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ASI 43rd meeting
28 November 2013
More than 350 leaders in biomedical and clinical research from around the world will attend the Australasian Society for Immunology’s (ASI) 43rd Annual Meeting in Wellington, which has been strongly supported by Victoria University of Wellington and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.
The conference convenor Dr Anne La Flamme, an associate professor in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and the leader of multiple sclerosis (MS) research at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research based at Victoria, says, “Immunology is about much more than prevention of infectious disease though vaccination. We now appreciate that the immune system is involved in regulating many aspects of mental and physical health.”
Professor Graham Le Gros, Director of the Malaghan Institute, says immunology is a field in which there is still much to uncover.
“Your immune system does so much more than simply fighting infection. It scrutinises all cells in the body for signs of imperfection, and eliminates those not working properly. Our immune system also detoxifies and harmonises our body with the environment, the bugs that grow on us, and the toxins in the food that we eat. And it does so with minimal interruption to our daily lives.”
However, Professor Le Gros says it is becoming clear that the human immune system needs to be educated from the early months of life to know what it should, or shouldn’t, be attacking.
“Our team of scientists at the Institute are working on applying this knowledge to the development of natural therapies that educate the immune system to stimulate the right type of immune responses for the treatment of cancer, asthma, allergy and other inflammatory diseases,” he says.
Dr La Flamme will deliver an address at the conference, discussing her research into the drugs used to treat MS patients and their side effects. The work aims to improve efficacy of medication while reducing side effects and find ways of determining the drugs individual patients will best respond to.
The international keynote speakers at the conference include Dr Richard Locksley, Sandler Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California; Dr Alan Sher, Chief of the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases and National Institute of Health Distinguished Investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States; Dr Rick Maizels, a Professor at the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Immunology and Infection Research; and Dr Lawrence Steinman, a Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and Pediatrics at Stanford University.
As part of the conference, a public lecture, the Burnet Oration, will be delivered by Professor John Fraser, a graduate of Victoria University and now Dean of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland.
Members of the public are invited to this lecture at the Michael Fowler Centre on Monday 2 December from 5.30–6.30pm, in which Professor Fraser will reflect on 40 years of immunology ‘down under’. Those interested in attending should RVSP to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘RSVP – Burnet’ in the subject line.
Many ASI conference delegates will also attend the 2013 Australasian Flow Cytometry Group conference from 28 November to 1 December. The conference will explore the far-reaching applications of flow cytometry—a technology platform used to make measurements of particles—for science and medicine.
For more information contact Dr Anne La Flamme on 04-463 6093 or email@example.com.
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Study shows pesticides make some ants more aggressive
30 October 2013
At the same time, the native species becomes less aggressive after being exposed to the pesticide.
Led by PhD student Rafael Barbieri, Professor Phil Lester and Associate Professor Ken Ryan from Victoria University’s School of Biological Science, the research is the first in the world to demonstrate the impact that neonicotinoid pesticides can have on dynamics in insect communities and invasion success.
Neonicotinoids are the world's most widely deployed insecticides and have been associated with the decline of honey bees and other pollinators. The chemical is often soaked into seeds and spreads throughout the plant as it grows, affecting insects that eat it. The European Commission recently imposed restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for two years.
The study examined the invasive Argentine ant, which is widely established in New Zealand, and the native Southern ant. The two species have similar habitat and food preferences.
“The Argentine ant is already known as an extremely aggressive invader, all around the world,” says Professor Lester. "Here you have the Ghengis Khan of the ant world becoming even more aggressive after exposure to these pesticides.
“The success of such invasive species is often linked to their highly aggressive behaviour and to their ability to displace native communities and manipulate food sources.”
Mr Barbieri says the level of increased aggression displayed by the Argentine ants as they faced off over food supply with their native competitors was significant.
“The native ant was clearly less able to hold its own when it was contaminated by sub-lethal amounts of the pesticide.”
“In habitats where the local species has previously been exposed to neonicotinodis, invading Argentine ants are likely to have significantly higher chances of monopolising food sources and higher survival rates.”
Overall, say the researchers, their results provide evidence that sub-lethal exposure to these pesticides can have a major effect on the dynamics of ant communities.
The Victoria University research was today published in the international journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
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Research on paua and marine reserves making waves
22 October 2013
Paua at Kapiti Marine Reserve. Photo: Alix Laferriere.
Just one year into her PhD study, Alix’s research is already promising to inform sustainable management of New Zealand’s black foot paua (Haliotis iris) populations, with a focus on the role habitats play in population stability and growth.
