Posts Tagged ‘Science Media Centre’

Experts comment on NZ research linking herbicides to antibiotic resistance

University of Canterbury researchers have found the active ingredients in commonly-used weed killers can cause bacteria to be less susceptible to antibiotics.

The study builds on research published in 2015 that found three common herbicides caused E.coli and Salmonella to become less sensitive to antibiotics.

The new research investigated which ingredients were responsible and found it was the active ingredients to blame.  The researchers suggest regulators should consider these impacts when considering whether such products are safe to use.

They confirmed that the active ingredients of the herbicides, RoundUp, Kamba and 2,4-D (glyphosate, dicamba and 2,4-D, respectively), each alone cause antibiotic resistance at concentrations well below label application rates.

UC Molecular Biology and Genetics Professor Jack Heinemann, of the School of Biological Sciences, in UC’s College of Science, says the key finding was that “bacteria respond to exposure to the herbicides by changing how susceptible they are to antibiotics used in human and animal medicine.”

Professor Heinemann says the herbicides are among the most common manufactured chemical products to which people, pets and livestock in both rural and urban environments are exposed. They are sold in local hardware stores and may be used without training, and there are no controls that prevent children and pets from being exposed in home gardens or parks.

The new paper also finds the inert ingredients (surfactants) that are commonly used in some herbicide formulations and processed foods also cause antibiotic resistance.

The study found an antibiotic resistance response was caused by both the tested surfactants, Tween80 and CMC. Both are also used as emulsifiers in foods like ice cream and in medicines, and both cause antibiotic resistance at concentrations allowed in food and food-grade products.

With expertise in genetic engineering, bacterial genetics and biosafety, Professor Heinemann has some recommendations:

“The sub-lethal effects of industrially manufactured chemical products should be considered by regulators when deciding whether the products are safe for their intended use,” he says.

“More emphasis needs to be placed on antibiotic stewardship compared to new antibiotic discovery. Otherwise, new drugs will fail rapidly and be lost to humanity.”

The researchers first observed this antibiotic resistance in their paper published in the American Society of Microbiology’s journal mBio in 2015. This follow-up study was conducted in order to identify which ingredients in herbicides were responsible.

Antibiotic resistance is the cause of nearly a million additional deaths worldwide from infectious diseases, Professor Heinemann says.

“The United States, for example, estimates that more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result. By 2050, resistance is estimated to add 10 million annual deaths globally with a cumulative cost to the world economy of US$100 trillion. In other words, roughly twice the population of New Zealand will be lost annually to antibiotic resistance.”

Herbicides are chemicals used to control weeds. Because they kill organisms, they are biocides. As their primary purpose is to kill plants, their effects on some non-target organisms are not as well studied.

Antibiotics are also biocides. Antibiotic resistance allows bacteria that previously could be controlled by antibiotics to continue to cause disease and remain infectious for longer, even in the presence of antibiotics. Resistance to at least one major clinical antibiotic is now found in all human pathogens, and some important pathogens can be resistant to all but one antibiotic, or even all antibiotics. Even in wealthy countries, antibiotic resistance is responsible for billions of dollars of increased health care costs, additional suffering and tens of thousands of deaths each year.

Many biocides have effects on either target or non-target organisms at concentrations that do not kill. These are called sub-lethal effects. When pesticides, including herbicides, are reviewed for their safety by regulators, the focus is on acute and sometimes chronic toxicity using mortality as an endpoint. Much less information is sought on potential sub-lethal effects, particularly for microbes.

The Science Media Centre gathered expert reaction to the paper –

Dr Heather Hendrickson, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Bioscience, Massey University, comments:

“We are living in a microbial world and we have been affecting that world in ways that we have not fully grasped for much of the industrial era. Antibiotics are the set of drugs that we use to kill or disable bacterial pathogens that make us ill. Today, these important medicines are becoming less effective around the globe as bacteria become resistant to them due to our overuse.

“This new paper by Kurenbach et al. is an attempt to understand the effects that some common Herbicides (weed killers) may be having on a set of the microbial multitudes in our soils.

