On this page:
- Could coral reefs become sponge reefs in the future?
- Kiwi call perfect harmony
- Leaders in research excellence
- Expanding research in fisheries science
- VUCEL Incubator Team interview with Radio NZ
- Cure for Multiple Sclerosis
- Toxic Algae
- Student at forefront of cancer research
7 May 2013
International research has suggested that many coral species won’t survive beyond the end of this century, but marine biologists at Victoria University are offering an alternative scenario.
Dr James Bell, who specialises in sponge ecology, is the lead author of an article published in Global Change Biology which suggests that sponges may become the dominant organisms inhabiting coral reefs when the effect of climate change and ocean acidification sets in.
“Coral reefs face an uncertain future as a result of global climate change and other stressors which have a negative impact on reefs,” says Dr Bell.
“It has been predicted that many reefs will end up being dominated by algae rather than corals, which will have negative effects on biodiversity and ultimately on the ability of humans to derive protein from reefs.”
“However, we propose an alternative scenario—as sponges and corals respond differently to changing ocean chemistry and environmental conditions, we may actually see some coral reefs transforming into sponge reefs.”
As part of the study, the group of scientists from Victoria University, the University of Auckland and the Australian Institute of Marine Science considered evidence from a range of sources including the geological record. Paleontological evidence from over 200 million years ago suggests past ocean acidification events were followed by a mass extinction of coral species and subsequent proliferation of sponges.
The scientists have also observed several sites, including places in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, where sponges have already increased in abundance as corals have declined.
Despite the important functional roles sponges play on coral reefs including filtering nutrients and providing a habitat for other species, Dr Bell says most research to date has focused on the future of corals.
“Coral reefs provide a home for around one quarter of the world’s marine species, so understanding their future is incredibly important.”
“Further research on the impacts of ocean acidification and ocean warming on coral reef sponges is urgently required, so that we can help better protect reefs and understand how they might function in the future,” says Dr Bell.
Dr Bell has carried out research on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which has some of the most extensive and diverse coral reef systems in the world.
The study has been funded by Victoria University of Wellington, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Operation Wallacea.
The full article ‘Could some coral reefs become sponge reefs as our climate changes?’ can be viewed on the Global Change Biology website: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12212/full
1 May 2013
A group of researchers at Victoria University studying the little spotted kiwi are uncovering surprising results about our national bird’s behaviour.
Dr Andrew Digby, Dr Ben Bell and Dr Paul Teal have conducted the first ever acoustic study of little spotted kiwi, New Zealand’s second rarest kiwi. Over a period of three years, they measured hundreds of calls made by a population of the birds living at the Zealandia sanctuary, in Wellington.
Their research has found that the kiwi, which live in pairs and are thought to mate for life, call in harmony with each other using a previously unknown form of vocal ‘cooperation’.
Dr Digby says the analysis demonstrates that, in contrast to what has previously been thought, size differences between male and female kiwi are not the sole cause of the differences in the frequency, or pitch, of the calls the birds make.
“Instead, male and female kiwi appear to call for different reasons, with male kiwi using their calls for long-range purposes, such as defending their territory from other kiwi, and female birds using calls for close-range purposes, like staying in contact with their partners.”
The researchers also discovered that male and female little spotted kiwi can synchronise their calls and have complementary call frequencies, meaning that when they call together they are more effective at repelling intruders. This is the first time such cooperation in frequency and time has been reported in bird ‘duets’.
The research has made up the focus of Dr Digby’s PhD, which is using kiwi calls as the basis for revealing more about kiwi behaviour and to help provide new tools for their conservation, and has recently been featured in the world’s leading ornithological journal, Ibis.
He is also investigating whether little spotted kiwi have a call ‘signature’ which can be used for identifying individuals, and is studying kiwi in different locations to see if unique regional dialects are developing.
“Calls are an important part of kiwi conservation since they provide an inexpensive, efficient and non-invasive way to monitor these mysterious birds,” says Dr Digby.
“But, we actually understand very little about why kiwi call, and the calls of most kiwi species have never been studied, so this research is important for helping us gain a better understanding of one of our national icons.”
Research collaboration between Victoria University and Zealandia has taken place over many years, and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two organisations in 2011 has established closer links. Areas of research have included native birds such as the little spotted kiwi, the breeding of tuatara and the study of biodiversity restoration and management.
12 April 2013
The Tertiary Education Commission has acknowledged the School of Biological Sciences as the national research leader in our discipline.
The latest PBRF rankings for research excellence show the “Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour” group to be ranked first of all universities in the country.