Her study is focused on five marine reserves in the Wellington, Marlborough and Nelson regions: Kapiti Island, Taputeranga, Tonga Island, Long Island–Kokomohua and Horoirangi.
The work involves scuba diving extensively at each reserve to conduct detailed habitat assessment surveys, and counting and measuring the paua. The data gathered will allow Alix to compare how paua are faring both within and outside marine reserve boundaries.
“Previous surveys of paua and other fish species found within marine reserves have focused mainly on gathering information about the abundance and size of populations.
“However, by combining a population survey and habitat suitability analysis, I hope to identify the factors that provide optimal conditions for paua, as well as examples of particularly successful paua populations.”
Ms Laferriere says many factors are important when analysing paua habitats, from whether the area is rocky or sandy, to the abundance of seaweed (an important nutrition source) and environmental factors, such as exposure to wind and waves.
As part of her study, she has been working alongside organisations including the University of Waikato, NIWA, Davidson Environmental, the Department of Conservation, iwi, and the Paua Industry Council, as well as commercial fishermen.
The value of Alix’s research is already being recognised. In June, she received the 2013 New Zealand Marine Sciences Society student research grant, awarded to one New Zealand-based postgraduate student each year, and in August, she received a Department of Conservation award at the Society’s annual conference for the best research paper for advancing marine conservation.
Professor Jonathan Gardner from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, who supervises Alix, says the research will make a valuable contribution towards national conservation and management plans for the paua fishery.
“Paua, or abalone, is culturally, socially and economically important to New Zealanders—and to many other cultures around the world.
“As well as contributing towards successful management of paua, it will provide important insights as to how New Zealand’s 34 marine reserves are working.”
Alix, who has a Master’s in Marine Biology, originally trained as an Oceanographer and spent several years working for the Sea Education Association, a sail training and oceanography programme for university students.
She was inspired to move to New Zealand from the United States to undertake a PhD in Marine Reserve Science while working for the State of Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, where abalone populations have been depleted to the extent that the maximum take is four per person, per year.
“Completing my PhD in New Zealand is a great opportunity to examine a healthy abalone population’s response to marine reserve implementation,” says Alix.
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Young ecologists win international photography prizes
29 August 2013
Two emerging researchers from Victoria University of Wellington have received awards for their compelling photographs in the British Ecological Society’s Centenary Photographic Competition.
Dr Benjamin Magana-Rodriguez, who recently completed his PhD in ecology and biodiversity at Victoria, has won the competition’s inaugural ‘Celebrating Ecology’ category, established this year to celebrate the Society’s centenary. In 2011, Benjamin was named the overall winner of the competition. His winning 2013 photograph of a Mexican cenote, or water-filled sinkhole, was taken in the Yucatan region which contains around 2,500 such sinkholes. Benjamin says he and his wife, pictured in the photo, have been fascinated by cenotes for a long time: “We heard that people in some local communities who live close to cenotes are keen to conserve these unique ecosystems while encouraging people to come in close contact with native flora and fauna..“There are several sinkholes with open access to the public and ongoing projects to conserve them. The cenote captured in my photograph varies in depth from 5 metres up to 35 metres, and is home to many different species of birds and native plants and animals.”
The Mexican government and local communities are working together to conserve and educate about the importance of cenotes (sinkholes) in the Mayan region. Through conservation projects in rural areas, the funds granted are invested in infrastructure (stairs, information signs, gravel roads, rubbish containers) and hiring keepers from the local community. Photo Credit: Benjamin Magana-Rodriguez.
Anna Carter, a passionate ecologist who is completing her PhD through Victoria University and is an Associate Researcher at the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, received the runner up prize in the ‘Ecology in Action’ category for her photograph of a tuatara. The picture was taken on Takapourewa (Stephens Island) in the Marlborough Sounds, as she was tracking female tuatara to and from their nests using cotton thread. Anna’s PhD research focuses on how tuatara behaviour and the environment interact to influence the gender determination of the reptiles, which is temperature-dependent. She says: “It’s a relatively inexpensive, low-tech method of collecting a lot of really interesting data. My research combines ‘traditional’ methods in behavioural ecology with physiological and climate modelling.”
The British Ecological Society is the oldest ecological society in the world, established in 1913. The winning images from the Centenary Photographic Competition were exhibited in London last week at INTECOL 2013, the world’s largest ecological meeting.
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Research assists rock lobster fisheries
23 August 2013
The seafood industry is boosting investment in Victoria University research that uses state-of-the-art genetic profiling to ensure continued sustainable management of New Zealand’s lucrative rock lobster fisheries.
The New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council and Seafood Innovations Limited will jointly fund a two-year research project at Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, led by Senior Lecturer Dr James Bell, which has potential to improve stock management and significantly increase export earnings from the industry.