“This paper follows up on the foundational work published in 2015 by the last author, Jack Heinemann, which found that herbicide exposure could change the ability of some bacteria to survive antibiotic exposure. Here, the mechanism of some of the antibiotic effectiveness appeared to be protein pumps called efflux pumps in the bacteria. Bacteria exposed to herbicide start to make these pumps and install them like bilge pumps that purge the herbicides rapidly. Antibiotics can then be jettisoned along with the herbicides when both are present.

“The results of these two studies are not simple but they are worthy of public note for the following reasons:

  1. Exposure to commonly-used herbicides have effects on microbes that can make the bacteria more likely to be killed by some antibiotics but also less likely to be killed by other antibiotics.
  2. The microbes used here was a pair of bacteria, Salmonella enterica and Escherichia coli, both of which can be human pathogens. These are both on the 2017 WHO bacteria for R&D into new antibiotics list as Priority 1 ‘critical concern’.
  3. The antibiotics used in this study were clinically-relevant antibiotics that we are using in human medicine today like ciprofloxacin and kanamycin.
  4. The herbicides used in this study are available widely and there is little current regulation on their use.
  5. It was the active ingredients in the herbicides (not the extra, ‘co-formulant’ additives) that had the greatest effects on antibiotic effectiveness.
  6. The concentrations of herbicides and antibiotics used in this study were within ranges that might be experienced by bacteria we encounter daily.

“The message from the paper is clear, we need to reconsider our use of herbicides in light of the effect that they are having on the microbial world.”

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Microbiologist and Senior Lecturer, University of Auckland, comments:

“This paper is very timely, as this week is World Antibiotic Awareness Week in which the World Health Organization, the Ministry of Health, the Royal Society Te Apārangi and others are raising awareness of the crisis of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are losing their ability to kill bacteria. This means that we face a future in which routine surgery and medical treatments such as chemotherapy will be life-threateningly risky, and common infections untreatable. This crisis is caused in part because bacteria are able to mutate to become resistant to antibiotics, and because the discovery of new antibiotics has ground to a halt over the last few decades.

“This paper by Professor Jack Heinemann and his colleagues builds on their earlier work looking at the impact of pesticides on bacteria. Now they have shown that exposure of two common gut bacteria to commercial pesticide formulations and some of their active ingredients can change how much antibiotic is needed to kill the bacteria. The bacteria they have examined (Salmonella Typhimurium and Escherichia coli) are both able to infect humans and other animals, including farm animals.

“Prof Heinemann’s findings show how complex biology and the microbial world are. Some of the ingredients made the bacteria more sensitive to some antibiotics, and others made them less sensitive to antibiotics. Fortunately, the type of resistance Prof Heinemann and his colleagues found is not the type that can transfer from one species of bacteria to another, but it is clearly still cause for concern.

“For me, their most striking finding was that surfactants, which are inert ingredients commonly used in all sorts of products, also increased resistance of the bacteria to various antibiotics. This means that it’s likely that many of the products we routinely use in our environment, our homes and on our bodies, may be contributing to making some bacteria more difficult to treat with antibiotics. With the crisis we are facing, that’s a real worry.”

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133 projects are selected for Marsden funding from an increased pool of $84.6m

Massey University is delighted its researchers have received more than $15.6 million from the Royal Society of New Zealand’s annual Marsden Fund for 26 projects, a record number of projects funded and total funding.

The 26 successful Marsden grants – made up of 10 “Fast-Start” grants for new and emerging researchers and 16 standard grants – represent 18.4 per cent of the total funding pool this year.

The projects include studying super-heavy elements, Māori resilience in post-disaster contexts and sexuality and ethical deliberation in residential aged care.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas congratulated the researchers, saying competition for research funding is intense and  133 research projects selected to receive funding nationwide were chosen from more than 1000 preliminary proposals.

The 133 projects are being funded for a total of $84.6 millionm a significant increase from last year’s $65 million.

