Landcare Research scientist wins Zonta Science Award

A love of the natural world has led to Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research scientist Dr Jessie Prebble being named the 15th Biennial Zonta Science Award winner. The award was established in 1990 by the Zonta Club of Wellington to further the status of New Zealand women in science.

Dr Prebble, a plant systematist, was chosen from 33 applications by early career women scientists as this year’s recipient.

The award will be presented by the Governor General at a ceremony at Government House on Thursday 7 June 2018.

“I love the variety – I get to work outside, in the mountains, in the lab, in the herbarium, with people, as well as by myself. I get to think about ideas, come up with plans and follow them through, it’s very satisfying,” Dr Prebble says.

An outstanding role model for other young women pursuing a career in science, Jessie was selected for the award after demonstrating that through her work she contributes to her community.

Along with the accolade, Dr Prebble will receive $18,000 to fund activities to further her career and research. She has chosen to use the Award to visit three laboratories in the USA and to work with leading plant scientists at the University of Florida. There, she will learn a new technique of DNA sequencing that improves scientists’ ability to discover and describe species, which she will with other scientists in New Zealand.

The Zonta Science Award is for an emerging woman scientist. Priority is given to women working in an area of science where funding is not readily available.

Source: Landcare Research

Rabbit virus is working as expected – the science behind RHDV1-K5 explained

Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research has released an update on its monitoring of the spread of the Rabbit Haemorrhagic Virus Disease (RHDV1-K5), which regional councils began releasing several weeks ago.

Following extensive overseas research, RHDV1-K5 was released at more than 150 sites across New Zealand as a longer-term biocontrol for pest rabbit management.

Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research is leading the science behind the virus. Since the release, research teams have been intensely monitoring sites, to study the impact of the virus and how well it is establishing.

‘So first thing we wanted to know was whether the virus was killing rabbits within 5 km’s of our release sites and that seems to be the case – so far we’ve detected the RHDV1-K5 from carcasses at all of the research sites,’ says Landcare Research Lead Researcher Dr Janine Duckworth.

The Ministry for Primary Industries approved applications for the importation and release of the RHDV1-K5, to help reduce the significant environmental and agricultural impacts caused by wild rabbits.

The virus is a Korean variant of a virus that was illegally released in New Zealand in 1997. But questions have been asked as to why every farmer is not seeing dramatic numbers of dead rabbits on their property.

The answer is simple, Dr Duckworth says. It was never expected to act that way.

RHDV1-K5 is expected to improve rabbit knockdown by up to 40% above the current strain and results will vary with the location and the number of susceptible animals within the population.

“One of the major differences with this virus release is the rabbits have already seen RHDV type viruses and have built up some antibodies against them, so it’s not going to see the huge 80-90% die off that we saw back in 1997, but it will be more effective over time,” she said.

“When you use a biocide it only affects the rabbits that eat the virus and then they die within one to two weeks. With a natural spread, the infection builds much more gradually but we see a longer period of infection. It will be six to eight weeks that the virus will still be slowly spreading through a rabbit population and we want to see this virus establish and be here long term as a new biocontrol agent.”

Now the research focus is on finding out how quickly the virus is moving away from the release sites through natural spread to infect nearby rabbit populations.

“RHDV spreads either from rabbit to rabbit contact, contact of rabbits with feces from an infected rabbit, or from bedding material,” Dr Duckworth said.

“But it also spreads across the land much faster than it could by rabbit to rabbit contact, and what we believe is that it’s the flies that are carrying the virus from one area to another.”

Ongoing monitoring and research is continuing with the project. Spotlight night counts of rabbit populations are underway and are expected to be completed in a few weeks’ time.

You can find out more about the RHDV1-K5 virus  HERE.

Source: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Groundbreaking trial seeks links to GHG emissions

A ground-breaking trial at Landcorp’s Waikite farm will test the link between the administration of long-acting drench products in sheep, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Landcorp is working with staff from AgResearch’s Animal Health, Rumen Microbiology, Plant Functional Biology and Animal Genomics teams, along with a team from Landcare Research, to conduct the trial, which has financial support from AgResearch, Beef+Lamb NZ and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Institute.

“The link with GHG emissions is just one of several questions the trial will hopefully answer”, says AgResearch principal scientist Dr Dave Leathwick.

“We have multiple objectives based around whether the administration of these long-acting drench products to sheep has unforeseen side-effects.

“Some of the active ingredients in these products have fungicidal and/or antibiotic activity. The trial will look for possible changes in the composition of the rumen microbiome and the production of greenhouse gases as a result of treating ewes with these products”.

