Science in the Darkroom: exhibition of glass plate negatives from Plant & Food Research

A chance discovery has brought the delicate lost art of glass plate photography back to life at an exhibition of forgotten images and negatives in Auckland.

The show, Science in the Darkroom, will run at the historic Alberton house at 100 Mt Albert Rd, from 16 January to 27 January 2019.

The exhibition of 15 highly intricate and beautifully composed photographs will delight photographic enthusiasts as well as those with an interest in the long history of plant research in Mt Albert. Continue reading

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Plant & Food Research scientists recognised at Science New Zealand Awards

A leading materials scientist, an emerging kiwifruit scientist and a team that develops genetic markers to enable breeders to select elite seedlings, all from Plant & Food Research, were honoured at the Science New Zealand 2018 National Awards at Parliament in Wellington.

Dr Nigel Larsen, Principal Scientist, was presented with the Plant & Food Research Lifetime Achievement Award for his 35 years of contribution to the knowledge of food science and materials science in New Zealand and overseas.

In addition to co-founding the Biopolymer Network, a company that converts sustainable natural resources to biopolymers and biocomposite products, he has played significant leadership roles in numerous large multi-year, multi-agency research projects in food science.

Dr Larsen has led significant government-funded initiatives in collaboration with the New Zealand cereal industry to enhance the quality of the cereal-based consumer products that the industry produces. Most recently, he has been leading a multi-faceted strategy to lower the levels of proteins in foods made from New Zealand wheats that trigger coeliac disease. This involves projects across breeding, farming, milling and baking.

Dr Sarah Pilkington, scientist, received the Plant & Food Research Early Career Researcher Award for her impact on the kiwifruit industry. As an early-career researcher, she has already led a project that can save the industry millions of dollars in land and science resources a year.

Male kiwifruit vines are pollinisers that are non-fruiting. Her work allowing unproductive male vines to be eliminated from the breeding programme at an early stage using a universal molecular marker is highly valuable.

The Mapping & Markers Team*, formed in 1992, received the Plant & Food Research Team Award. The team’s work has cemented New Zealand’s position as the international leader in the development and application of molecular and genomic technologies to assist fruit breeders develop new varieties efficiently and in a targeted fashion.

Their DNA marker technologies help breeders select genetically elite individuals that carry “must have characteristics” desired by consumers and growers from populations of thousands of seedlings. These range from enhanced sustainability, improved resistance to pests and diseases, to fruit colour, flavour and texture, as well as female plants in kiwifruit and hops.

Current crops include apple, pear, hops, kiwifruit, raspberry, blueberry, summerfruit and, most recently, mānuka. Two of the original team members still contribute to team’s research today.

* Members of Mapping & Markers Team are Dr Sue Gardiner, Heather Bassett, Bev Breslin, Dr David Chagné, Dr Emily Buck, Deepa Bowatte, Dr Claudia Wiedow, Dr Chris Kirk, Dr Mareike Knaebel, Dr Jibran Tahir, Dr Elena Lopez-Girona, Dr Elena Hilario and the many past members who have contributed since 1992.

Science New Zealand represents the country’s seven Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) including Plant & Food Research. The annual awards recognise research excellence at each CRI.

Source: Plant & Food Research

Funding is won for research into bumblebee learning

A Plant & Food Research project which is researching the learning capability of bumblebees is among the 136 projects granted funding by the Marsden Fund in the latest round.

Most animals are capable of learning, but being a “good learner” is not always beneficial as learning involves energy investment.

In “The effect of environmental complexity on learning capacity in wild bumblebee populations” project, pollination scientist Dr Lisa Evans and her New Zealand and international collaborators will compare the learning capability of wild bumblebees occupying different kinds of floral environments, to determine whether learning potential provides a selective advantage to bumblebee colonies in some environments but not others.

The outcome will further our understanding of why we observe variation in learning potential within species and whether this can affect the ability of bees to successfully reproduce. This project has received a $300,000 fast-start grant designated for early career researchers.

The Marsden Fund, managed by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the New Zealand government, supports New Zealand’s best investigator-initiated research in the areas of science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities.

Source:  Plant & Food Research

CRIs are collecting seeds in the race against myrtle rust

Pōhutukawa, mānuka, kānuka and other New Zealand seeds are being collected, grown, and tested for resilience to myrtle rust, a disease with the potential to wipe out entire native species and drastically change the country’s native landscape.

Myrtle rust attacks and can seriously affect plants in the Myrtaceae (myrtle) family, including pōhutukawa, mānuka, kānuka and rātā.

The fungal pathogen that causes myrtle rust is called Austropuccinia psidii. This fungus produces millions of small yellow-coloured spores that are easily wind-blown to new plants.