The Fund received a boost in the 2016 Budget of an additional $66m over four years, which allowed more proposals to be funded and increased the success rate from 10.7% last year to 12% this year.

Full Marsden Fund results are available on the Royal Society Te Apārangi website.

The Science Media Centre is posting expert reaction to the results on its website.

  • Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, comments:

“It’s great to see that the Marsden Fund continues to act as it should, in supporting researchers across the science and humanities research spectrum. It is fantastic to see the anticipated increase in success rates deliver, and in particular to see the effect of this on the number of early career grants coming through.

“Success rates remain low, however, and the increase in research funding to OECD averages promised by the new government cannot come soon enough. In particular, the Marsden Fund continues to hold itself to account and report carefully on gender and ethnic equity; this demonstration of best practice should make the Fund a worthy target of that promised increase.

“It’s even nicer to see that there has been a significant increase in the number of Māori researchers funded: this metric has been too low for too long, and it is to be hoped that this year’s data is a sign of real progress – though this is yet to be seen, time will tell.

“It is also really exciting to see the range of projects that have been funded. This is work that underpins and enhances the expertise of our universities and research institutes, and we are all richer for it.”

  • Professor Shaun Hendy, Director, Te Pūnaha Matatini, University of Auckland, comments:

“This is the largest number of Marsden projects awarded in one year and is also one of the highest success rates – in fact, with just over 12% of proposals funded, it is the highest success rate for applicants to the fund since 2003. This is due to the largest real increase in funding since the Marsden Fund was created.

“It is also pleasing that this large increase in funding didn’t simply lead to more proposals being submitted, which would have lowered the success rate and increased the burden across the sector. It was established researchers that benefited most from this increase in funding, with early career applicants receiving the lowest proportion of funds since 2008.”

Science could be in for shake-up – Sciblogs examines policy implications of change in govt

The Science Media Centre provides a rundown on how science funding and research priorities may change under the new government.

Science didn’t feature significantly in its own right as an election issue, centre director Peter Griffin says. But numerous science-related issues have been prioritised by Labour, its coalition partner New Zealand First and confidence and supply partner the Green Party.

The most significant change on the cards could be the way in which the Government tries to stimulate private sector research and development efforts, he says.

A 12.5% R&D tax credit is set to replace an extensive programme of R&D grants to businesses.

In the run-up to the election, the Science Media Centre collated policy positions on major science related issues ranging from the country’s Predator Free 2050 strategy to healthy housing.

In a post-election wrap-up on Sciblogs, Peter Griffin explores the potential policy changes on the table in five key science-related areas – freshwater quality, climate change, science funding and genetic modification.

Read the full coverage HERE.

Experts discuss what must be done to meet Predator Free NZ pest target

The Science Media Centre has mustered a raft of experts to comment on  the Government’s announcement six months ago that it would aim for a Predator Free New Zealand by 2050.

The experts were asked about the tools needed to pull off the plan and what the hurdles to success might be.

Genetic modification is among the technologies brought into considerations.

The Science Media Centre has just published the questions to and responses from

– Professor Neil Gemmell, University of Otago;

– Assistant Professor Kevin Esvelt, MIT;

– Dr James Russell, University of Auckland;

– Dr Andrea Byrom, Director, Biological Heritage National Science Challenge<;

– Professor Carolyn King, University of Waikato;

– Professor Charles Daugherty, Victoria University of Wellington;

– Professor Phil Seddon, University of Otago.

Dr James Russell, a conservation biologist, said eradicating the eight targeted mammals would not only benefit native species but also would extend to primary industries – where invasive pests are vectors of disease – as well as offer boosts to tourism and public health.

Generally, the economic benefits of eradicating these eight species were predicted to outweigh the costs, “especially when you consider that we already invest millions every year in their control just to stay in a ‘holding pattern’.”

Professor Neil Gemmell, Professor of Reproduction and Genomics, said he suspected genetic technologies would be the key to developing pest control that is species-specific, works at a large scale, and is cheap and persistent.

