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University And CRI Combine Strength

University And CRI Combine Strength For Ground Breaking Research

New Zealand's leading research-led university and the country's largest Crown Research Institute have signed an agreement to collaborate in life sciences research and education in a move that will strengthen national capability in the area.

Vice-Chancellor of The University of Auckland, Dr John Hood, and AgResearch CEO Dr Keith Steele said that the University of Auckland and AgResearch have complementary skills and resources in life sciences research, and that they intend to bring these together in a new partnership which will see enhanced research capability in a range of research areas of importance to New Zealand.

"Biotechnology will be pivotal to New Zealand's future economic and social success, with its wide-ranging opportunities in primary production, human health and environmental management. We believe the combined research strength will generate critical mass in specific biotech areas to open a range of new opportunities for building knowledge, and, ultimately, creating wealth," they said.

"New Zealand's resources for world-leading research are limited and the agreement formalises the opportunities to make the best of them. It makes sense for leading institutions to collaborate actively where there are real gains to be made from working together, combining the international networks of both.

"The research groups will build a stronger presence in New Zealand and internationally, and will be able to develop broader intellectual property portfolios.

"The agreement will also provide more opportunities for outstanding research students to work in a New Zealand research environment during and after their studies."

The University and AgResearch will also share investment in, and access to, research facilities and equipment.

The collaboration will focus initially on four selected areas of research:

Structural bioinformatics - The collaboration brings together the active gene discovery programme at AgResearch with the Structural Biology programme at the University of Auckland. The University runs New Zealand's leading research facility for protein structure determination and the only group with integrated skills in bioinformatics, molecular biology and structural biology. The University's Molecular Biodiscovery group has just been granted funding as a New Zealand wide Centre of Research Excellence.

Plant genomics and flowering - University and AgResearch, together with other New Zealand researchers in the field of plant development and plant architecture have formed "Merinet". The aim of Merinet is to promote and coordinate research in New Zealand on the development and fate of meristems, the growing tips of plants, which control plant growth and form.

Sustainability and wastewater management - AgResearch and University of Auckland have identified common interests around the area of land use and impacts of farm practice on natural resource condition, particularly in relation to Maori.

Growth and Development -- The University's first dedicated research institute, the Liggins Institute, and groups at AgResearch working in the areas of Muscle Genomics, Animal Health and Welfare, and Systems Biology, brings together leading researchers in fetal and postnatal growth that will significantly enhance growth and systems biology research in New Zealand.

Further background material attached.


Background material.

Structural Bioinformatics

Led by: Professor Ted Baker, The University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences Dr Paul Atkinson, AgResearch

The unveiling of the human genome sequence, and of the genome sequences of many other organisms, heralds a new era in biological research and development. The opportunities for the discovery of new drugs or the development of new molecular tools for biotechnology are limitless. The U.S. National Institutes of Health estimate that only 1% of possible drug targets are currently exploited. Hidden in the sequence information are the keys to many new discoveries for biotechnology and medicine.

The research focus now is on function. The genome sequence data show that at least 50% of all the genes identified are of unknown function, and others are uncertain. Each gene specifies a protein, and it is the proteins that are the working molecules of life. As the New York Times put it, "The Next Chapter in the Book of Life is written in the Proteins".

A key weapon in the search for function is protein three-dimensional structure. The detailed atomic structure of a protein is of exquisite beauty. It also specifies the exact biological function. By finding out structure, we find out function.

AgResearch has an active and world-class programme in gene discovery. This aims to discover new products from agriculture, including new therapeutic agents, and new approaches to animal welfare and animal production. Many of the genes discovered are currently of unknown function, and this can be remedied by input from structural information.

The University of Auckland Laboratory of Structural Biology is New Zealand's leading research facility for protein structure determination and the only group with integrated skills in bioinformatics, molecular biology and structural biology. It is also a member of an international structural genomics consortium, centred in the United States. This gives it access to leading edge technologies in post-genomic science.

The collaboration thus brings together the gene discovery programme at AgResearch with the Structural Biology programme at the University of Auckland, which has just this week been awarded funding as one of five national Centres of Research Excellence. This is a perfect, complementary fit.

Current research includes: * Streptococcal enzyme responsible for "flesh-eating" disease (recently featured on cover of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA) * Enzymes that cause antibiotic resistance * Proteins of insect communication * Enzymes that modify folic acid (targets of antifolate cancer drugs) * Proteins that assist the folding of other proteins (tool for biotechnology) * Possum proteins, as possible agents for biocontrol

Plant Genomics and flowering - Merinet

Led by: Dr Derek White, AgResearch Jo Putterill, The University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences

Merinet (The meristem network) is a New Zealand wide grouping of researchers in plant development and plant architecture. The aim of Merinet is to promote and coordinate research in New Zealand on aspects of the development and fate of plant meristems.

