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.

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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

Massey graduate’s journey from ‘townie’ to a doctorate in agritech

When Dr Sue Chok left high school she had her sights set on becoming a doctor, but back then she had a medical specialisation in mind and the self-confessed “townie” wouldn not even have known what precision agriculture was.

Last week she accepted her doctoral degree in precision agriculture as part of graduation celebrations in Palmerston North, joining over 1000 other graduates.

“I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, but it turns out I didn’t like biology that much. My interests were actually in other areas like physics and chemistry,” Dr Chok says.

“I was also passionate about the environment.”

After assessing her options, Dr Chok decided to complete a Bachelor of Engineering majoring in environmental technology, and then a doctorate with one of the country’s leading agritech minds, Professor Ian Yule.

“I didn’t have a farming background. It was a completely new topic and I was looking for a new challenge. There was a summer internship with Ian and Miles Grafton that a friend suggested I apply for. It was in assessing fertiliser quality in New Zealand”

An internship working on this project, led to Dr Chok’s PhD working with Ravensdown. The PhD project looked at improving aerial topdressing (applying granular fertiliser from aircraft) on hill country farms in New Zealand.

“Fertiliser is applied on New Zealand hill country using fixed wing agricultural aircraft. This has been occurring in New Zealand since the 1940s. There has been very little change in the aerial topdressing industry till recently.

“This technology will allow different application rates to be applied over a farm rather than the conventional blanket rate. Studies have shown that pasture and nutrient needs can vary significantly over a farm. Therefore the variable rate system will help to optimise pasture production and reduce cost by applying fertiliser where it is required.

“My particular part was to validate a model that enables the prediction of fertiliser distribution in the field and to assess the performance of a new variable rate application technology system that Ravensdown is implementing in their fixed wing aircraft fleet.”

Her research involved field work, lab work and programming.

“I really enjoyed the diversity I had as I wasn’t just doing one thing the whole time.

“The field work involved setting out a total of around 200 collectors over five experiments where aircraft would be applying fertiliser. The samples would then be collected and weighed in a lab, where the results were used to make conclusions about the system and see if the model can reproduce it.

“It’s a cool feeling as my work had real world applications where the solutions from my project is implemented by the aerial spreaders so that farmers can benefit immediately.”

Dr Chok will take up a role in the University’s new AgriTech Partnership as a junior research officer working with  the innovative Fenix hyper spectral imaging system, a tool used in precision agriculture, which was first developed for military reconnaissance and space exploration.

The project is part of the Primary Growth Partnership between Ravensdown and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Source: Massey University

Dr Kumar and the secrets of reducing methane emissions from sheep

Dr Sandeep Kumar has been looking at one of the world’s most pressing issues –  greenhouses gases – and one bacterium that might hold the key to reducing emissions.

Dr Kumar, who graduated at a Massey University ceremony in the Manawatū yesterday, arrived in New Zealand in the summer of 2011 as a LEARN scholar from India to work in AgResearch’s rumen microbiology team.

His journey from India to Palmerston North is told on the Massey University website (HERE).

He grew up in a village in the eastern part of India where he gained his initial understanding of agriculture and its impact on society. His eagerness to learn more about it brought him to Palmerston North.

He returned briefly to India, then came back to start a PhD in 2013 thanks to funding from the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) and a Walsh fellowship from Teagasc (Ireland).

For this PhD, Dr Kumar investigated sheep that naturally produce less methane, and the key bacteria associated with these sheep.

“Methane is a by-product of feed digestion that contributes about one-third of New Zealand’s anthropogenic greenhouse gases,” Dr Kumar says.

“In the rumen [the first stomach of a ruminant], nearly all bacteria exist by fermenting the plant material ingested by the animal. There is a rather large bacterium found to be abundant in the rumen of naturally low-methane emitting sheep called Quinella, I wanted to understand why large populations of Quinella are associated with the rumens of sheep producing less methane.

“The problem is that the few published attempts that define its metabolism were contradictory, so we needed to study it further to work out its role in low methane emissions.”

 
Quinella, a bacterium first seen in sheep rumen contents in 1913, cannot be cultured. Dr Kumar found a way to generate preparations of rumen contents highly enriched with Quinella by exploiting the physical size of this bacterium.