“Prior work surveying people’s view on issues such as possum control suggests that there is more public support for tools that might impair an animal’s fertility compared with any other form of manipulation or control measure that may cause the animal harm and suffering.”

Professor Phil Seddon, Director of the University of Otago’s Wildlife Management Programme, similarly said:

“I think the general public might be more accepting of GMOs for conservation than some people think – we need to give an informed public a chance to consider the issue.”

The questions to and answers from each of the experts can be found here.

Science and innovation performance report – so how are we doing?

A snapshot of New Zealand’s science and innovation system has laid out where we are doing well and where there is room for improvement compared to other small advanced economies.

The Science and Innovation System Performance Report, just published by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, is intended to benchmark performance of the sector over time.

The Science Media Centre has identified these key findings: 

The research sector is relatively small, but efficient when it comes to scientific publications produced per research dollar.

R&D expenditure has grown 77% since 2000, but progress towards the Government’s goal of business R&D surpassing 1 per cent of GDP is “slow but steady” (estimated at .60% in 2015).

– New Zealand produces relatively fewer graduates in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) than other Small Advanced Economies but numbers are growing.

– We have strong expertise in niche areas like astronomy, energy and physics, but do relatively little research in these areas.

The Science Media Centre asked innovation experts for their reaction to the report.

One response has been posted so far on its website –

Shaun Hendy, Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland and Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini comments:

“MBIE have produced their first science and innovation system performance report since MoRST and then MSI were folded into Steven Joyce’s super-ministry. We had a taste of MBIE’s new approach with the National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI) that was published last year and made extensive use of bibliometric data to try to benchmark our science and innovation system.

“This new report updates some of the statistics we saw in the NSSI, but for the most part takes a new approach to presenting the data that MBIE are able to access. We can expect the quality of this data to improve as the Science and Innovation domain plan is rolled out over the next few years, but for the time-being we must make do with what we have and this should engender some scepticism in what is presented.

“Nonetheless, the data we do have paints the picture of a science and innovation system that performs well on a per dollar basis, but one that could do with further investment. Relative to the small advanced economies, our recent performance has remained decidedly mixed across a range of measures.

“While MBIE awards itself a pass mark on its goal of lifting business R&D to 1% of GDP by 2018, for instance, the data in the report provide little assurance that this is on track. Despite all the attention that business R&D has received in the last few years, it remains anaemic. This is very disappointing as it limits the long term growth of our economy.

“One statistic I track with interest is the number of post-doctoral fellowships available for early career researchers. This took a significant hit a few years ago when this government cut our national post-doctoral fellowship scheme. The numbers in this report suggest that the rest of the science and innovation system has not filled the gap left by this scheme, but at the same time this deserves further scrutiny.

“As Nicola Gaston, past-President of the NZAS, pointed out on Twitter (@nicgaston), it doesn’t seem credible that GNS Science had no post-doctoral fellows employed in 2015 as the report seems to suggest. I look forward to seeing improved reporting of this and other statistics in coming additions.”

The full report and a snapshot of the key benchmarked metrics is available here.

A press release from Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce is available here.

Experts comment on Parliamentary Commissioner’s report on agricultural emissions

The Science Media Centre has gathered expert reaction on the latest report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, on the issue of agricultural greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which form about half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The debate around agricultural emissions and the emissions trading scheme has been polarised for too long, the commissioner says.

“But the ETS is not the only way forward – there are other things that can be done.”

Dr Wright says reducing biological emissions will not be easy, but a common understanding of the science is a good place to start.

Immediate opportunities for reducing New Zealand’s emissions lie in new native and plantation forests, and urges real progress in this area.

“It might not be the whole solution, but a million hectares of trees would make a big difference – not to mention the added benefits for erosion and water quality.”

The Government has recently set up working groups to look at these issues. Dr Wright says this is encouraging but she warns that change is now inevitable.

“Our farmers have shown time and again their ability to adapt to new challenges,” she said. “The world will continue to need food. But in the long term the way in which food is grown, and the types of food grown, will have to change if biological emissions are to be reduced.”