The “Biomedical” unit, composed of both Victoria University and our collaborating group in the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, was also ranked as the national leaders, well above Auckland and Otago University teams.
In addition the quality scores of our “Molecular, Cellular and Whole Organism Biology” team ranked us as first equal in the national assessment.
These rankings acknowledge the outstanding research performance of the school’s academic staff and research students. The school offers a vibrant and exciting environment for academics and students alike, which is clearly reflected in these rankings.
The School of Biological Sciences is proud to stand alongside our Victoria University colleagues in disciplines including chemistry, geology, physics and psychology as national leaders in research excellence.
3 April 2013
A new position, which will build a specialised research programme to inform and support New Zealand’s fisheries industry, has been created at Victoria University.
The inaugural holder of the new Chair in Fisheries Science is Dr Matthew Dunn, who has joined Victoria following a decade at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), where he was a Principal Scientist.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Dr Dunn has a background in fish biology, fisheries stock assessment and economics, and has previously worked at two globally-influential marine centres there—the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for the Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources, and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science at Lowestoft.
In his new role, which resides within the School of Biological Sciences, Dr Dunn will be working closely with a range of New Zealand organisations including central government agencies, crown research institutes and industry bodies. He will also support the development of highly qualified graduates to enter the field which suffers from a shortage of skilled scientists.
Dr Dunn believes that graduates entering the world of fisheries science need to be highly-skilled quantitative biologists—with both biology and statistics backgrounds—as research techniques become increasingly sophisticated.
“A key part of my role will be helping to ensure that our graduates are equipped for this increasingly important and challenging industry.” As well as teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses, Dr Dunn will also supervise a number of research students at Master’s and Doctoral levels.
“As fisheries scientists, we understand that the interaction between fish, fisheries, science and politics is very complex.
“There are many areas of New Zealand fisheries science I hope to explore, with the aim of leading research important to the industry which other organisations may not have the resources or time to tackle on their own.”
Dr Dunn was officially welcomed by Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh at an event this week attended by a number of distinguished guests including Wayne McNee, Director General of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), who spoke of the importance of this position for facilitating collaboration between MPI, Victoria University, other fisheries researchers and the fishing industry.
The Chair in Fisheries Science has been established in partnership between Victoria University and the Ministry for Primary Industries, with financial support from the Ministry through the Victoria University Foundation.
11 March 2013
The Āwhina VUCEL Incubator Team were interviewed by Veronika Meduna from Radio NZ about their work looking at land-based effects on pāua and kina, and building Māori and Pacific marine science capability. The interview was aired as part of a marine-themed “Our Changing World” for Seaweek on Thursday the 7th of March.
Listen to the streamed programme below:
'A team of Maori and Pacific marine scientists at Victoria University explore the impact of sediments on kaimoana.'
4 March 2013
No cure exists for multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that causes nerve degeneration leading to impaired vision and coordination and, eventually, paralysis. One of Victoria University’s researchers is working hard to change that prognosis.
“The goal of our work is to find a cure for multiple sclerosis," says immunologist Dr Anne La Flamme.
“And if it is not possible to find a cure for all MS sufferers then we aim for a treatment that will benefit the subset of patients with MS that do not respond to existing treatments."
Dr La Flamme, an Associate Professor in the School of Biological Sciences, heads the MS research programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at Victoria University. One branch of her research is trying to understand the role of one immune cell, the macrophage, in MS.
Macrophages, says Dr La Flamme, are multifunctional immune cells that are found throughout the body and play a key role in mediating immune response. Her research suggests that altering the “mood” or activation state of macrophages can alter the body’s immune response. This finding could lead to new therapies that, rather than turning off the immune response – which is vital for all sorts of functions in the body – redirects or rebalances it.
Another focus of Dr La Flamme’s work is on new drug therapies for MS. In one of several collaborations, she is working with Dr Gill Webster, Chief Scientific Officer of New Zealand biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics, which has developed a new drug that can be used to induce the human immune system to turn off certain immune mechanisms that contribute to autoimmune diseases such as MS.
The drug, which has been approved for compassionate use—where an experimental drug is made available to patients with no other treatment options—has already shown promise in the treatment of secondary progressive MS, an advanced and aggressive form of the disease that does not usually respond to treatment.
Innate Immunotherapeutics has just completed a Phase 2 clinical trial to find the most safe and effective dose of the drug. The interim results are encouraging – the drug was safe and well-tolerated by patients, many of whom showed improvement in MS-related symptoms. The company is now planning a fixed-dose randomised controlled trial in patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.
