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Scientists Search For Unique New Zealand Bacteria

Researchers from The University of Auckland have found primitive bacteria, (Archaea), associated with Kiwi that offers the first clues in their quest to discover if New Zealand has its own 'native' bacteria.

Dr Sue Turner of the School of Biological Sciences says that the humble bacteria are the most widespread and genetically variable organisms on the planet, and yet right now we do not know if New Zealand has its own species, let alone if some of them may be useful.

"We are all aware now just how important it is to understand and protect biodiversity in plants and animals," says Dr Turner.

"Who knows what biological resources lie out there: potential medical treatments, foods and compounds.

"But, as yet microbial biodiversity remains a serious gap in our knowledge, when because of wide diversity in bacteria it may yield crucial new knowledge.

"New Zealand's biological isolation for millions of years until recently puts local researchers in an excellent position to begin to answer some of the most basic questions in the planet's biodiversity - how vast is the storehouse of genetic variation amongst bacteria, does New Zealand have unique bacteria, are species being lost, if so what would be the effect?"

"The implications for management of our biodiversity are certainly significant," Dr Turner says. "With increasing pressures on threatened native species like kiwi, more intensive management strategies are being used to safeguard remaining populations. These include hand-rearing in captivity and translocation of birds from one site to another. If kiwi have evolved with bacteria that are localized to a specific area, how will this affect the health of kiwi that have been transferred to another site or raised artificially?"

Dr Turner and her colleagues, PhD student Sara Metcalf, Dr David Saul and Dr Allen Rodrigo are working in collaboration with Dr. Richard Jakob-Hoff of the Auckland Zoo's Wildlife Health and Research Centre with the help of a Marsden grant.

"Finding archaea associated with the Kiwi has opened a new range of questions and possibilities", Dr Turner says. "Our understanding of the distribution of archaea globally is rather poor. That is should be associated with Kiwi raises new questions of the ecological importance of archaea in symbiotic relations with animals".

The researchers are examining the gut bacteria of Kiwi using advanced molecular technology to identify difference groups of bacteria that may have co-evolved over millennia of isolation in New Zealand.

The pace of research in the past has been held up by the need to culture the organisms, of which less than 5% can be cultured at all. Molecular techniques allow researchers at The University of Auckland to study the bacteria without the need to culture the organisms and therefore to take the research to a new level.


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