Issue 497, 09 Nov 2018


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New from the SMC

Expert Reaction: Seed banking and native trees​

Expert Reaction: Meningococcal W on the rise

In The News: $85m awarded in Marsden Fund grants

New from the SMC global network

Marsden Fund awards $85m

A total of 136 research projects, ranging from virtual pregnancy to studying volcanoes from a ‘waka-lab’, have been given a funding boost in the latest round of the Marsden Fund.

The fund, managed by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government, awarded $85.6 million (excluding GST) to the three-year long projects, 53 of which are by early-career researchers.

Projects span a range of national and international issues: from a longitudinal study of self-harm and suicidal behaviour in New Zealand youth to building a better ‘immune system’ for software, and from exploring the quantum entanglement of individual atoms to examining the survival of life in the harsh conditions of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys.

Marsden Fund Council Chair Professor David Bilkey was pleased to see steadily increasing representation of women and Māori amongst the successful researchers.

“It is also gratifying that Marsden Fund applicants who identify as female or Māori have been as successful as male and non-Māori applicants over the past five years,” he said.

There was a strong engagement with mātauranga Māori in applications, he said. “These range from a study of Māori responses to 20th century welfare policies to the use of a waka-based craft to access and investigate remote volcanoes.”

Volcanologist Ian Schipper from Victoria University has been awarded $928,000 to build a mobile volcano observatory in Melanesia using modern waka to study volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Dr Alys Clark, from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and Dr Jo James, from the University of Auckland, were awarded $954,000 for an international research project to study how changes in the blood flow affect a mother’s ability to nourish her baby, RNZ reported.

The University of Otago received the largest funding boost yet, securing $28.5m for 41 projects, including how judicial questions influence jurors, whale evolution, and understanding men’s mental health.

More about the grants can be found here, and a selection of the news coverage found on theSMC website

Quoted: Stuff

"The legal and regulatory framework is not fit for purpose – it wasn't future-proofed.

"It's a bit like saying, 'We want to reduce fuel use, but you're not allowed to drive a Tesla because electric cars weren't invented in 1996'." 

Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser Professor Juliet Gerrard on the legislation around genetic engineering.

Don't bank on seed banking

Traditional seed banking will fail to save a third of the world’s tree species from extinction, according to research from one of the world’s largest seed banks.

Storing seeds ‘ex-situ’ (away from their natural habitat) serves as a conservation insurance policy in case of disaster. However, this new research shows vast numbers of trees have ‘recalcitrant seeds’ that can’t survive the most common preservation technique - drying and freezing.

Lead author Dr Sarah Wyse, who now works in New Zealand at the Bio-Protection Research Centre, says one in five New Zealand native trees and shrubs have recalcitrant seeds – including tōtara, rimu, tawa and swamp maire. Kauri are also affected as, while their seeds can be frozen, they don’t last beyond 10 years in storage.

One alternative way to store seeds is through cryopreservation, but this is time-consuming and expensive as it requires liquid nitrogen to freeze the seed quickly before ice can form.

AgResearch senior scientist and director of the Margot Forde Germplasm Centre, Doctor Kioumars Ghamkhar told Newsroom that the paper highlighted some key limitations of traditional seed banks.

"There are more than 1200 seed banks around the world, and for many of these the economic cost of cryopreservation may be too high. Therefore more frequent regeneration of the stored seed supply – by growing to a plant to create more seed – becomes important."

It also might not even work for all plants. "For some species such as kauri," Dr Nari Williams, a plant pathologist at Scion told the NZ Herald, "freezing provides a medium-term option for storing seed and maintaining genetic diversity, but there is a lot of uncertainty around the long-term viability of stored seed." 

Dr Wyse says we need to invest in finding alternative ways to conserve these trees, otherwise, we'll lose them. She told Newshub: "If we are serious about wanting to save our unique trees, we need to do everything we can to save them in their natural environment, because other methods may simply not work."

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the study. 

Meningococcal W on the rise

A resurgence of meningitis cases, including a particularly virulent strain of the disease, has triggered the Ministry of Health to put GPs on high alert, and Pharmac to consider making vaccines for the disease the more available.  

A rare strain of meningococcal disease - serotype W - has killed six people this year, causing the Ministry of Health to send out a directive on Tuesday asking doctors and emergency departments to be on alert for symptoms.

“The numbers of cases caused by this strain have doubled since 2017 from 12 to 24 so far," Dr Helen Petousis-Harris from the Immunisation Advisory Centre told Stuff. She said the W strain "does not normally dominate our NZ meningococcal landscape" but that this particular strain "affects all ages and appears to be super virulent".

However, even though the occurrence of the W strain is particularly deadly, it still only accounts for about a quarter of meningitis cases this year, with meningococcal B still accounting for about two-thirds of cases, according to Dr Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre.

Since the meningococcal B epidemic in the 90s and 00s, no meningococcal vaccines have been on the immunisation schedule, but some have been available for private purchase. But on Wednesday afternoon, Pharmac confirmed its clinical advisors had recommended funding the new meningococcal B (MenB) vaccine Bexsero for infants and high-risk groups, but gave no indication on when this might occur.

The Ministry of Health has approved the use of Bexsero and the vaccine's manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline has applied for Pharmac to fund it.

Vaccinations for the other strains are currently available for private purchase, including one that protects against serogroup C, and another that covers all four other strains: A, C, Y and W.

Dr  Turner updated GPs about the situation in New Zealand Doctor on Thursday, giving advice about the availability of different vaccines and in what circumstances they are funded.

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the warning.

Policy news & developments

Pest free Banks Peninsula: More than a dozen participating groups and agencies signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to remove pest animals from the 115,000 hectare peninsula by 2050.

