Press Release – Science Media Centre
Unlocking Psa’s genetic secrets; Origin identified, but not route; Shark attack at Muriwai Beach; Shark attacks in NZ; Protect wild pollinators experts; Language ‘superdiversity’ examinedSMC Heads-Up: Psa relinquishes secrets, pollinators go wild and sharks attack
Issue 220 1 – 7 March 2013
Unlocking Psa’s genetic secrets
Scientists have mapped the genome of the bacteria responsible for virulent kiwifruit vine disease Psa, providing evidence for the origins and future biosecurity implications of the ongoing outbreak.
In a new study published this week in PLoS ONE, University of Otago researchers analysed Psa strains from China, Japan, Italy, New Zealand and Chile and found evidence that recent outbreaks originated from China.
They also found distinct genetic ‘islands’ encoding traits that may make the disease more aggressive. These appear to have been transferred from bacterial strains attacking unrelated plants on at least three separate occasions, and may have triggered the virulent outbreaks seen.
Dr Matt Templeton of Plant & Food Research provided an independent perspective on the study at the SMC’s request, commenting:
“It is important to understand the origin of Psa and its ability to further evolve because this has implication for how we manage the disease in NZ and in particular use our germplasm to breed for resistance.
“[The research] also has important implications for our approach to both biosecurity and management, because we need to be sure we’re looking out for the right things when protecting our borders and that we’re taking the right steps to mitigate impacts post-border.”
Origin identified, but not route
Further controversy over the kiwifruit disease ensued when New Zealand First leader Hon Winston Peters claimed the research indicted a particular pollen supplier as the source of the initial Psa incursion.
On Wednesday — before the official publication of the research — Mr Peters issued a statement saying, “It is understood that Otago University associate professor Russell Poulter undertook genetic analysis to trace the Psa bacteria which he found had entered New Zealand from China through Kiwi Pollen Ltd”.
Prof Poulter has rejected this claim, explaining to Sun Live that while the research did indicate a Chinese origin for the strain of bacteria, it did not determine how it got into the country.
Mr Peters later retracted his statement and told Radio NZ that neither he nor his staff have read Dr Poulter’s study published in PLoS ONE and would not have made the mistake if they had.
Shark attack at Muriwai Beach
A fatal shark attack at a popular beach west of Auckland on Wednesday provided a grim reminder of the very rare but real danger posed by these marine predators.
Film-maker Adam Strange, 46, training for an ocean swim race at the time of the attack, was pronounced dead at the scene. Police are reported to have discharged a firearm multiple times during the rescue attempt.
Latest reports indicate the beach is to be reopened tomorrow.
Dr Malcolm Francis, from NIWA, studies sharks in New Zealand waters and told ONE News it was likely that the shark, estimated to be 12-14 feet in length, was a Great White.
Great Whites are one of the largest of the 70 known species of sharks in New Zealand. Mako and Bronze Whaler sharks have also been known to attack humans and could potentially have been responsible for the recent attack.
Shark attacks in NZ
No fatal shark attacks have occurred in NZ since at least 2009, when a kayaker’s body was found mauled by shark in the Coromandel region. A lengthy investigation failed to determine if the shark attack occurred before or after the individual drowned.
The last confirmed shark fatality occurred in 1976, when spear-fisherman John Grainger Leith was killed by a shark thought to be a Bronze Whaler.
There are 110 shark attack incidents recorded for New Zealand (dating back to 1852) in the Global Shark Attack File – a non-comprehensive archive of publicly-reported attacks managed by the Shark Research Institute.
You can read a media round up and background resources on the Science Media Centre website.
Protect wild pollinators – experts
A massive international study of 600 field trials from around the globe (including New Zealand) highlights the importance of wild insects in spreading pollen for agricultural crops, and warns of excessive reliance on honeybees.
The study, published in Science, found that wild insects pollinate crops more effectively than managed honeybees, leading to twice as much fruit set (flowers that develop into mature fruits or seeds).
Honeybees only add to the pollinating power of wild insects, and can’t replace their pollination services, the researchers also discovered.
Wild pollinators, including bees, flies, butterflies and beetles, usually live in natural or semi-natural habitats, such as the edges of forests, hedgerows or grasslands. As these habitats are lost, primarily owing to conversion to agriculture, the abundance and diversity of pollinators decline and crops receive fewer visits from wild insects.
Without steps to conserve wild species and protect their habitats, “the ongoing loss of wild insects is destined to compromise agricultural yields worldwide,” the authors conclude.
The SMC contacted scientists for further comment on the research.
