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US funding to research retinal disease

29 January 2015

Dr David Ackerley from Victoria University’s School of Biological Science is part of a team awarded a US$500,000 Falk Medical Research Trust grant to develop new models of retinal degenerative disease—–a major cause of human blindness.

Dr Ackerley will work alongside Dr Val Canto-Soler and Dr Jeff Mumm from the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, USA, to build an artificial retina of the human eye that mimics degenerative disease.

“My lab group will be developing genetic methods to enable very precise killing of specific cells in the artificial retina to permit study of how they regenerate, and facilitate discovery of drugs that assist with this process,” says Dr Ackerley.

Dr Val Canto-Soler recently developed world-first methods to induce human stem cells to grow into an artificial retina in a Petri dish.

Dr Ackerley has previously collaborated with Dr Mumm to create a system for effectively killing specific living cells without harming surrounding tissues, using specially engineered enzymes.

The Falk Medical Research Trust grants one year of funding to find new cures for diseases or improve existing treatments.

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Experts eye natural ways to control ants

28 January 2015


As Christchurch residents fight booming ant populations, researchers are working to find a natural control of the pests.

Residents across the city, including in New Brighton and Mt Pleasant, have taken to social media this summer to express their frustration at an increase in ant numbers.

Victoria University professor of biology and ant expert Phil Lester is part of a team studying populations to help find alternative ways to lower pest numbers. Lester was in Christchurch on Monday sampling Argentine ants, which are a "major international pest".

Populations of Argentine ants at Riccarton High School, on Tuam St and at New Brighton beach are among those being sampled across the country's entire distribution for the nationwide project.

"We're trying to find ways of natural control of these ants," says Lester.

With a team at The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), called the Virus Hunters, last year a new virus was found in the Argentine ants.

"From here, we hope to do some work to see if it is really harmful or not."

Lester says on a long-term scale, the research has the potential to limit the need for extermination methods and pesticides.

Argentine ants were likely to blame for the city's issue because they were "the most problematic in New Zealand", he says.

Argentine ants have been present in Christchurch, the southern-most point of their existence, for several years, he says.

"I'm not sure if we took them out of an urban environment they'd be able to survive. They need the warmth humans provide – and cities tend to be warmer points."

Cleaner Megan Thomson wakes up every day and wonders where ants will crop up in her Aranui home. She says the problem has been getting worse over the last two years.

Ants have taken over Thomson's kitchen, garage and have even been found in her bedroom wardrobe.

"They do cost you on so many levels and they cost you time as well," she said.

Despite meticulously cleaning her house, leaving bait out and hiring an exterminator, the ants are finding their way into any sealed and packaged food.

"You have to be on the ball all the time... you can't have a lazy day."

Lester said the movement of people and their possessions post-quake was contributing to the problem.

"These ants will nest in pot plants and that sort of environment, so they will be moved around a lot more like that," says Lester.

He said exterminating ants was an effective way to lower populations but it needed to be done collectively by neighbours so they did not "re-invade" properties.

Advice to lower Argentine ant numbers:

1. Prevention is much easier than cure, so if you're moving house, be very careful with what you move - for example, pot plants. If you're coming from an Argentine ant-infested problem, don't take the problem with you.

2. If you have Argentine ants already, then get the neighbourhood together for control, rather than tackle the problem by individual house.

3. Be clean with your food.

- The Press

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Victoria graduate helps ensure survival of New Zealand’s rarest kiwi

26 January 2015

A Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate’s work on the reintroduction of a critically endangered species of kiwi is helping ensure they remain in our forests for generations to come.

Rachael Abbott’s PhD research examined the best ways to translocate the rowi, the rarest species of kiwi, which has a population of around only 400.

The rowi’s breeding range is limited to the Ōkārito forest in South Westland, where stoats and rats threaten eggs and young chicks.
Rowi eggs are hatched by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The fledgling birds are then taken to predator-free Motuara Island in the Marlborough Sounds, where they remain until they reach a weight of at least one kilogram—big enough to run away from predators or fight them off.
Rachael’s research looked specifically at the issues affecting survival of the young rowi after they are translocated back to Ōkārito forest from the island.
“After rowi translocations there’s a period of about 90 days of increased mortality while the birds adjust to their new environment,” says Rachael. “DOC had been collecting a lot of data over the years, but hadn’t analysed it.
“I examined patterns in the historic data and then ran experimental releases to test my survival theories. Among other things, the size of the release groups was incredibly important—birds released in small groups don’t do nearly as well as ones in larger groups because of the benefits that come with increased sociality, such as sharing burrows and food resources.”
Rachael has sent through her recommendations to DOC and it is likely her suggested practices will be implemented.
Rachael started her research with a Master’s, and received funding from Victoria’s Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology and the Holdsworth Trust (through the Victoria University Foundation), which allowed her to expand her work into a PhD and travel to conferences in the United States and Europe. She graduated with a PhD in Conservation Biology last week.

