Trans-Tasman collaboration unlocks genetic secrets behind myrtle rust

In a trans-Tasman collaboration, scientists have sequenced the genome of Austropuccinia psidii, the fungus responsible for the disease myrtle rust, and have produced the world’s largest assembled fungal genome.

Their work was recently published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics

This  marks a first step towards revealing key genetic features of the disease threatening myrtle plants in both Australia and New Zealand.

“If you’re going to go after a pathogen, it is important to get some understanding of its genome,” says Grant Smith, a Principal Scientist at Plant & Food Research in New Zealand. Continue reading

Regenerative agriculture – white paper calls for more science but critics say snake oil needs no testing

Since the NZIAHS published its special issue of AgScience with a special focus on regenerative agriculture in December, the call for more research has been reinforced by the preparation of a “white paper” by a country-wide group of researchers.  They have identified key research topics for further study to improve understanding and practice of regenerative farming.

The paper, Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand – Research Pathways to Build Science-Based Evidence and National Narratives, sets out 17 priority research topics and introduces 11 principles for regenerative farming in New Zealand.

Regenerative agriculture potentially had an important role to play in New Zealand, although evidence was urgently required, said the lead author, Dr Gwen Grelet, senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.

“Regenerative agriculture has huge momentum internationally in all parts of the food system,” she said.  “It is not a magic bullet but its grass-roots popularity with farmers and food consumers means it has huge potential for driving the transformation of Aotearoa’s agri-food system to move our country closer to its goals.”

In a newsletter to NZIAHS members today, the institute’s president, Professor Jon Hickford, notes that some concerns have been expressed to him about the white paper.   One issue is whether it fairly reflects the views which RA sceptics expressed during consultations in the preparation of the paper.  Another issue is who was paid how much to produce the paper.

When it comes to the paper’s conclusions, however, there should be no disagreement, Professor Hickford said.  The paper insists (as does the NZIAHS) there is a pressing need and demand to test the claims made by RA proponents using robust scientific methodology. Continue reading

Bee survey data suggest about 81,965 colonies were lost in winter last year

Results are in from the 2019 New Zealand Colony Loss Survey – a vital source of information for the New Zealand beekeeping industry.  They show a loss rate which suggests about 81,965 colonies were lost over winter 2019.  

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research runs the annual survey on behalf of the beekeeping industry and Ministry for Primary Industries.  This year over 3,400 beekeepers responded to provide information about the health of their bees and relevant management practices.

The first survey was completed in 2015 and was refined and repeated in 2016. It was run again in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Continue reading

Landcare data base helps to show how NZ’s landscape is changing

Landcare Research has released version 5 of New Zealand’s Land Cover Database (LCDB), which details these changes, helping us to understand how the way we are using our land is changing.

The project addresses the question:  how is New Zealand’s landscape changing?

New Zealand’s land cover is constantly changing, Landcare Research said in a press release, and version 5 of the LCDB  will helping us to understand how the way we are using our land is changing.

Because of the important information contained in the database, funding for the updated LCDB was provided by the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation. Continue reading

‘Ground zero’: How will climate-driven drought impact rural communities?

New economic research co-funded by the Deep South National Science Challenge and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, with the support of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, will investigate the impact of climate change-driven drought on vulnerable communities.

What has happened in the past, and what might happen in the future, to local spending, income, wages or employment during droughts? What are the long-lasting effects? Where does labour go and does it return? What does drought do to agriculture and tourism profits, food production, land values, debt and communities?

Research co-lead Dr Lynn Riggs (Motu Economic and Public Policy Research) says her aim is to understand what drought does to people who are at ground-zero and then how the impacts reverberate out to other communities.

“I hope this will improve our ability to plan for and avoid the worst.” Continue reading

Study shows pathogens lurking in farm and forest soil

Science has revealed for the first time what microbes are lurking in our soil – and that there are many more harmful ones on farms and in plantation forests than in natural forests.

In his PhD research with the Bio-Protection Research Centre, based at Lincoln University, and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, Andi Makiola studied how land uses such as farming and plantation forestry affected the variety of plant pathogens in the soil and on plant leaves and roots.

Pathogens are organisms that can cause plant disease.  They include fungi, bacteria, and oomycetes (for example, Phytophthora agathidicida, which causes kauri dieback).

Dr Makiola and colleagues used a new method called next-generation sequencing to extract and amplify DNA from soils and plants across New Zealand, revealing what plant pathogens lived in them.
Continue reading

Scientists campaign to have NZ fungi on global red list

Scientists are campaigning to have endangered fungi from across Australasia included in the Global Red List of threatened species.

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research mycologist Peter Buchanan has helped organise the first International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Red List Workshop on Australasia’s threatened fungi.