In addition, all 300 ewes in the trial will be used to test for a possible relationship between sheep genotype, rumen microbiome and production characteristics.

“We will also investigate possible cases of ill thrift (low body condition score) in the ewes, and particularly the role that parasites play in this,” Dr Leathwick says

Landcorp’s Waikite Farm Manager, Peter Strawbridge, says his staff found the experience of working with a big team of scientists and technicians an interesting diversion from everyday farm work.

“We aren’t scientists, but working with the AgResearch team was a fascinating insight into the role science plays in our sector,” Mr Strawbridge says.

The Waikite team are no strangers to research work, with previous AgResearch collaboration on anthelmintic drenches over the years. Chris Miller is one of the AgResearch team who is back on Waikite, 30 years after starting Grass Grub research on the farm.

The trial will continue to collect data from the 300 ewes, and their lambs, until weaning in December 2018.

Waikite Station is a 1578 hectatre property south of Rotorua, which is busy enough at the best of times. Peter Strawbridge the Farm Manager and the team are a Genetic Breeding Partner for Focus Genetics, breeding and growing Simmental, FocusPrime and Texel sires for Pāmu and the industry.

The team at Waikite produce over 50 of Australasia’s top ranking Simmental bulls every year and over 300 rams. This year’s ram sires are 85kg at 8 months old and the 18 month old bulls are already over 700kg and getting ready for the bull auction on May 18th.

Demand for the stud stock is growing, so Waikite is increasing the size of both the sheep and cattle studs this year, which means more mobs and more work.

Source: Landcorp

EPA rules leading-edge plant and animal research is not GMO

Landcare Research has been given approval by the Environmental Protection Authority to use a leading-edge science technique with the potential to improve disease resistance in plants.

Landcare Research applied for an EPA ruling on whether the technique, which treats certain plant or animal cells (eukaryotic organisms) with RNA to stop those cells producing certain proteins, is a permitted activity under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).

An EPA-appointed decision-making committee considered whether the practice would result in the creation of a genetically modified organism.

It determined that it would not, says Stephen Cobb, New Organisms Manager for the EPA.

“For Landcare Research this means they can maximise the benefits from their research in treating certain animal and plant cells with double-stranded RNA molecules (dsRNA),” he said.

The technique is being trialled in a lab for agriculture research and may result in a range of benefits including less toxic insecticides.

Source: Environmental Protection Authority

Annual bee colony survey finds losses comparatively low

Bee colony losses in New Zealand continue to be significantly lower than many other countries, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries’ third annual survey on bee colony losses.

Annual hive losses were reported at 9.84% overall.

Dr Michael Taylor, the ministry’s biosecurity surveillance and incursion investigation (aquatic and environment health) manager, says this loss rate is low, compared to international results, which consistently show rates well over 10%.

“Many of the pests and diseases that negatively impact beehives overseas are not present in New Zealand, and we have a robust biosecurity system to prevent them from coming into the country and deal with them if they do,” Dr Taylor said.

The ministry contracted Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research to conduct the New Zealand Colony Loss Survey,  which looks at the state of New Zealand’s honey bee colonies and the challenges beekeepers face.

More than 2,060 beekeepers completed the 2017 survey, representing 30% of production colonies in New Zealand.

The reported rate of losses in this country has stayed relatively stable from 2016, when the survey recorded 9.78% of beehive losses but this was down from 2015, when the loss rate was 10.73%.

The leading reported causes of hive loss in 2017 included:

  • Queen problems (such as death, disappearance, or not laying eggs).
  • Suspected varroa mite.
  • Suspected starvation of bees (weather and other causes).
  • Wasps (killing bees, eat pupae and steal honey).

Losses to American foulbrood disease, natural disasters, Argentine ants, and theft were also contributing factors, but these were less commonly reported.

Dr Taylor says the Bee Colony Loss Survey provides baseline information for monitoring managed honey bee colony loss and survival over time.

He said the information from the survey was a valued resource for ongoing work the ministry undertakes with the beekeeping industry to promote good colony health and bee-keeping practice as well as the Bee Pathogen Programme, which addresses the prevalence of honey bee diseases and parasites already in New Zealand.

Find out more

Source: Ministry for Primary Industries



Japan’s white admiral butterfly is being mobilised to hit back at Japanese honeysuckle

Landcare Research reports (HERE) its scientists have reached a milestone in the fight against an aggressive vine invading New Zealand native bush, roadsides, and wastelands.