By analysing four Quinella genomes assembled from DNA extracted from rumen contents, he found that Quinella has all the genes needed to produce propionate and acetate as well as lactate.

Results showed it produced little or no hydrogen, a major precursor for methane, which explains why greater abundances of these bacteria leads to lower methane emissions.

Additionally, Dr Kumar found there were several species of the genus Quinella besides Quinella ovalis. 

“As a microbiologist it is quite challenging to work with unculturable bacteria but at the same time it is rewarding as well when you successfully answer the question,” he says.

” In my PhD that is what exactly happened, as even after an unsuccessful isolation attempt, with the help of molecular biology and bioinformatics tools and software, I was able to construct the physiology of Quinella.”

Dr Kumar conducted much of his research at the AgResearch Grasslands campus, supervised by Dr Peter Janssen (AgResearch), Dr Mark Patchett (Massey University) and Dr Sinead Waters (Teagasc).

Other interesting aspects of its metabolism were also found during Dr Kumar’s work, but those will be for others to investigate. He has now accepted a post-doctoral scientist position in AgResearch, where he will be applying his microbiological skills to study bacterial endophytes.

Source: Massey University

Massey University bestows an honorary doctorate on Dr Alex Chu

Dr Alex Chu’s significant contribution to Massey University and New Zealand was recognised yesterday with the honorary degree of a Doctor of Science at graduation celebrations today in Palmerston North.

Born Cheong Ping in the Chinese city of Chongqing, Sr Chu’s father had encouraged him to adopt an Anglo Saxon first name. In his mid-teens, he chose Alex.

When he was seven years old, the family moved to Hong Kong for a brief period before emigrating in 1953 to British North Borneo, now the state of Sabah, East Malaysia.

After leaving school in 1961, Dr Chu started his career as a junior field officer at the Sabah Department of Agriculture in Malaysia, before being awarded a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study the four-year Agricultural Science degree at (the then) Massey Agricultural College.

Dr Chu graduated in 1971 with a Master of Agricultural Science degree with first-class honours in Plant Science.

Professor Emeritus Robert Anderson introduced Dr Chu yesterday and gave a rare glimpse of the man before he joined the staff at Massey.

“Being from British North Borneo, his class mates at Massey nicknamed Alex as being ‘the wild man from Borneo’.

“That nickname would turn out to be significantly astray because Alex graduated as a Massey Scholar, which was awarded to just 5 per cent of graduates in 1968. Moreover, at that time, agricultural science at Massey was at its zenith and, reflecting across the 65 years that the Agricultural Science degree was offered, the class of 1968 is one of the most illustrious.

“Wild man from Borneo? I think not!

“Alex Chu is the most selfless, dedicated and loyal colleague with whom I had the privilege of collaborating during the past four decades.”

After graduating, Dr Chu returned to Malaysia. But Massey’s head of the department of agronomy, Professor Bramwell Watkin, persuaded him to return to New Zealand and became a lecturer in 1973. He became a New Zealand citizen in the same year.

He completed a PhD in Agronomy in 1979 and advanced through the academic ranks, reaching the status of Associate Professor in 1986.

In 1988, he was appointed as Assistant to the Vice-Chancellor (International Liaison and Special Projects), a role making him responsible for developing relationships between Massey and Asia, particularly in China.

Dr Chu’s work resulted in collaborative agreements with the prestigious Peking and Tokyo universities. His scholarly achievements led to his being accorded five honorary professorships at universities in China, including: China Agricultural University, Hubei Agricultural College, Gansu Grassland Ecological Research Institute, Northeast Normal University and the Mongolian College of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry.

Dr Chu raised funds internationally for eliminating poverty and has assisted with increased farmers’ incomes through technology transfer and training, lectures and seminars, academic linkages and scholarships.

During his Massey career, Alex secured approximately $2.1 million funding from grants and external consultancy.

Dr Chu was also a lifelong learner, completing a Graduate Diploma of Management while on leave at the University of Western Australia.

In 2001 he returned to his academic base as Assistant to the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Sciences before retiring in 2008.

Many years spent forging international links for the University were recognised upon his retirement when Dr Chu was rewarded with a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Service.