The workshop takes place on 22–26 July at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

The workshop will examine up to 100 potentially threatened species of fungi from New Zealand, Australia and New Caledonia, and evaluate their predicted survival against the international criteria set by IUCN for inclusion in the Global Red List. Continue reading

Apiculture survey – further increase in NZ’s bee colony losses underscores the need for attention

Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) says a gradual rise in New Zealand’s bee colony loss rates highlights the need for ongoing attention to bee health issues.

The overall colony loss rate was 8.4 % in 2015, 9.6% in 2016 and 9.7% in 2017.

His organisation was concerned at the further increase in colony loss rates to 10.2% in 2018, said Barry Foster, chair of ApiNZ’s Science and Research Focus Group and a member of the NZ Colony Loss Survey advisory group. Continue reading

Gall mite is approved to curb old man’s beard

The leaf-galling mite Aceria vitalbae may now be used to combat the pervasive weed old man’s beard.

Horizons Regional Council applied to the EPA to introduce the gall mite on behalf of the National Biocontrol Collective, comprised of 14 regional councils and the Department of Conservation.

The Department of Conservation told the Environmental Protection Authority’s decision-making committee that old man’s beard is a serious environmental pest for which there are limited control options, especially where it is widespread, says EPA General Manager of Hazardous Substances and New Organisms, Dr Fiona Thomson-Carter.

Horizons Regional Council submitted that some native plant species, especially in the central North Island, are heavily impacted by old man’s beard. It noted that in some places this weed has been dispersed by the wind, and has established on cliffs, cloaking vegetation and ultimately killing other plant species.

Horizons spends more than $500,000 annually trying to eradicate old man’s beard and five regional councils around New Zealand estimate they spend $760,000 in total. Helicopter spraying of the most suitable broadleaf herbicide costs $1,500 per hectare.

Aceria vitalbae is a gall-forming mite, says Dr Thomson-Carter.

The galls it forms on host plants provide shelter for the mites, enabling them to multiply. The plant redirects resources into the galls, which reduces its capacity to flower, produce leaves, grow longer internode stems, and photosynthesise.

While the leaf-galling mite may attack plant species closely related to old man’s beard, such as the exotic Clematis stans, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research told the EPA it is confident there would be no significant damage to non-target plants, such as native Clematis species.

Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research is the science provider for the application, and noted the formation of galls would assist in reducing the lateral spread of old man’s beard, and as a flow-on effect, potentially thin-out the canopy coverage and reduce shading of the undergrowth.

Overall, the EPA concluded that native New Zealand plants are not at risk of attack by Aceria vitalbae. Spill-over attacks on exotic species within the same family as old man’s beard are very unlikely, as ornamental Clematis and old man’s beard do not grow in the same areas.

The decision-making committee noted the environmental benefit of reducing herbicide usage if biocontrol proved effective. This would lessen collateral damage on non-target plants and reduce the chemical burden on the environment.

Source:  Environmental Protection Authority 

More than 8 million hectares of NZ soil now digitally mapped

Landcare Research’s national soil mapping programme has now covered 8 million hectares, or 30% of the New Zealand land area, says soil scientist Sam Carrick.

More than one-quarter of New Zealand’s GDP is directly dependent on soil, which underpins both the productivity and health of New Zealand’s land and freshwater ecosystems.

Soils range in quality and texture and Landcare Research scientists have been researching, mapping, assessing and recording them to measure their condition, identify risks and share this information with a wide range of people, including farmers, community groups and councils.

They use a digital information system called S-map online.

S-map online started in the mid-2000s when there was a push to digitise paper soil mapping records and help provide a better understanding of the wide variety of soils by enabling access to information on historic and new soil records, says Carrick.

The primary focus until now has been mapping land with high production potential that is most likely to have the most intensive land use pressures. S-map has managed to map half of this land, he says.

The most recent soil mapping coverage is in the Grey Valley, West Coast and in the northern Hawke’s Bay.

Soil quality in New Zealand was included in the Our land 2018 environmental report released two months ago by the Ministry for the Environment. The report highlighted significant concerns about erosion, compaction and high levels of phosphorus impacting our soil quality and the need for more research.

The Our land 2018 report also identified urban expansion is having an important impact on New Zealand’s most versatile land.

“Only around 5 per cent of New Zealand soil is classed as highly versatile, with the potential to support a wide range of crops, so it’s important we are researching to understand exactly where these soils are and how best to care for them for future generations, ” says Carrick.

Over the next year, soil mapping will include areas in the Waikato and Wellington regions, as well as the Port Hills of Christchurch.

S-map online is widely used, with around 7,000 registered users downloading 35,000 soil fact sheets last year.

Source: Landcare Research