Dr Bell and a PhD student, Irina Ilyushkina, will be examining the genetic make-up of rock lobster populations around the New Zealand coastline and using this information to identify patterns of larval movement.
The work will support improved assessment and monitoring of rock lobster stocks and help to ensure the industry meets the highest food safety and traceability standards.
Commonly called crayfish, the red rock lobster (Jasus edwardsii) is New Zealand’s most valuable inshore fishery export, worth over $220 million in export earnings each year.
Victoria University researchers have previously partnered with the rock lobster industry, using DNA technology to increase understanding of the sources of lobster larvae and movement of larvae between populations in New Zealand and Australia. This research was recently published in the international journal Heredity.
Dr Bell says the new research project, which starts in September, will have a range of potential benefits for the industry, including producing accurate information on the patterns of larval exchange between populations as well as identifying populations that are net producers of larvae. The study is one of the most extensive genetic studies of a single New Zealand marine species ever undertaken.
“We hope to identify populations of rock lobsters that are genetically distinct. By looking at their genetic make-up and the barriers to larval movement, such as ocean currents, we aim to identify populations that are self-recruiting, meaning the larvae produced by a population return to the same population to live as adults.”
Dr Bell says this information could open up niche marketing opportunities for the industry.
“Consumers may well be prepared to pay a premium for a rock lobster that they know was born and bred in a particular area such as, for example, around Stewart Island, Fiordland and the West Coast.”
Other potential benefits include improved traceability says Dr Bell.
“Understanding the genetic make-up of the different rock lobster populations around New Zealand means we will have a good idea where a particular lobster comes from should we ever need this information for food safety traceability.”
Further down the track, the research may also support ‘ranching’ of wild juvenile rock lobsters where larvae are shifted to better quality habitats, where they have a better chance of survival.
Daryl Sykes, Executive Officer of the New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council, says the new research project is a great foundation for ongoing collaboration with Victoria University to improve both management of the rock lobster fishery and economic performance by the industry.
“Our intention is to actively manage lobster populations through their complete life cycle—larvae to adult—increasing the important social, cultural and economic benefits to New Zealand.”
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15 July 2013
Victoria University law and biology student Evan Brenton-Rule won the top prize at the 2013 Eureka! Sir Paul Callaghan Awards for Young Science Orators on Friday.
Evan won the competition for his presentation about a solution to the threat posed by invasive species in New Zealand.
Evan, who has studied invasive species with Professor Phil Lester and Dr Monica Gruber, says he believes life on our planet faces four key threats: over-exploitation of resources, habitat destruction, the introduction of alien species and climate change.
“I’m particularly interested in invasive species research. The globalisation of trade has increased the movement of species around the planet.
“Many of these species don’t cause problems but some do, in ways that are often damaging both economically and to the environment.
“For instance, New Zealand’s population of invasive wasps causes massive damage in our native forests in the upper South Island—competing with native birds and invertebrates, and even attacking bird chicks.
“Another example is the Psa virus which is devastating our kiwifruit orchards and will cause hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the industry.”
Evan’s winning presentation at the Eureka! Awards outlined the damage done to the New Zealand economy and environment by invasive species such as wasps and fire ants, and proposed a range of biological initiatives to eradicate the pests.
He received a trophy from the Governor General, Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae at the Awards Dinner held on Friday evening at Government House and $5,000 towards his university studies, along with a further $1,000 for reaching the finals.
Evan says he plans to do a BSc Honours degree at Victoria, and pursue PhD studies overseas. He hopes to apply both his law and biology studies to investigate how legislation and policy are informed by science.
Evan appeared on Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning programme on Radio New Zealand following the awards. You can listen to his interview here:http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday
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11 July 2013
Three Victoria students (Evan Brenton-Rule, School of Biological Sciences, is shown above) are among 12 of New Zealand’s best young science brains who will this week try to convince us what can be achieved with a bit of science and creativity.
The Eureka Symposium ad the Sir Paul Callaghan Awards for Young Science Orators are on this Friday (12 July) at the Massey University theatrette.
The finalists, selected by the Rotary Club of Wellington, will present ideas from ranging from using natural enemies to fight invasive species, teaching primary school pupils to programme computers and a proposal to mine the moon.
Wellington City Council Chief Executive Kevin Lavery says he is proud to encourage young scientists and very pleased to see Wellington students in the final line-up.
“We want Wellington to take a lead in science, technology and innovation — this is what our 30-year plan for a Smart Capital is all about. These students all have an enormously important role to play, regardless of which one wins the top prize,” he says. The Council is a gold sponsor of the awards.