Biocontrol scientists Hugh Gourlay and Quentin Paynter have successfully reared hundreds of Japan’s Honshu white admiral butterflies (Limenitis glorifica), a biocontrol agent for the widespread vine known as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), for the first time in New Zealand.

“It is a very significant step for us,” says Gourlay.

“Japanese honeysuckle is a really big problem. We’ve got several regional councils who have a problem with it and are keen to get hold of our biocontrol agents.”

Biocontrol is an extremely cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and permanent solution to controlling weeds.

Biocontrol agents are mainly insects that have been carefully selected and tested not to harm other plants or the environment. Once established, the agents don’t need any human input. They travel wherever the weed spreads and return to kill off new weed growth.

Japanese honeysuckle was first introduced as an ornamental hedging plant from Japan in 1872, but by 1926 it was reported to have started spreading and growing in the wild.

The flowering evergreen vine is a common sight across the country as the tough resilient plant spreads quickly, climbing over and suffocating plants.

In 2013, scientists were given Environmental Protection Authority approval to release the butterflies in New Zealand and, a year later, they attempted to use the Japanese butterfly’s caterpillars as a bio-control method for the weed – releasing a small number at Karangahake Gorge in the Waikato.

From there, they began successfully rearing the butterflies in shade houses at Manaaki Whenua’s Auckland and Lincoln sites.

“The rearing has been very successful. It’s the first time we have had vast numbers of caterpillars consuming our plants,” Gourlay says.

Butterflies are often fussy when it comes to the conditions in which they will mate.

Quentin Paynter says they spent years trying to get them to mate in containment facilities.

“We tried for three years to mate the butterflies by hand pairing them, then tried to get the butterflies to mate and lay eggs by releasing them into the Butterfly Creek butterfly house near Auckland Airport and that didn’t work either,” he says.

“So eventually we imported mated adult butterflies collected from the field in Japan, reared their laid eggs through to the adult stage and then trial released them in New Zealand. They became established at the first attempt and were then collected from the release site where we were delighted to find that their offspring displayed normal mating behavior in our shade houses, enabling mass-rearing,” says Paynter.

The reared butterflies are now laying thousands of yellow eggs, which will be released as an army of caterpillars at nine infested sites in the North and South Island.

“When we release the caterpillar stage we need to release large numbers of them at each site to try and ensure that we get establishment of them so we are aiming to release at least a thousand caterpillars at each release site around the country side,” Gourlay says.

The team will continue breeding the butterflies, and expect it will take around five to ten years to see a wide scale impact.

“It’s also a very long-term process. You can’t expect the weed to rapidly disappear because that rarely happens, especially for a weed like honeysuckle. It is about controlling the weed, reducing its presence in our environment. That’s the aim and those things often take quite a while to achieve,” says Gourlay.

Development of biocontrol for Japanese honeysuckle is funded by the National Biocontrol Collective.


Biological Heritage funding announced for six new projects

The National Science Challenge for NZ’s Biological Heritage has approved six new research projects from its latest contestable funding round. Two of them are related to kauri dieback disease, two are concerned with groundwater ecosystems and restoration of streams and waterways, and two are focused on the public – research and development of a customised mobile app to enlist public help in reporting biosecurity threats, and research into public attitudes towards novel ways of getting rid of wasps and rats.

The Challenge, hosted by the Crown Research Institute Landcare Research and established in 2014, has $5M a year to fund research which focuses on reversing the decline in New Zealand’s biodiversity and strengthening New Zealand’s biosecurity systems. It is seeking step change approaches to pest eradication, and to defending New Zealand against biosecurity threats such as the brown marmorated stink bug or myrtle rust, both of which could devastate primary industries in a very short time.

The director of the challenge , Dr Andrea Byrom, a leading pest ecologist, is pleased with the outcome of this round which “has attracted applications from our best scientists, who plan to use the latest technologies and strategies, such as mobile apps and DNA profiling.

Project summaries can be found here.

For further information about the National Science Challenge, see here 


Kiwi scientists in team which is reporting a breakthrough on nitrogen

A group of New Zealand and American scientists has discovered a new way of chemically converting reactive nitrogen common in soil before it turns into a harmful greenhouse gas. The discovery, which will be published in the latest edition of the prestigious scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports , could lead to new alternatives for emission reductions from the New Zealand agricultural sector.