The Commissioner’s report Climate change and agriculture: Understanding the biological greenhouse gases is available here. A set of frequently asked questions can be found here.

The Science Media Centre’s roundup of reactions can be found here. 

Professor Louis Schipper, University of Waikato, comments:

“As usual for PCE reports, the problem and the science are eloquently described and the text remains rigorous and accessible. This report clearly lays out the case that New Zealand’s rather unique greenhouse gas emissions require bespoke solutions. The report argues that even if we reduced much of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, we still would have relatively high emissions due to nitrous oxide and methane primarily derived from agriculture. To deliver solutions to this problem we need tailored research on New Zealand farms with New Zealand farmers.

“The overview of the production of methane and nitrous oxide demonstrates that the emissions of both these gases are inefficiencies of the soil and animal systems and so reduction has the potential to capture these valuable resources. Over the last few decades, we have improved our farming practices and this lowered the amount of greenhouse gas produced for every kg of milk or meat. And yet we still need to decrease our total greenhouse gas emissions.

“Before describing some New Zealand examples of mitigation strategies being developed, the report describes the critical characteristics of what might be considered successful mitigation strategies. These characteristics include the need to be practical, cost effective and nationally-applicable while avoiding risks – either perceived or real. It is recognised that finding a silver bullet mitigation strategies and continuous incremental gains are equally important.

“This report does a nice job highlighting some specific New Zealand studies at different stages of development that are making good progress on finding solutions. These case studies are also a realistic assessment of success and failure. Use of case studies draws people in with practical solutions rather than dense scientific explanations. This approach allows the discussion to move beyond ‘it’s all too hard, so why bother’ to considering interesting leads. Some of these case studies nicely describe the tradeoffs that need to be considered where a management practice may lead to reduction in say, methane but lead to an increase in nitrous oxide emissions. Scientists will need to continue to look to resolve these frustrating trade-offs. The case studies clearly demonstrate that we will be faced with many good ideas that fail but we only need a few successes to make real progress.

“Table 9.1 is fascinating: an estimate of the number of hectare of native forest to offset emissions from animals. I had wondered about this but never done the calculations. Must remember this is newly planted native forest and not existing native forest. The key here is that this planting could buy us time to get other strategies in place.”Absent perhaps is a greater discussion of the role of soils in storing carbon and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, briefly touched on in section 9.4 (less than a page). Ultimately, we must remove a large amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and still increasing, even if we stop methane and nitrous oxide emissions. As the PCE states: “it is not possible to stop temperatures from continuing to rise with stopping net carbon dioxide emissions”. [section 3.4] “Net” means either reducing losses of carbon or getting some gains. Conversion of this carbon dioxide to soil organic matter is one way and a focus globally in the international “4 per mille initiative”. The research is in its early days in New Zealand and very challenging work.”

Note: Professor Schipper leads a team investigating the potential for soil organic carbon to capture atmospheric CO2 as a means to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Suzi Kerr, senior fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, comments:

“It is excellent to have a clear careful presentation of the different aspects of the science in this complex area which is one of the things that the PCE does so well. I agree with all the actions she suggests.

“For the sake of farmers and rural communities as well as for the climate, we need to start making a gradual transition now toward new land uses – including new types of food. On land where sheep and cows continue to be grazed, we need to move toward low emission practices including new technologies as they become available. Our long term goal on that land is to produce ultra low emission dairy and red meat.

“Many farmers are aware of these issues and deeply concerned about the resilience of their sectors. Including biological emissions in the ETS, even if it only slightly increased the cost of dairy and red meat production, would send a signal to the wider farming community and those who support them in education, research and industry that it is time to move their attention, energy and creativity toward transition.

“Inclusion in the ETS could be done with a focus on helping the rural community make a gradual transition, not with expectations that the relatively small group of farmers would bear a significant part of the cost of New Zealand’s Paris commitment. In the short term, trees – including natives – are the main way that the rural sector can help achieve our Paris goals but we can’t wait to start action on the longer game of reducing nitrous oxide and methane.”
Note: Motu Economic and Public Policy Research prepared two reports that informed the PCE’s report.