Speaking to the audience at Palmerston North, Dr Chu talked about his time at Massey and things he had learnt.

“Fifty years ago, I too graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor’s degree; just like what you have achieved today. From today, you are going to start your journey of life, whereas I am just about finishing mine.  Perhaps there are some experiences I can share with you.  Who knows, they may help you in your journey.

“If you ask me for just one piece of advice – I would say aim high and follow your heart. In the end it doesn’t really matter if you are unable to reach your goal, as long as you have given your best and you have followed your heart, and done what you think is the right thing to do: no one can ask for more.”

Dr Chu was awarded the Chinese State Friendship Award in 2001 and appointed Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2003 for services to agriculture in New Zealand and China.

Source: Massey University

Film pays tribute to Sir Paul Callaghan while feedback flows in on R&D funding proposals

Scientists will learn on Budget day – Thursday – how much money the Government will be investing in science over the next year or so. A few days later a documentary film about nuclear physicist Sir Paul Callaghan, titled Dancing with Atoms, will have its world premiere in Wellington on Sunday.

Directed by Shirley Horrocks, the film was funded by the MacDiarmid Institute with the support of most New Zealand universities, including Massey University.

We can only conjecture on how Sir Paul would rate the performance of Callaghan Innovation, which was named to honour him. But a performance review this year found it wanting:

“Callaghan Innovation’s people need to put their passion into the effective execution of a clear plan and they need agile internal systems and processes.”

A report by Rob O/Neill in Reseller News says the Performance Improvement Framework report, completed in January, grades performance across different areas on a four colour scale: red for weak, orange for needing improvement, lime for well-placed, and green for strong. He wrote:

“Callaghan’s latest review is an improvement on one completed in 2015, but it still hasn’t received a green rating across any of the multiple measures employed – it scored 11 orange ratings and seven lime in 2018 compared with three red, 20 orange and two lime in 2015.

“The review says the lack of a plan is already being addressed by Callaghan’s new leadership, with a 12 month strategy roadmap, a three to five year strategy and new 90 day plans which effect the 12 month roadmap and promote clarity, discipline and accountability.

“However, Callaghan is not moving fast enough on system and process improvement. Legacy IT systems must be streamlined, the report says, rather than relying on the ongoing rollout of point solutions.”

Chief executive Vic Crone told Mr O’Neill Callaghan Innovation’s new vision and strategy has now been signed off and implementation will be under way from July.

“I’m confident that will shift a big chunk of our next round orange to green,” she says.

Callaghan Innovation was further embarrassed – or should have been – when the Taxpayers Union disclosed it had spent almost $3 million on travel and entertainment in 2015/16.

Among the entertainment spending was a $50 tip after a dinner at Wellington’s Dockside restaurant.

More than $300,000 was spent on entertainment.

The agency’s future is interwoven with the Government’s proposal to end Callaghan Innovation’s growth grants and introduce a 12.5 per cent research and development tax incentive.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods released a discussion document on April 19 which sets out the funding proposal.

For the following six weeks, she said, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Inland Revenue and Callaghan Innovation will be seeking feedback through a variety of channels.

The Government’s aim, the Minister said, is to lift spending on R&D to 2.0 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027.

If the proposal is implemented, the tax credit on eligible expenditure will be available to businesses doing R&D in New Zealand from April 1, 2019. A business would need to spend a minimum of $100,000 on eligible expenditure, within one year, to qualify.

According to the Government’s proposal, businesses with an active growth grant as at March 31, 2019, will continue receiving their grant until March 2020. A temporary grant scheme mirroring the R&D tax incentive will be implemented to provide support for growth grant recipients with insufficient tax liability to use the R&D credit immediately.

But the growth grant scheme will be closed to new applicants on March 31, 2019.

One question raised by this will be answered in the Budget on Thursday: how much more funding over and above allocated under the previous national government will be allocated for Callaghan Innovation and other science agencies?

Another of several written questions put to the Minister by National’s Dr Parmjeet Parma in recent weeks (HERE) asked if the Minister will honour all the projects/contracts funded through Callaghan Innovation?

Dr Woods reply wasn’t an unqualified yes.  She said:

I expect that Callaghan Innovation will honour its contracts as long as the terms of the contract are adhered to.