The New Zealand scientists – Landcare Research’s Rebecca Phillips, Andrew McMillan, Gwen Grelet, Bevan Weir and Palmada Thilak – discovered that reactive nitrogen (N) could be chemically converted to unreactive di-nitrogen gas (N2) without forming the harmful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). This is important because agriculture contributes more N2O than any other sector worldwide –primarily through nitrogen fertilisation.

This greenhouse gas is 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and 10 times more effective than methane. N2O also moves into the stratosphere and destroys ozone.

The team was the first to report organic N can react with inorganic N to create hybrid N2 (one organic N combined with one inorganic N) under standard conditions of temperature and pressure. Until now, it was thought this was only possible biologically.

N2 makes up 78% of our atmosphere and is considered a permanent sink for nitrogen. This exciting discovery could lead to new opportunities for mitigating excess reactive N in the environment.

Dr Phillips believes this research sets the stage for many practical applications. For example, further research could inform farmers of how to “cultivate soil organic matter useful for N management.”
Organic forms of soil N, such as exudates from plants and fungi, could function in the conversion of excess inorganic N that would otherwise be leached into water or emitted as N2O into a form that isn’t harmful to the environment. However, more research is needed to test exactly which forms of organic nitrogen are most effective.

The international team, which included Professor Craig Tobias (University of Connecticut) and Bongkeun Song (Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences), recently presented their findings at the Annual Project Directors Meeting in Washington DC., sponsored by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the National Integrated Water Quality Program.

The only analytical instrument capable of measuring atmospheric concentrations of both N2 and N2O in New Zealand is located at Landcare Research in Palmerston North. This equipment helps new advancements in the field of soil N cycling in New Zealand that were not possible previously.

Analytical instruments at the University of Connecticut, tuned to detect isotopes of N2, utilised microbiological protocols developed by the New Zealand team and provided independent data. An international team effort was then able to distinguish chemical formation of hybrid N2 as completely independent of N2O production – a finding that has not been reported until now.

The team is now developing proposals for further funding that will allow them to investigate on-farm applications for transforming excess N from soil and water into unreactive atmospheric N2 gas without producing N2O. This may allow scientists to develop options to manage the fate of agricultural N while avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.

The  work was partially funded by a USDA-NIFA grant, New Zealand’s Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, Royal Society of New Zealand International Travel Programme; and New Zealand Ecosystems and Global Change Fund.

Food supplement sourced from Southland wetland to be researched

A Landcare Research scientist has been granted funding to conduct further research into the commercial potential of an alga which Dr Phil Novis says offers an alternative to the health supplement fish oil.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a high-value, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid. Novis says the alga, found in Southland’s Awarua Wetland,has high levels of EPA. He hopes to build on earlier work to create a commercially viable method to boost EPA levels in the alga, known as Trachydiscus Awa9/2.

Because Trachydiscus Awa9/2 is new to science and its ecology is poorly understood, Novis will conduct a field study to understand its environment and how this affects EPA production. His research will include bioreactor experiments to optimise light quality and other conditions for commercial production.

It is a high-value product, with retail prices for fish-sourced EPA worth $200 per kg. The global EPA industry is worth $450 million per year.

The research is to be funded for the next three years by the Science for Technological Innovation  National Science Challenge, hosted by Callaghan Innovation.

Novis said this research ideally would help develop a local industry that produces purified EPA.

“One of its most obvious applications is as a vegetarian option for people who don’t want fish oil. We may end up growing the alga for aquaculture feed. We just don’t know where this will end up yet. But it’s exciting to get this grant so we can explore its potential.”

 Ngāi Tahu is a key partner in the research. A researcher from the iwi will gather samples from the wetland and send them to Novis for testing at Landcare Research’s laboratories in Lincoln.
A PhD student, based at Canterbury University but originally from Iran, will also assist Novis, as will several of his colleagues at the Crown Research Institute.



Landcare team looks into fighting wasps with wasps

Landcare Research scientists are exploring possible biocontrol agents, including a mite, to help control German and common wasps which cost the country’s primary industries around $130 million each year.

The most recent addition to the line-up is Sphecophaga, a species of parasitic wasp whose larvae feed off their host, eventually killing it.

The species was tried as a biocontrol agent against wasps in New Zealand starting in the 1980s, but so far has been established only in a few locations.

Recent research suggests this could have happened because the parasitic wasps were from the wrong region – sourced from Switzerland, Israel and the United States. Victoria University recently discovered New Zealand’s dominate wasp species originate from the UK.

Landcare Research biocontrol scientist Dr Ronny Groenteman said this information was “a key piece of the puzzle”.

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