Land restoration: Two projects aiming to plant 247,000 native trees and develop skills and employment were launched on Monday as part of the One Billion Trees programme.

Scott Theobald recognised: DOC Biodiversity Ranger Scott Theobald, who was one of three men killed in a tragic helicopter crash on October 18, was honoured at the Public Service Day Awards.

More aged care workers: After a successful pilot, the Industry Partnership programme has been expanded to get more caregiving jobs within the aged care sector across the country.

Eating hemp: From Monday, hemp seeds and their products can be sold as food. Growing, possession and trade of whole seeds will still require a licence from the Ministry of Health.

Supercomputer: NIWA's High Performance Computing Facility was officially opened in Wellington on Wednesday. 

1918 flu in Samoa: Winston Peters announced support for a memorial and the refurbishment of the nurses’ training centre to mark the centenary of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic reaching Samoa’s shores.

Wellington children’s hospital: The Government has committed $45.6m to Wellington’s new state of the art children’s hospital – a project fast-tracked by a $50m donation by businessman Mark Dunajtschik.

RMA reform: A two-stage process to improve the resource management system was announced on Friday.

This week on the NZ Conversation.

Dark tourism: why atrocity tourism is neither new nor weird
Caroline Bennett, Victoria University of Wellington

Mānuka honey: who really owns the name and the knowledge
Jessica C Lai, Victoria University of Wellington

How to tackle NZ’s teacher shortage and better reflect student diversity
Ruth Boyask, Auckland University of Technology

Origins and implications of the caravan of Honduran migrants
Sharon McLennan, Massey University

See more NZ-authored Conversation articles.

What we've been reading

With an abundance of news stories to possibly read, watch and listen to, it can be hard to find the gems. Here we highlight some of the stories that caught our attention this week.

1918: Samoa and the Ship of Death
On November 7, 1918, the NZ military administration controlling Samoa knowingly allowed a ship carrying Spanish Influenza to dock in Apia The results wiped out over a quarter of Samoa's population at the time, according to this NZ On Air-funded documentary for The Coconet, directed by Tuki Laumea.

The next pandemic - are we ready?
November was the peak month of the 1918 pandemic that killed 9000 New Zealanders.A century on, Philippa Tolley of RNZ explores how well prepared we are for the next one.

You Can't Afford This: Quitting the quarter acre dream
Even with a good job, young Aucklanders know they'll probably never own their own home in the city. In this series, named 'Polite Rebellion', Stuff reporters Brittany Keogh, Josephine Franks and visual journalist Lawrence Smith examine how young Auckland leaders are facing the precarious future.

Why the Long Face, Extinct Dolphin?
A changing climate could have driven the evolution of bizarre species with snouts five times longer than the rest of their skulls, Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic.

The Auckland study pregnant women will be watching
Fears and guilt about C-section births have helped “vaginal seeding” spread, despite there being little evidence that it works. A new study in Auckland could help change that, reports Eloise Gibson.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
100 years ago today a Death Ship from NZ Arrived in Samoa: A Reminder of NZ’s Responsibilities to its South Pacific Neighbours

It's a century since the arrival of the SS Talune in Western Samoa which spread the influenza pandemic from NZ to Western Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. 
Public Health Expert
Meningococcal rare but deadly, yes there are vaccines

Meningitis is really scary, but there are different vaccines available for the different groups of meningococcal bacteria, writes Helen Petousis-Harris, including the new strains. 

Diplomatic Immunity
Digging deep into geosciences with Minecraft

Building volcanoes, caves, and other features in the 'open-world' computer game Minecraft is an engaging way to teach the next generation about Earth, writes Laura Hobbs of Science Hunters.
Guest Work
Trading tiger and rhino products: Conservation Threat or Innovation?

Trying to reduce poaching and illegal trade is a laudable goal, but there's no evidence the ban on trading rhino and tiger parts reduced demand, writes Brendan Moyle.
Chthonic Wildlife Ramblings

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Urban trees: 10 November, Dunedin. Mark Roberts will look at the reality of pruning practices, urban ecology and tree risk.
  • Geocaching on the big screen: 10 November, Dunedin. The Geocaching International Film Festival will share epic geocaching moments captured on camera. 
  • The influenza pandemic: 10 November, Wellington. This screening presents a new half-hour documentary directed by Tuki Laumea about the traumatic effect of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Samoa. A performance remembering the tragedy will be performed at Te Papa's Te Marae on 11 November.
  • Indigenous Research showcase: 12-16 November, Auckland. This biennial international conference will share premiere Māori and Indigenous knowledge, and bring together researchers in their respective fields on the theme 'Indigenous Futures'. 
  • Our freshwater crisis: 12 November, Wellington. Editor Mike Joy launches Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis – a new BWB Text that aims to offer a way forward on this urgent issue.
  • Baby brain: 13 November, Auckland. Canadian Professor Steven Miller discusses the dramatic period of brain development that occurs in babies born preterm as they go through their medical care in a NICU.
  • Memories and mental health. 13 November, Wellington. Professor Karen Salmon discusses the role of specific memories in mental health. 
  • Space weather: 13 November, Auckland; 14 November, Christchurch; 14 November, Wellington. Leading New Zealand experts will discuss the high impact of space weather, like electrical damage, power blackouts and disruption to GPS navigation systems.
  • The impact of cyberattacks: 14 November, Palmerston North. Professor Kang, Jun-Koo examines which firms are targets of cyberattacks and how they are affected. 
  • Prostitution or trafficking? 14 November, Wellington. US Professor Jill McCraken talks about her research focusing on sex work and trafficking in the sex industry, women and incarceration, the impact of sexuality education on marginalised communities.
  • NZAS conference: 15 November, Auckland. The NZ Association of Scientists conference will include talks from chief scientist Juliet Gerrard and University of Waikato's Tahu Kukutai.

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