Asked what changes she is planning for Callaghan Innovation and from when, she replied:

“No changes are currently planned to Callaghan Innovation, however future policy decisions may impact on aspects of Callaghan Innovation’s operations. Of course changes to the way the Government incentivises R&D could impact some of the existing administrative functions relating to Callaghan Innovation grants.”

Asked if she had received any advice from officials on any changes to the workings of Callaghan Innovation, the answer – given in writing on March 15 – was bemusing:

 “I have not received any advice on material changes to Callaghan Innovation’s operations. Callaghan Innovation is responsible for its day to day operations, and regularly keep me updated on any issues I need to be aware of.”

On a different tack, Dr Parmar asked if the Minister had sought any advice from officials on any changes to the workings of Callaghan Innovation. Dr Woods’ reply was emphatic:

“No.”

This suggests either that she sought no advice or that she worked furiously between March 15 and April 19 to incorporate advice before releasing the proposals for phasing out the growth grants.

We can only wonder what Sir Paul Callaghan would make of this.

A news item on the Massey website reminds us of his illustrious career. 

Sir Paul joined Massey’s staff as a lecturer in 1974 and he was appointed Professor of Physics 10 years later.

Sir Paul was appointed the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University in 2001, the same year he became the 36th New Zealander to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

He was awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand Hector Medal in 1998, the Ampere Prize in 2004, the Rutherford Medal in 2005, was appointed a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit following year and, with the restoration of traditional honours, was formally knighted in 2009.

He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Massey in 2010.

Callaghan Innovation was named after him when it was established in February 2013 with the Crown Research Institute Industrial Research Limited merged into it. The agency’s task is to make New Zealand business more innovative.

Film premiere:

The world premiere of Dancing With Atoms is at 3.30pm, Sunday May 20 at the Embassy Theatre, Wellington. Tickets $25/$15 for children 16 and under and students with ID available from eventbrite.co.nz

All proceeds from the film premiere screening go the Cancer Society of NZ.

Click here for a documentary preview.

 

Agri-food and food shortages on the agenda as Massey links with Wageningen

Social scientists from New Zealand and Europe have joined forces to tackle urgent global issues such as food shortages, the environment and humanitarian aid.

The Mordor Accord, referencing the Lord of the Rings film scenery where it was signed, resulted when researchers from the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands visited New Zealand earlier this year. They were hosted by Massey University’s School of People, Environment and Planning.

Under the shadow of Mount Ngauruhoe (which doubles as fictional Mount Doom in Sir Peter Jackson’s films) the team developed a work plan for collaboration addressing issues from the environment, food, political economy and development studies.

The head of Massey’s School of People, Environment and Planning, Professor Glenn Banks, says the Mordor Accord title started as a bit of fun “but it seems to have stuck”.

Massey and Wageningen have been working together for a number of years, he said.

Both lead their respective countries in the agriculture rankings.

More recently a discussion between social scientists at the two institutions was started.

“We are essentially tackling the same sorts of challenges coming out of very similar agricultural institutions, but also we have a lot to offer each other in our respective areas.

“We find ourselves asking similar political questions about agriculture, the environment, development aid, and similar issues that are becoming critical issues in today’s world,” Professor Banks says.

“The main objective of the collaboration is to kick-start joint teaching, research, grant development and to help strengthen and broaden the relations between the two universities.

“We are looking to gain from their strength in Latin America and Africa, where they do a lot of work, but they also get a lot from us in other areas like the Pacific and Asia where they are looking to expand their research and are seeking networks and joint opportunities.”

Both schools are nvolved in new areas of academic activity and debate within the social sciences, including agri-food and agricultural development, the relations between development and extraction, conservation and resource management, and tourism.

The intention is to translate these initial meetings into more concrete work programmes with joint publications, research grant development and applications, and staff and student visits and exchanges.

Some of these are already under way: a Sociology PhD student Stella Pennell is leaving in mid-year for a three-month visit to Wageningen as part of her study.

Moreover, a group of Massey staff from the School of People, Environment and Planning have been invited to attend a conference on sustainable development goals to eliminate global hunger in late August to coincide with Wageningen’s Centennial celebrations.

Source: Massey University