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Young Scientists: Staggers in grazing animals

7 June 2006

Young Scientists: Staggers in grazing animals

Wendy Imlach in the lab in Palmerston North

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A PhD student’s winning research into sheep staggers has provided new insights into how fungal toxins in grass cause sheep staggers - a disease that is estimated to cost the New Zealand agricultural industry $100 million every year.

Wendy Imlach’s research has won her first place in the Understanding Planet Earth category of the 2006 MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards, organised by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and sponsored by Fisher & Paykel Appliances.

Ryegrass staggers in grazing animals, including sheep, cattle and sometimes horses and deer, is a major New Zealand agricultural problem. There is no cure or control for the disease which causes muscle spasms, making it difficult for the animal to walk and eat, and can indirectly result in death.

Wendy’s research also has the potential to shed more understanding on human diseases which cause tremor and loss of muscle control.

The study provides new knowledge on toxic effects on cells to block the electrical signaling in the brain. Wendy, who is a University of Otago doctoral student working with crown research institute, AgResearch Limited, says the findings are groundbreaking and have the potential to lead to a cure for each attack of staggers, and possibly provide preventative medication.

Wendy Imlach in front of the patch clamp

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The fungal toxin that causes ryegrass staggers potently inhibits the ‘BK channel’, a common ion channel found in cell membranes of many body tissues. Ion channels are essential for life as they are responsible for the electrical signaling between cells that underlie movement, sensation and thought.

When this toxin is given to normal mice they develop a tremor response, while in BK knockout mice that do not have BK channels, there is no response, showing that the toxin inhibition of BK channels must cause the tremors.

The research is funded by a Marsden Fund Grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The MacDiarmid Awards are designed to recognise excellent research, science and technology while also promoting the importance of good science communication. They are made annually by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to foster excellence and the innovative spirit of New Zealand’s top young researchers. The Foundation invests over $460 million a year in research and development on behalf of the government.

For information on the Awards: http://www.frst.govt.nz/awards/macdiarmid.cfm

ENDS

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