The Wellington finalists are Sebastian Hallum Clarke from Scots College, and Sasha Grieg, Ratu Mataira and Evan Brenton-Rule from Victoria University.
Evan is concerned about the economic impact on New Zealand of invasive species, such as wasps. He argues that targeted biocontrol — investigating how natural enemies (pathogens) could limit the spread of these species – represents a cost-effective solution to a multi-billion-dollar problem.
Sasha believes productivity and concentration in the workforce could be improved by sending electrical impulses directly to the brain in a procedure called trans-cranial direct current simulation. She says this has been safety tested and is preferable to employees relying on coffee and other chemical stimulants to aid performance.
Ratu advocates that New Zealand considers supporting the use of thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element, as a cheap and clean source of fuel. He argues that thorium is plentiful, does not produce carbon dioxide, is cheaper than power produced by coal or hydro-electricity and 90 per cent of waste is safe within 30 years.
Symposium convenor Francis Wevers says finalists have presented a remarkable range of propositions for the judges to consider. “Our objective has been to provide an opportunity for our passionate and articulate students to persuade our judges that their ideas will deliver real economic, social and environmental value for New Zealand.”
Taken from an article, 9 July, Dominion Post, courtesy of Wellington City Council
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Little birds make big decisions
24 June 2013
Research carried out at Victoria University into New Zealand’s North Island robin has uncovered a remarkable ability to recognise different human beings.
In the first study of its kind, researchers in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences found that not only are some North Island robins (Petroica longipes), or toutouwai, able to recognise different people, their differing reaction to humans may lie in the bird’s individual behavioural type.
Dr Craig Barnett, who is currently based in Japan, led the research which took place over a period of three months at the Zealandia ecosanctuary.
Using a simple feeding experiment with mealworms as a food source, Dr Barnett and his colleagues timed how long it took the robins to attack food placed nearby to a person.
“For seven days, the same person dressed in a white lab coat stood near the food source,” says Dr Barnett.
“On the eighth day, a different person, this time wearing a blue coat, stood near the food source.
“We split the birds into two groups: ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ attackers, depending on their average attack times.
“Interestingly, the results showed that the attack times of the faster, bolder birds didn’t change much when the new human appeared. However, the slower birds, which were more cautious around humans, displayed even longer attack times when the new person arrived on the eighth day.”
He believes the key to the differences lie in there being distinct personalities among the bird population and says the findings have important implications for conservation efforts.
“Some birds were clearly oblivious to the differences in people, while other birds paid more attention.
“Behavioural differences could play an important role in programmes to shift and manage bird populations, because, for example, if we removed too many ‘bold’ individuals from a population and created a new ‘risk-averse’ population, they may not thrive due to a greater lack of caution around predators.”
Dr Kevin Burns, a New Zealand natural history expert based in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, says the research sheds new light on the personality traits of birds.
“North Island robins are an interesting species because although they are capable of quite complex cognitive tasks, such as counting, they have so far failed to adapt to urban environments,” he says.
“While individuals in other bird and animal species have been shown to be able to recognise individual humans, this is the first instance where it has been shown that different behavioural types within a species might perform a task differently.
“This new information could assist with conservation efforts in other island nations, for example Hawaii, which are also working towards protecting and preserving endemic wildlife,” says Dr Burns.
Although North Island robins are not endangered, they are vulnerable to predators as they feed on the ground and their nests are easily accessible. Along with the population at Zealandia, they can be found in forests of the western and central North Island, and on Little Barrier and Kapiti Islands.
Dr Barnett’s research has been published through the open access science journal PLOS ONE and can be read in its entirety here.
Image: A North Island robin at Zealandia, courtesy of Brendon Doran
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New knowledge about deadly cancer
31 May 2013
New research at Victoria University could throw light on why some women develop one of the deadliest and most difficult to detect cancers.
Work by Dr Janet Pitman, Senior Lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, is delivering new knowledge about the development of ovarian cancer, which is the fourth most common cause of cancer mortality in New Zealand, and becoming more prevalent.
It is often called the ‘Silent Cancer’ because it isn’t painful in the early stages, making early detection difficult.
Dr Pitman is focused on understanding the molecular pathway cells take in the ovary and why the premature loss of eggs, or oocytes, could lead to ovarian cancer. “Despite decades of research on early detection, identifying the origins of ovarian cancer has been hampered by unusually diverse types of tumours and a lack of tools for studying the mechanism that causes the disease. Therefore, despite advances in treatment regimes, the overall survival rate of patients presenting with ovarian cancer hasn’t changed in 50 years,” says Dr Pitman.