The New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) provided a media release in response to the PCE’s report:

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report into greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture highlights the need for a suite of mitigation solutions rather than a single silver bullet.

In welcoming this report, Harry Clark, NZAGRC Director says, “The report provides a comprehensive overview of the unique challenges New Zealand faces when it comes to agricultural greenhouse gases. It emphasises that, for effective mitigation, New Zealand needs to have a suite of mitigation options available that match our diverse farming systems rather than hope for a single, one size fits all ‘silver bullet’ solution.”

The report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) today outlines New Zealand’s unique situation and provides an overview of the technologies and practices that could help reduce greenhouse gases from New Zealand’s pastoral sector. The report covers breeding low methane-producing animals, identifying low methane feeds, manipulating rumen microbial communities to reduce methane emissions, pathways for reducing nitrous oxide, and the use of trees to offset emissions.

The government funded NZAGRC, in partnership with industry, is coordinating and investing in research to allow these options to be developed, tested and adopted by New Zealand farmers.

Harry Clark says, “New Zealand’s agricultural emissions make up almost half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The more options we have to reduce agricultural greenhouse gases, the easier it will become for New Zealand to achieve its 2030 emission target signalled under the Paris Agreement of a 30% reduction in emissions compared with 2005.”

The PCE report not only presents technical options but emphasises that any solution needs to be scrutinised for the actual reduction it can achieve on farm (and whether it reduces absolute emissions or, primarily, emissions per unit of product), its positive or negative side-effects, cost-effectiveness, ability to be integrated into existing systems, and whether it makes sense from a national perspective.

Harry Clark says “Research and technical development is only the first step in a solution. The report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment provides a highly accessible summary of potential solutions. More importantly though, it concludes by considering the next steps: how we can collectively ensure that our science can be adopted to the benefit of the country and the climate? The Paris agreement sets a new framework for addressing climate change issues and this report makes a valuable contribution to the debate New Zealand must have round the role of agriculture in meeting national emissions reduction commitments agreed under this framework.”

Note: Dr Clark was involved in the review process of the PCE’s report.

Nobel laureates sign letter challenging Greenpeace on GM foods

The champions of genetic modification have been given support by more than 100 Nobel laureates who have signed their names to an open letter challenging Greenpeace to end its opposition to genetically modified food.

The signatories urge Greenpeace to “recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’ in general and Golden Rice in particular”.

The full list of signatories can be found here.

Their letter closes by asking:

“How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity?’”

The Science Media Centre, reporting on the open letter here, reminds its readers that Greenpeace has campaigned extensively in recent years against the use of Golden Rice as a “poster child for the GE crop industry”. Greenpeace says it has been “hyped as a high-tech, quick fix solution” to nutritional deficiency in an attempt to increase acceptance of genetically modified crops worldwide.

In May, the US National Academies of Sciences released an extensive report on GM crops finding no substantiated evidence of risks to human health.

More information on this report, including New Zealand expert commentary on it, is available here.

The Science Media Centre has gathered the following reaction on the open letter from New Zealand experts:

Prof Peter Dearden, Director, Genetics Otago, University of Otago, comments:

“I agree with the authors of the letter. It is time for us to stop believing that all GM is bad and to see that the benefits can far outweigh the risks.

“This is not to say we should have no regulation, but that such regulation should be evidence based and not coloured by the view that GM is necessarily bad.”

Prof Barry Scott, Institute of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University, comments:

“Endorsement of the US National Academies report on GM crops by over 100 Nobel laureates adds considerable weight to the evidence presented in that report and challenges the extreme view of Greenpeace of total opposition to the use of GM crops.

“The new technologies associated with gene and genome editing further challenges the irrationality of such an extreme view given changes can now be made to the genome that are similar to those made by non-GM methods such as radiation treatment.”