We sat down with some of our brightest minds to talk about their science, what they love about AgResearch and how they’re feeling about the future.
Dr Kathryn McRae:
Dr Kathryn McRae is an Animal Genomics Scientist at AgResearch Invermay.
Nicolas Aranciaga is PhD student in the Proteins & Metabolites team at AgResearch Lincoln.
Dr Arvind Subbaraj:
Dr Arvind Subbaraj is a Scientist in the Proteins & Metabolites team at AgResearch Grasslands.
Evelyne Maes is a Senior Scientist in the Proteins & Metabolites team at AgResearch Lincoln.
Louise Hennessy is a PhD student in the Biocontrol & Biosecurity team at AgResearch Ruakura.
Dr Susanna Finlay-Smits:
Dr Susanna Finlay-Smits is a Social Scientist at AgResearch Lincoln.
Dr Gosia Zobel:
Dr Gosia Zobel is a Scientist in the Animal Welfare team at AgResearch Ruakura.
Timothy Bilton is a Statistician in the Forage Genetics team at AgResearch Invermay.
AgResearch scientists helped develop the Wool Runner, ‘the world’s most comfortable shoe’
A world-first woollen running shoe using fabrics designed by AgResearch launched for sale online in early 2016 and has been labeled “the World’s most comfortable shoe” by Time magazine.
The Wool Runner highlights the work AgResearch has done in helping create a value-added product from the under-appreciated mid-micron parts of the wool clip.This offers the opportunity to open up a new high value sector for wool, boosting demand for wool and ultimately increasing returns to sheep farmers.
The unique patent pending process, developed in a project jointly funded by Three Over Seven and Wool Industry Research Ltd, comprises a novel fabric construction technique, using wool together with small amounts of other fibre types followed by finishing using carefully selected processes to give it the characteristics suitable for use as a shoe-upper.
The advantages of being made from wool include controlling odour, temperature regulation, moisture management, and resistance to stains and dirt, all from a sustainable resource.
AgResearch senior scientist Stewart Collie worked to develop the shoe fabric after being approached by the company. “We went through a wide range of fabrics that we had created for other uses and identified a candidate that looked like it could be developed into something that would have the combination of strength, durability and comfort,” he says.
Early wearer trials of the shoe they developed came back with very positive feedback, with some even reporting they could be worn comfortably without socks.
AgResearch seed hunters scour the globe to develop superplants and protect biodiversity
The Margot Forde Germplasm Centre is New Zealand’s national gene bank of grassland plants and hosts the New Zealand Endangered Species Seedbank. Plant germplasm consists of seeds of genetically diverse plant populations that are conserved for use in plant breeding and to ensure the survival of groups of plants.
The role of the centre is to obtain, conserve, replenish and distribute germplasm for research and development of new varieties.
The centre holds seeds from about 100 countries representing 2,000 species from 350 genera and over 70 plant families. Included are extensive wild collections of useful species, samples of foreign and domestic cultivars, breeders lines and genetic stocks.
The centre hosts the New Zealand Indigenous Flora Seedbank on behalf of the NZ Plant Conservation Network. This is a collection of seeds of populations of native species that are endangered in the wild. By storing seeds, these populations can be conserved for long periods and the seeds provide insurance against future loss in their native habitats.
Collections provide the foundation for pasture, turf and soil conservation plant breeding and research in New Zealand, as well as the conservation of national endangered species. Collections play an important role in international plant conservation.
The grassland collections are very important because New Zealand’s export economy is based predominantly on pasture, and almost all pasture plants are native to other countries. Pasture species must be changed as problems arise, e.g. new pests, climate warming, etc. The Germplasm Centre provides a biological economy with insurance against future problems arising from environmental changes.
Irish Wasp v. the Clover Root Weevil
AgResearch scientists figured out how to kill clover weevils using Irish wasps, saving New Zealand an estimated half a billion dollars and counting.
The estimates also show that the benefits of the introduction of the wasp to control the highly destructive clover root weevil are expected to continue at an ongoing rate of at least $158 million per year. The total estimated benefit of the biological control programme from 2006 – when the imported wasp was first released in an experimental phase – through to Dec 2016 is at least $489m. This is based on reduced production losses on sheep and beef farms, and reduced use of urea fertiliser to compensate for damage from the weevil.
“It’s a fantastic example of how our science is making a real and profound difference to our agricultural sector and economy,” says Science Team Leader Alison Popay. “It’s also a real success story in the continuing battle against pests on New Zealand’s farms.”
The clover root weevil is an invasive pest from the northern hemisphere that feeds on clover. It was first detected in New Zealand in 1996, and such was the damage it could cause, a 2005 study predicted estimated that without control, the weevil could cut farm margins by 10 to 15 per cent.
