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Young scientists shine at MacDiarmid Awards

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Young scientists shine at MacDiarmid Awards

Genetic research that will play a crucial role in the conservation of one of the world’s rarest birds and a toxic relationship between grass and fungi are two projects by Massey scientists that received awards at the prestigious MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year ceremony in Auckland yesterday.

PhD students Damien Fleetwood and Hayley Lawrence were awarded a first-prize category award and a commendation.

One of six category winners, Mr Fleetwood received a prize of $2000 in the awards and Ms Lawrence was one of two students awarded a commendation.

Organised by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the awards are named after New Zealand-born Nobel Prize-winning scientist Professor Alan MacDiarmid and are designed to publicly celebrate the achievements of New Zealand’s future leaders in science and to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

Congratulations from Professor MacDiarmid were broadcast at the awards from the University of Pennsylvania, where he is based. He says that it is vital New Zealand scientists’ achievements are honoured and recognised in the same way as those of New Zealand’s sportspeople.

Damien Fleetwood, winner of the Adding Value to Nature category, is a PhD student in the Institute of Molecular BioSciences at Palmerston North. He is based at crown research institute AgResearch.

Titled A Toxic Tag Team, his research explores how fungi and grass combine to poison grazing animals. It focuses on the interaction between grass and a fungus it hosts called epichloë endophyte in a relationship he describes as a double-edged sword.

“Grass infected with the endophyte is protected from many insect pests but at the same time many strains produce toxic chemicals, including one called ergovaline, that are designed to stop the grass being eaten because they are toxic to grazing stock,” Mr Fleetwood says.

Animals that eat endophyte-infected grass producing ergovaline suffer effects ranging from poor weight gain to gangrene and death, at a potential cost of millions of dollars to the agricultural industries each year.
Mr Fleetwood’s work has helped identify a cluster of six genes that are responsible for producing the toxic chemical ergovaline and built up new knowledge about how they work and when the genes are switched on and off.

“Ultimately this will help us maximise the good agricultural effects of endophytes and minimise the bad ones,” he says.

Hayley Lawrence, awarded a commendation in the Understanding Planet Earth category, is a PhD student in the Institute of Natural Resources at the Auckland campus. She is developing techniques to help locate the burrows of the Chatham Island Taiko, one of the world’s most endangered seabirds.

It is estimated that there are between 120 and 140 birds remaining, with only 14 breeding pairs on the Chatham Islands. Ms Lawrence’s research on the behaviour and interactions of the rare bird in the wild involves the use of Taiko (magenta petrel) blood samples that will provide genetic identification for each bird.

These genetic identifiers will help researchers to help track birds to the family nest in underground burrows. When nests are found, improved trapping and poisoning of predators can be carried out to protect the critically endangered species.

A predator proof fence has already been built around an area on the Chatham Islands to create a safe breeding ground for Taiko. Ms Lawrence says she hopes her project, titled Can Whakapapa help save New Zealand’s rarest seabird, will also improve conservation efforts to establish a new colony. Her research is supported by the Department of Conservation.


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