics and biological engineering.

He is interested in looking at the agricultural side of science, saying it may not sound sexy, but everybody needs to eat. So if you can use cutting-edge technologies in genomics that feed more people while lessening the environmental footprint, “that’s where I want to be”.

US biotechnology cuts the gas from cattle flatulence

Feeding the world’s growing population without harming air quality is a challenge but a new article in Animal Frontiers says biotechnologies are increasing food production while reducing harmful gas output from cattle.

In the Animal Frontiers paper, Clayton Neumeier, a PhD student at University of California, Davis, describes a recent experiment.

An account of the research has been released by the American Society of Animal Science (here).

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Comparison of agriculture in North America and Europe raises questions about the value of GM

Researchers led by Canterbury University Professor Jack Heinemann have announced further findings that challenge the benefits of genetic modification.

This time their analysis deals with agricultural productivity.

They report finding (see here) that the biotechnologies used in North American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use, compared to western Europe.

A conspicuous difference is the adoption of genetically modified/engineered (GM) seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe.

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A new generation of GM crops might fend off Frankenfoods fears

The next wave of genetically modified crops is making its way to market—and might just ease concerns over “Frankenfoods”, according to a report in Nature reproduced in Scientific American (here).

Anastasia Bodnar, a biotechnologist with Biology Fortified, is quoted as saying that when the first genetically modified (GM) organisms were being developed for the farm, they were promoted as futuristic, ultra-nutritious crops that would bring exotic produce to supermarkets and help to feed a hungry world.

But the technology so far has bestowed most of its benefits on agribusiness, largely through crops modified to withstand weed-killing chemicals or resist insect pests. This has allowed farmers to increase yields and spray less pesticide than they might have otherwise.

Some of the new generation of GM crops now making their way from laboratory to market will tackle new problems, from apples that stave off discoloration to ‘Golden Rice’ and bright-orange bananas fortified with nutrients to improve the diets of people in the poorest countries.

Other next-generation crops will be created using advanced genetic-manipulation techniques that allow high-precision editing of the plant’s own genome.

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