AgResearch started a research and development programme in 1996, and after testing to ensure its safety, the Irish wasp was cleared for release in New Zealand in 2005. The wasp injects its eggs in the adult root weevil, and the resulting grubs inside the weevil render it infertile. Once fully grown, the grub kills the weevil as it eats its way out. One wasp can kill about 85 clover root weevils.
“The wasp was so successful the team found that it reduced weevil populations by around 90 per cent in monitored areas where the wasp is well established,” Dr Popay says.
Genetic discovery leads to more lambs
AgResearch achieved a major world first by discovering the gene in Inverdale sheep that causes them to be more prolific.
Discovery of this sheep gene, which has a major impact on fertility, not only has a huge impact on New Zealand’s sheep farms but also has very exciting potential for human fertility and opens up major opportunities for further scientific discoveries.
A group of AgResearch scientists led by Dr Sue Galloway discovered that mutations in a specific gene, known as GDF9B, influences prolificacy. Female sheep with one copy of the mutation have increased fertility (i.e. ovulation rate) whereas those with two copies of the mutation are actually infertile. The discovery is an ideal example of the life sciences in action and of New Zealand moving from a traditional agricultural base into the knowledge economy, said Dr Galloway.
Internationally, this discovery is a major scientific coup which put New Zealand firmly at the forefront of sheep gene research. The discovery enables AgResearch to develop an exact gene test which will identify fertile carrier ewes and rams.
The gene is a natural way for sheep farmers to increase on-farm productivity by producing more lambs from the same number of ewes. It is the first time ever a gene has been discovered acting directly to increase egg production on the ovary rather than through the pituitary gland in the brain. This in itself is a major scientific discovery and one that opens a whole new branch of research and opportunity.
AgResearch scientists had previously recognised that a significant gene, named Inverdale, was having a big impact on prolificacy in some research flocks, and this has formed the basis of the research leading up to the discovery. AgResearch scientist George Davis’ careful breeding work, observation and monitoring of the Inverdale gene, with assistance from two enlightened farmers, had already made it possible to map the position of the gene on the X chromosome using genetic markers.
The recent discovery means AgResearch scientists have now proven the GDF9B gene, already discovered in humans and mice, is what has been producing the Inverdale effect in their research flocks.
Mapping the Inverdale gene, along with other sheep genes, has established the AgResearch Molecular Biology Unit, based in the Department of Biochemistry at Otago University, as a world leader in sheep gene mapping and discovery.
Next generation nutritious ryegrass
Grasses of the future being developed by AgResearch scientists are expected to result in healthier animals, better production on the farm, and less impact on the environment.
A recent grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund, along with funding from AgResearch and other stakeholders, means an investment of $25 million over five years into the genetically modified forages research.
“What we are doing is enhancing the ryegrass so that there is more energy and nutrition stored in the grass,” says AgResearch Forage Science Group Leader Dr Tony Connor. “This means the animals feeding on it are healthier, and therefore they become better producers for the farm. The result will be a major boost for the agricultural economy. What we are also finding is that a by-product of these changes to the grass will be important gains as far as the impacts on the environment. This includes less methane gas produced by the animals, and the change in nitrogen requirements with these grasses could reduce nitrate runoff.”
Sheep milk benefits gut health
AgResearch has shown sheep milk has real benefits for gut health as New Zealand’s industry continues to expand its base and reach to the world. New Zealand now boasts more than 30,000 sheep for milking at 16 different producers, providing quality sheep milk products to overseas markets, and a distinctive New Zealand dairy sheep breed, Dairymeade, has recently been registered.
At the 2017 Sheep Milk New Zealand Conference, scientists from AgResearch, Massey University, University of Otago and Callaghan Innovation presented the latest research into sheep milk, including science made possible by a $6m fund from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
“While sheep milk and products from it like cheese may still seem an unusual concept to many New Zealanders, its qualities are already well recognised around the world,” says AgResearch scientist Linda Samuelsson.
“There are a number of pieces of research being presented at the conference that further underline the benefits sheep milk has to offer when it comes to nutrition and digestion, and how we can enhance milk production. For example, in a study using rats we found that sheep milk-made-solids pass through the animals’ systems rapidly – which we’d expect would mean improved gut comfort, reduced constipation and general improvement for a sluggish gut. In another study with rats, sheep milk proteins were more readily digested than cow milk proteins, with higher levels of essential amino acids. A further study shows a major waste stream from sheep cheese – whey – has the potential to be processed into a stable base ingredient for beverages or soup stocks under controlled circumstances.”
Associate Professor Craig Prichard, from Massey University, says aside from the health benefits, there is exciting potential for the development of innovative new sheep milk products such as cheeses. “We know the sheep milk products have distinctive characteristics depending on what region of New Zealand they come from, so there is a real opportunity to develop some really distinctive regional offerings that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.”