The pathogen was first found in Australia in 2010 and seven years later was identified in New Zealand. Since then it has spread quickly and has been reported on at least 600 properties.

An article by Suzette Howe, posted on the Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research website, says the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has launched a full-scale attack to better understand the disease and limit its impact on NZ’s  Myrtaceae plants.

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research is one of a team of institutes taking part in the research programme.  It will be working on the project closely with Plant & Food Research over the next two years.

“What we are trying to do is work out which species are going to be affected by myrtle rust, so to do that we are collecting seed from a whole range of Myrtaceae species, i.e. from the family that is going to be affected by myrtle rust,” says ,” says Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research scientist Dr Gary Houliston.

“They’ll be sent to Australia to a screening facility, where they will be challenged with myrtle rust to see what’s susceptible,” he says.

Plant & Food Research plant pathologist Grant Smith, another of the key researchers working on the project, has worked in Australia helping with their response to myrtle rust and now oversees the seed collecting in New Zealand.

“Right now, what we are trying to do is get enough science data so we can make some decisions in 18 months about how we can respond from a science perspective to myrtle rust in New Zealand – for example, do we have resistance in mānuka that we can exploit in a breeding programme?” he says.

“We are also selecting material to safeguard via germplasm collections or seed banking,” says Dr Smith.

Testing seed resilience to the disease will give researchers information around ‘seed lines’ in New Zealand provinces that show a lot of resilience.

Mānuka and kānuka seeds are the first species to be collected and sent to Australia to be tested. From there, over the next year researchers will collect pōhutakawa and rātā and coordinate with other groups like Scion who are also doing research into this.

“This phase is what I consider to be a ‘secure future options’ to ensure we have options available for decisions we have yet to make,” says Dr Smith.

“In Australia, species extinction across the natural range of the plants is now becoming apparent. Understanding what resistance we have in our native plants, and seed banking those plants now before things get too bad, is essential to ensure we have the plant species available for future options,” he said.

All seed sent to Australia will be destroyed at the end of the project. Extra seed collected during the project is stored in seed banks in New Zealand.

Source: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

Biopesticides a “massive opportunity” for NZ kiwifruit industry

As consumer demand for residue-free produce rises, New Zealand’s kiwifruit industry would benefit from fast-tracking its shift towards biopesticides, a University of Auckland researcher says.

Through her internship at Plant & Food Research, Madeleine Trusewich determined that shifting sooner rather than later to biocontrol “would be a massive opportunity for New Zealand”, particularly for kiwifruit, the country’s largest single horticultural export by volume and value.

Supermarket chains in Britain and Europe are increasingly setting residue limits and banning produce exposed to certain pesticides.

Against this backdrop, Kiwifruit exporter Zespri has been working with Plant & Food Research, AgResearch and the Bio-Protection Research Centre to develop and promote “next generation” biopesticides – pest and disease control products based on natural biological agents, including fungi, bacteria, yeast and plant oils.  Zespri already restricts the use of pesticides to comply with or do better than EU limits.

But despite significant health and environmental benefits, the uptake of biopesticides has remained low in the kiwifruit industry, in line with global trends.

To find out why, Madeleine Trusewich analysed existing data, observed the industry through her internship at Plant & Food Research, and carried out in-depth interviews with orchardists, suppliers, scientists, agro-chemical company staff and others in the industry.

“I found widespread negative, but inaccurate, preconceptions about biocontrol – that it is ‘niche’ or ‘fringe’ and unproven, that it doesn’t work as well as chemicals, and that it’s more expensive and labour intensive,” says Ms Trusewich.

She did the research as part of a Master of Bioscience Enterprise, a programme jointly delivered by the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, the Business School and the Faculty of Law to teach students with a science background how to understand, protect and exploit the value of research.

“Generally, biopesticides are more expensive and they don’t visibly produce a fast result because they work by enhancing the vitality of the soil or the plants’ natural resilience to pests and disease,” Ms Trusewich says.

“But you can achieve just as good efficacy if you use biopesticides in conjunction with other biocontrol methods, like keeping tidy weed strips, monitoring for pests and diseases, and factoring in the effect of weather and other conditions.”

All Zespri fruit is required to be produced in line with the Zespri KiwiGreen Integrated Pest Management programme, which Zespri says ensures that pests and disease are controlled in a safe and environmentally sound manner. Biopesticides are one element of this programme, but are not currently widely used.

Ms Trusewich also analysed growers’ attitudes to change.

“Overall, they’re happy with the status quo, but there is a small group of more innovative orchardists, especially organic growers, who are looking for alternative ways of doing things.”

She says kiwifruit growers are the ultimate source of knowledge when it comes to pest and disease control and they have a crucial role to play in the co-creation of biopesticides.