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Wellington abuzz as wild bee colony swarms on university

26 January 2015

The captivating mystery of Wellington's runaway bees has been solved, a day after they escaped from Victoria University's Kelburn campus.

Media studies administrator Yvette Butcher says a student alerted her to the mass exodus yesterday, the pair watched "thousands of bees" fly away, she said.

Beekeeper and PHD student Davida Santoro managed to capture some in a cardboard box, but they escaped before a new home could be prepared for them.

"…the trapping wasn't successful, probably because I didn't get the queen" Mr Santoro said.

The fugitive bees left residents bug-eyed as they zoomed around the capital, with several people sending in footage of their encounter with the swarm.

Mr Santoro and another bee expert from Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences, Alan Hoverd, found the queen this morning setting up a new colony inside a wall of the university's media studies building.

Mr Santoro said students were never really in danger because the bees were just looking for a new nest.

"Swarming is a pretty spectacular event, you might be afraid of it, but actually they are really docile during the moment, they wouldn't sting unless they are squashed," he said.

New Zealand's bee population is being diminished by the varroa bee mite and the two experts believe they needed to do all they could to save the insects.

"Without bees you don't get pollination so there will be a reduction in produce... It has a nationwide affect," Mr Hoverd said. 

You can see footage of the swarm here

Source: ONE News

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A grim future for coral reefs—why it matters for New Zealand

26 January 2015

The following commentary is provided by Associate Professor Simon Davy, Head of the School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.

The outlook for coral reefs around the world is bleak—predictions are that they could be completely gone in just a few decades. Coral reefs are a vital part of marine ecosystems but are being destroyed by global warming and ocean acidification, as well as more localised threats such as agricultural run-off, poor fishing practices (unbelievably, cyanide and dynamite are used in some countries to catch fish) and coastal development. While New Zealand does not have coral reefs, we do have corals and we do have a responsibility to take action.

Across the Pacific Ocean coral reefs are declining at a rate of about two percent a year, and it may be only 40 to 50 years before they’re completely gone. What makes them important is their biodiversity—coral reefs are home to many millions of species, from fish and plant life to microscopic bacteria. They also provide a source of food and income from tourism for many of our near neighbours, such as Fiji. Australia, too, has the world renowned Great Barrier Reef. If these reefs are lost, some of these countries could find themselves in dire economic straits. That gives New Zealand—as part of its international stewardship role—responsibility to try to help stem the deterioration of the reefs and minimise the potentially devastating effects their demise might have on the health of our regional economy.

The most widely recognised threat to corals is the warming of the world’s oceans. Reefs are like ‘a canary in the coalmine’—warming of seawater by as little as one degree causes a process known as coral bleaching, where microscopic algae that live inside the coral, and are essential to its survival, are lost. A coral can only survive without these algae for a month or so. The algae are also the building blocks for a coral reef ecosystem which is an important habitat for fish, invertebrates and other algae. If they have nowhere to live, there is a devastating flow-on effect on the wider ecosystem.

Ocean acidification, where carbon dioxide from atmospheric pollution enters the ocean and makes it more acidic, is also a major problem. Corals need calcium carbonate to build skeletons, but when the ocean tries to fend off the acidity it uses carbonate ions, depleting the amount of carbonate ions available to build coral skeletons, or indeed the skeletons or shells of numerous other organisms.

New Zealand does have coral communities, rather than reefs, for example around the Kermadec Islands and in the Bay of Islands. However, we don’t currently know enough about them to determine to what extent they might be affected by climate change. There are also deep sea coral communities around New Zealand, which—along with NIWA—I am currently studying. These corals don’t contain algae, but are nevertheless under serious threat from ocean acidification because they live at the boundary of the area where there’s enough carbonate to build a skeleton. If that boundary gets any shallower they’ll be in real trouble, and we could lose a very important habitat as many deep sea invertebrates (e.g. sponges, squat lobsters and urchins) and fish, including some commercial species, are often found in association with these corals.

There is not really any good news for coral reefs. However, current research—including work by my team at Victoria University of Wellington—is looking at whether they can adapt to climate change. They might, for example, be able to take up new, more thermally tolerant types of algae when they bleach or they could successfully migrate to cooler or less acidic waters. The problem is the speed at which our climate is changing and our reefs are deteriorating—science is struggling to keep pace. However, if we can buy some time by resolving local human impacts like fishing and pollution, we might be able to make coral reefs more resilient to the effects of global climate change. That’s not to say we shouldn’t also be addressing the causes of climate change, but trying to control or limit these other factors might give science time to catch up so that we can implement the strategies needed to ensure that the world’s coral reefs aren’t lost forever.

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