In a parallel project, Dr La Flamme and postgraduate students Madeleine White and Nicola Templeton are working with Innate Immunotherapeutics to figure out how the drug works. “We know what the drug targets, but how that target then leads to a reduction in disease severity is not clear,” she says.
“Once we know its pathway we can determine what might synergise with it. Is there another drug that we could use to maximise the effect or is there a particular dosing regime that is more likely to be effective?”
28 February 2013
An expert in the toxic algae that has killed about a dozen dogs in the Wellington area is surprised the problem has attracted so little attention nationally.
‘‘It is one of the most toxic natural compounds you’ll ever come in contact with and it’s in our rivers,’’ researcher Mark Heath said.
‘‘Just a couple of grams of algal mat formed in a bloom are sufficient to paralyse and kill a small dog in five to 15 minutes.’’
The algae is also dangerous to humans. It can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, cramps and nausea.
Mr Heath, a PhD student at Victoria University, has spent the past six years studying the deadly algae, cyanobacteria, with a particular focus on the Hutt River. His work has made him a world leader in the subject.
He was introduced to the topic in his last year of undergraduate study.
‘‘I found some interesting results and I loved the applied aspect of the research.’’
He contacted New Zealand’s premier cyanobacteria researcher Dr Susie Wood from the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, who introduced him to the problems in the Hutt River.
‘‘Soon after, I started my masters project on the Hutt River – the first long-term study on toxic benthic cyanobacteria in New Zealand.’’
On Thursday he speaks at Cafe Scientifique about what is causing the toxic blooms and about his research.
‘‘My current research is largely driven by the alarming amount of toxic algal blooms across the country, the number of dog deaths it has caused and the very real risk that the toxins produced from the algae present to humans,’’ he said.
The first local dog death was reported in 2005.
‘‘Back then it was sourced to a single spot in the Hutt River. Now it’s not uncommon for 20 to 30 kilometres of the river to have huge problems.’’ In the past 10 years the algae has increased across the country.
‘‘Since the first report of dog deaths in 1998 from the Waikanae River there have been more than 50 recorded dog deaths and at least three already this summer.’’
The musty smell of the algal mats is thought to attract dogs. The danger to humans is particularly related to children who might ingest the algae while swimming or playing at the water’s edge.
Mr Heath’s research has been incorporated into regional and national management guidelines but he believes a lot more could be done. With the algae showing up in rivers all round the country, research funding is urgently needed.
‘‘A few hundred thousand dollars would be enough to take the New Zealand response from largely reactive....to proactive.’’
Funds could help develop methods to predict when and where problems occur and help local authorities with monitoring and warning programmes.
Earlier this month two French professors visited to learn more about the blooms after a number of dog deaths in French rivers.
‘‘This French collaboration is exciting for our research team. They bring with them new skills, fresh ideas and scientific equipment we don’t have, or can’t afford in New Zealand.’’
- Mark Heath speaks at Cafe Scientifique, Thursday, February 28, 6pm till 7.30pm, Wholly Bagels, 34 Knights Rd, free entry.
This article is reproduced courtesy of the Hutt News.
15 January 2013
Scientists will now be able to improve cancer treatments through structure-guided drug engineering. The advance means these next-generation drugs could have the potential to curb or evade cancer-cell resistance.
"Because we know how it's working and affecting the cancer cell, we can design new drugs that are better," Ms Field said.
She made a striking find earlier in her studies when she was asked to take a compound that had not been previously investigated and find out what it did.
The compound, called zampanolide, can stop cancer cells from dividing, which could stop the spread of cancer, but one of its most astounding functions is the way it works within cancer cells.
"The major problem with a cancer drug is that, over time, cancer cells can find a way to oust the drug, becoming resistant to the medication.
"Because of the way this new compound interacts with cancer cells, it cannot be removed from the cell, so they can't become resistant to the drug by this mechanism."
Zampanolide was initially isolated by Victoria University's Associate Professor Peter Northcote from sea sponges found in Tonga, but can now be made synthetically, which Ms Field says is a major benefit.
Ms Field also has not forgotten the debt of gratitude she owes to her inspirational science teacher at Nelson College for Girls, Lin Drake.
"One of the reasons I'm doing what I'm doing is because I had an amazing science teacher in school. She motivated me."
For her part, Ms Drake, who has been a teacher as long as Ms Field has been alive, is proud of her talented former student's achievements.
"It's fantastic that she's done so well. One of the things I love about my job is students leave and go on and do amazing things and they're all girls," Ms Drake says.
This article has been reproduced from the Dominion Post, 14 Jan 2013
Interview with Jessica by Ruth Berans, Our Changing World, National Radio, 9th May 2013.