Dr Brad Howlett, Research Scientist, Plant & Food Research, was a co-author on the study. He comments:
“In New Zealand, the flowers of many crops attract a wide range of insects other than honey bees…There are currently no management procedures aimed at better utilising these insects. Therefore, there is a great opportunity to develop strategies to build and stabilise their populations.
“Increasing pollinator diversity within crops can lead to better yields because it increases the abundance of efficient pollinators that can be active under weather conditions that are less suitable to honeybees.”
Prof Jason Tylianakis, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:
“We need research to underpin policies that protect wild pollinators in the agricultural landscapes where they are most needed. As well as being a source of pride and enjoyment, New Zealand’s biodiversity is the very foundation of our economy.”
You can read further commentary on the SMC website.
Language ‘superdiversity’ examined
Is it time for New Zealand to have a more unified approach to languages?
New Zealand is superdiverse, having seen unprecedented increases in the ethnic, cultural, social and linguistic diversity of the New Zealand population in the last few decades. There are now 160 different languages spoken in New Zealand, and Auckland is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.
But how do we, as a nation, deal with the numerous language issues that this diversity creates?
Next week, the Royal Society of New Zealand will release a new policy paper on languages in Aotearoa New
Zealand. The paper will bring together research on the role that languages play in international,national, social and personal development in our country.
The research outlined explores the case for a national languages policy in order to join up what are currently a number of disparate policies and areas of practice.
The paper will be launched next Tuesday at a special event at the Auckland Museum.
”They’re swimming around our coast all the time, and they have been doing this for decades, hundreds of years,”
– Craig Thorburn, senior curator at Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium, on sharks.
New from the SMC
Psa: Scientists have mapped the genome of the bacteria responsible for virulent kiwifruit vine disease Psa, providing insight into the originals and severity of the disease.
Shark attack: Read initial reports and background resources relating to the Muriwai shark attack.
Innovation nation: Fran O’Sullivan, Selwyn Pellett and Peter Griffin examine recent changes to the science, technology and innovation sector in a special feature in the NZ Herald.
Psa headlines: The publication of the Psa genome and a dash of political intrigue draw the attention of the media.
Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:
Nobel Prize for DNA structure for sale – Grant Jacobs writes about a slice of science history going under the hammer, and in particular a letter from James Watson explaining DNA to his 12 year old son.
Code for Life
Unintended effect of DCD on dairy farms - The recent infamy of nitrification inhibitor DCD prompts Mark Schallenberg to relate recent research showing it might not be a ‘silver bullet’ as some claim.
Future Foods – Robert Hickson gives a digest of some of the new food innovations coming soon to a plate near you.
Hydrogen on demand – Sketchy car add-ons don’t let the laws of thermodynamics get in the way of a good story. Michael Edmonds investigates.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Stretching electricity supplies: US researchers have developed a battery incorporated into a soft silicon casing that can be bent, twisted and stretched up to three times its normal size. The design also has the added advantage of wireless recharging. The technology may prove critical in bringing flexible electronic products to market. Video available.
Animals help autism: Children who exhibit autism spectrum disorder engage in more social behaviours when in the presence of live pets (in this case, guinea pigs), according to new research. Having toys present did not produce similar changes. The presence of animals increased instances of smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviours in children.
Nintendo surgeons: Laparoscopic surgeons may improve certain aspects of surgical performance by regularly playing on a Nintendo Wii, according to new research. Surgery residents assigned to a four-week regime of playing Nintendo Wii (an hour a day), showed greater improvements in surgery skills (measured in a simulator) than their non-Wii counterparts.
Volunteering good for the heart: New research has shown that giving back to the community can be good for you heart – literally. Canadian researchers monitored students volunteering in an after-school programme and found that compared to non-volunteers, the participants exhibited decrease in levels of cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol – which were in turn linked with increases in empathy, altruistic behaviour and mental health.
In sickness and in health: Same-sex partners living together report worse health than people of the same socioeconomic status who are in heterosexual marriages, according to a new US study, which may prove relevant for proponents of gay marriage. The authors state that their research did not examine the basis for the observed health differences but suggest the disparity could be due to higher levels of stress from to homophobic and heteronormative institutional, legal, and social contexts.
Journal of Health and Social Behaviour
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Tech transfer: The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has released the results from a recent survey of technology transfer practitioners working with farmers and growers, suggesting the sector could do with a boost.
Psychoactives bill: Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has introduced legislation aiming to create a new regime for controlling low risk psychoactive drugs.
Fracking delays: A major report on fracking in New Zealand has been set back again, due to the complexity of the investigation.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• The sentient planet – technology as a super sense – BIG DATA series discussion panel with Kim Hill – 6 March, Wellington.
• We are what we eat: IF we can eat! Professorial lecture from Prof Gil Hardy (Massey) – 6 March, Auckland.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.