“The industry should foster a positive attitude towards change and encourage, inspire, and incentivise growers to experiment with biopesticides. The regulatory environment is fast-moving, and the horticultural industry is racing to replace products that have been banned, product by product – that’s a slow shift. Big global chemical companies are starting to move into biocontrol now because they’re seeing a market opportunity,” she says.

“One of the scientists interviewed commented that these companies will probably come in and buy the pipeline of products New Zealand has developed.

“Shifting sooner rather than later to biocontrol is a massive opportunity for New Zealand. The industry’s response to Psa demonstrated their strength in uniting for a common cause, so we can be confident in its capacity to respond to this inevitable shift.”

Ms Trusewich’s full report is available online HERE.

Source:  Auckland University 

Understanding MYBs and how they generate ‘wow factors’ in fruits and vegetables

Novelty and health benefits play a major role in influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions and are often controlled in the plant by a family of proteins called MYBs. Understanding how these work could result in new fruits and vegetables on the supermarket shelves, Plant & Food Research says in a press release today.

Studies have found that changing, or selecting for changes, in the activity of a single family of genetic controls, called MYB transcription factors, enhances key traits of fruits and vegetables such as appearance, flavour, texture and nutritional content.

For example, in many fruiting plants these controls maintain colour compounds, which have been associated with health benefits for humans, in the skin of the fruit and low concentrations in the large volume of flesh. By changing or selecting for changes in the activity of these transcription factors, the plant could produce more of these healthy compounds throughout the fruit.

In a cover story titled “MYBs drive novel consumer traits in fruits in vegetables” published in the August 2018 issue of academic journal Trends in Plant Science, Plant & Food Research scientists Professor Andrew Allan and Dr Richard Espley review plant MYB transcription factors that are associated with the development, hormone signalling, metabolite biosynthesis and pigmentation of plants.

“Studies have shown that pigments such as anthocyanins and carotenoids are thought to offer health and dietary benefits. Changes in key MYB transcription factors could turn the colourless flesh of certain fruits into one with colour,” Professor Allan says.

“It could significantly increase the content of pigments per fruit serving, resulting in a possible step change in health benefits.”

MYBs are also involved in taste and flavour via aroma, astringency and piquancy, as well as affecting the texture of the flesh and hair formation on the skin.

Understanding the regulation of MYB transcription factors facilitates the breeding and production of completely new categories of fruits and vegetables with desirable consumer traits. These added potential health benefits, more attractive appearance, better flavour, better texture, better storage and more convenience will encourage the purchase and consumption of plant products rather than heavily-processed synthetic food, for people looking for a longer, healthier life whilst benefiting the environment.

Source:  Plant & Food Research

Conference: Science is the key to plant protein success

An upcoming food technology conference in Auckland on alternative proteins for food production will debate whether it’s a market challenge or a massive new opportunity for local producers. Science leaders say the changing global consumer trends bring a huge commercial opportunity for New Zealand agriculture.

New Zealand has strength in protein isolation and manufacturing technologies developed through our dairy industry, says Jocelyn Eason, General Manager Science, Food Innovation at Plant & Food Research*.

These technologies provide a solid base for further process developments of plant proteins,” says Eason, one of the key science speakers at the Innovatek “ProteinTECH” in Auckland on 24 July.

Highlights* from the Plant & Food Research “plant based foods” report include:

• Plant variety rights offer intellectual property rights opportunities for New Zealand developers;
• New production methods and locally developed innovations can ensure sustainability;
• Local technical and science skills are key to scaling up plant protein extraction;
• Local plant crops have significant potential as sources of high quality plant protein;
• Combined industry and research expertise can develop premium food offerings.

The mainstream media has focused on popular food products like Sunfed Food’s chicken-less chicken and ‘Impossible’ plant-based burgers, where a meat-like meal is provided with plant-based products.  But there is much more to the global market for food based on plant proteins.

The back story, says ProteinTECH director John Stulen, is there are some very experienced teams with research and science experience, developing commercial processes. They are set to capitalise on the new-found popularity and growing market acceptance for sustainable plant-based foods and food ingredients.

“Our conference includes a wide range of people with technical, market and research experience. We are pleased with the quality of our delegates to date; it’s a very senior level group of people from across agriculture including senior management, technical, science and research. It’s proving very popular,” Stulen says.

Innovatek’s ProteinTECH Conference brings together leaders in primary industries from the development and research fields alongside industry analysts, financiers and key accounting/consulting firms.

To register go HERE. 

The conference will be held at the Novotel Auckland Airport Hotel on July 24.

* Plant & Food Research Report: Opportunities in plant based foods – PROTEIN (May 2018)

Source: Innovatek