The growth and form of plants is controlled at the meristems. The meristem consists of cells that are actively dividing. As these cells divide and grow, they lay down the body of the plant behind them. Meristems are found at the shoot tips of the plant, at root tips, and just under the bark of woody trees (they control increases in trunk diameter).

In most plants the apical meristem - located at the shoot tip of the very top of the plant - is the most important site of control of plant shape and form. This is where the decisions are made to grow new leaves, to grow side branches, to split into two branches, or terminate and stop growing altogether. In addition the switch from vegetative growth to flowering is made by the meristem.

Understanding these changes, and the signals from the rest of the plant and the environment that cause them, will help New Zealand to develop new crop plants. These might include: pine trees with fewer branches that require less pruning, ryegrass with more leaves and fewer flower spikes (unpalatable to cows), or kiwifruit that flower in their first year.

The plans for the group include:

* Collaboration on equipment and resources, * New Research projects, * Establishing an e-mail news group among members to share information on new technical advances and methodologies in the field, and regulatory matters, * Establishing an annual retreat, open to all researchers in the area, as a forum for open discussion and interactions between NZ researchers working on plant meristems. Overseas visitors would be invited each year.

Objective: To determine the molecular basis of plant architecture (i.e. plant form), particularly as it applies to the formation of flowering meristems. The research partnership aims to discover the common genetic mechanisms that control flowering in a diverse range of plants. We are also interested in the way that variations in these genetic controls result in the contrasting structures or forms observed in different plant species. Outcomes: The value of many economically important plants depends upon the timing and spatial pattern of flower development. This collaborative research will investigate both model plant systems and forage grasses and legumes to identify genes that can be manipulated to improve the flowering characteristics and form of plants of particular economic benefit to New Zealand. Possible improvements include; alterations to the timing of flowering to provide best access to markets, inducible flowering or the prevention of flowering to optimise vegetative growth in forages, and self-pruning to optimise fruit or grain harvesting. Research Approaches: Research findings about the genes and molecular mechanisms that control flowering in model plant systems already indicates that the fundamental processes involved may be common to a wide range of plants. This research collaboration will continue to use model plant systems to unravel the complex mechanisms controlling the formation of flowers, but will focus on the discovery of genes that can be used to manipulate flowering in a wide range of plants.

Environmental Land Management

Led by: Dr Willie Smith, The University of Auckland Dr Liz Wedderburn, AgResearch

AgResearch and University of Auckland have identified common interests around the area of land use and impacts of farm practice on natural resource condition, particularly in relation to Maori. AgResearch has strengths in addressing biophysical, social and economic outcomes associated with land use around natural resource issues (e.g. water, soil, biodiversity). The University of Auckland has a strong track record in addressing resource issues of importance to Maori. The combination of these capabilities should result in innovative, relevant research with practical solutions.

In anticipation of this Agreement between the two institutions, a formal application has already been made to the Foundation for Research Science and Technology (FRST) to initiate a joint research project on "The Factors that Determine the New Zealand Population's Perception of Technological Risks with Specific Reference to Biotechnology". This project would involve staff from the new School of Geography and Environmental Science, the Departments of Psychology and Philosophy and staff from AgResearch

"Growth and Development Consortium"

Led by: Distinguished Professor Peter Gluckman, FRS, The University of Auckland Professor John Bass, AgResearch

The Liggins Institute in The University of Auckland and the Muscle Genomics (Animal Growth Group), Animal Health and Welfare and Systems Biology groups at AgResearch are all interested in the regulation of growth.

The major focus at Liggins is the study of the complex and fascinating biological processes that regulate fetal growth and development and how these processes impact both on the health of the newborn and the adult. Additionally it will address diseases of adult life where the developmental approach offers a unique perspective. The study of factors underpinning development has suggested novel approaches to degenerative disease in adults.

This requires innovative and multidisciplinary approaches, including molecular and cellular biology, systems physiology, pharmacology, neuroscience, endocrinology, perinatal physiology and clinical medicine. It focuses on developing important new and broadly accessible technologies for drug discovery and thus provide a national resource for New Zealand.

The biology of growth is also the basis of pastoral agriculture -wool and meat growth and lactation. AgResearch has developed expertise in understanding and intervening in these processes. The two research groups often look at the same problem from the opposite angle, for example obesity in humans and leanness in meat production.

The relationship between The University of Auckland and AgResearch is already a long standing one in this area. Professor John Bass has a part time appointment in the Liggins Institute. Both groups use similar technology, need to make similar experiments and co-supervise many PhD students. Till now this relationship has proceeded project by project, moving from question to question. With the formalisation of the relationship, both research groups look forward to planning more strategically for the future.

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