“The first part of our research focused on characterising the cellular transformations, by looking at the cells as they transitioned into tumours,” says Dr Pitman.
“The research showed early cellular changes that occur following oocyte loss. We discovered the development of structures and cell types in the ovaries that led to the development of malignant ovarian tumours commonly observed in ovarian cancer. This will allow us to investigate the activity of genes involved in the formation of these tumours.”
First results from Dr Pitman’s work have been published in the prestigious US International Journal of Development Biology.
Currently, she is using a new technology that allows multiple genes to be quantified simultaneously in very small samples to investigate genes as they transition into ovarian tumours. Dr Pitman hopes to have further results by the end of 2013.
“This research will provide an invaluable tool for further research into ovarian cancer.” The research, funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, also involves Professor Ken McNatty from the School of Biological Sciences.
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Study delivers insights into meningitis
30 May 2013
Research by a Victoria University PhD graduate has highlighted the risk of contracting the disease through sharing things like drink bottles and glasses.
Dr Claire Swain’s work has shown that meningococcal bacteria can survive outside the body for periods ranging from four hours to seven days, and that environmental conditions are a key factor in survival rates for the bacteria.
“The relationship between temperature and humidity is crucial,” she says. “The New Zealand epidemic strain survived really well during winter and significantly worse during summer, which fits in with the seasonal epidemic rates of meningococcal disease in the western world.”
Dr Swain has been researching meningococcal bacteria for the past eight years. Her work breaks new ground in a field that has had relatively little scientific attention in the past 100 years.
“A study at the beginning of the 20th Century showed the bacteria could not survive outside the host. It was looked at again in the 1940s and the late 1960s and there were indications they could survive, but the results were limited and it’s had scant attention since then. There was little previous work to build on, and I had to design all my own protocols.”
The results of Dr Swain’s Honours research challenged a widely held view that the bacteria are temperamental and unable to survive for long periods outside the human body.
Using artificial saliva made and donated by the University of Otago’s School of Dentistry, she tested survival rates for a selection of strains on both plastic and glass, including the serogroup B strain which caused an epidemic in New Zealand through the 1990s and early 2000s.
She found that the bacteria of every strain that was tested could survive drying, in one case for up to 10 days. The bacteria lasted significantly longer on glass than on plastic.
Dr Swain says scientists do not know what constitutes an infectious dose of the bacteria as meningococci do not affect animals in the same way they affect humans, so cannot be studied through animal models.
“Despite that, the potential risk of transferring the disease is clear,” says Dr Swain. “People carrying meningococci could leave infectious bacteria through saliva on bottles, glasses and cutlery.
“They may not even have to put the implement in their mouth to transfer the bacteria—sneezing on it might be enough.”
Dr Swain says her work has implications for researchers working with the bacteria, and health professionals working with people who have the infection, as well as friends and family of people with infectious meningococcal bacteria.
Dr Swain’s PhD research expanded on her earlier findings by studying the growth of meningococcal bacteria under different environmental conditions.
She examined a subset of seven of the most common strains of the disease in ambient, warm and cold conditions, and low humidities.
A total of 13 serogroups of meningococcal bacteria have been identified and five of them—A, B, C, W135 and Y—can cause epidemics. Dr Swain says her results show that different serogroups have different survival rates, but that’s only one factor in their potency.
“The interaction between temperature and humidity is also crucial. Except for one strain type, all the strains I tested survived better at lower relative humidity compared with ambient temperatures.”
Dr Swain’s PhD work also looked at proteins expressed in response to environmental stress by two strains of the bacteria with differing abilities to survive in the environment. Her goal was to identify the reason behind the differences and, as a result, try to find a marker that could predict if a particular strain could be a strong survivor and was therefore more likely to cause an epidemic.
Dr Swain’s work, which found a stark contrast in how the two strains cope with stress, has taken the first steps towards this goal. She says future work in this area could lead to identification of a marker.
Dr Swain’s research was supervised by Dr Bill Jordan from Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences and ESR Principal Scientist Dr Diana Martin.
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Could coral reefs become sponge reefs in the future?
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
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Kiwi call perfect harmony
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.
For more information, contact Dr Andrew Digby, phone 021 183 5852 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or Dr Ben Bell, phone (04) 463 5570 or email email@example.com.
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Leaders in research excellence
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.
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Expanding research in fisheries science
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.
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VUCEL Incubator Team interview with Radio NZ
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.'
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Cure for Multiple Sclerosis
4 March 2013
Scientist Dr Anne La Flamme and colleagues are searching for a cure for multiple sclerosis.
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.
Dr La Flamme and Madeleine in the lab.
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?”
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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.
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Student at forefront of cancer research
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.
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