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Prestigious Marsden Fund backs world-class Otago research

Clocktower.

Tuesday 4 November 2014 12:50pm

Professor Richard Blaikie
Professor Richard Blaikie

University of Otago researchers have gained more than $13.9M in new government funding to pursue 22 world-class research projects at the forefront of their disciplines.

Their innovative projects are being supported through the Royal Society of New Zealand-administered Marsden Fund, which is regarded as a hallmark of excellence that allows the country’s best researchers to explore their ideas and showcase them internationally.

Researchers from across the University’s divisions of Health Sciences, Humanities and Sciences will lead the new projects, which include 16 standard projects and six ‘Fast-Start’ projects designed to support outstanding researchers early in their careers.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie warmly congratulated Otago’s latest Marsden recipients, who together gained one-quarter of the $55.65M available in this year’s round. In total, 101 contracts were distributed among six universities, two CRIs and three other research institutes.

“I am delighted by these researchers’ success in what is an extremely competitive funding round. Nationally, only 8.3 percent of the 1222 preliminary proposals received were ultimately funded,” says Professor Blaikie.

The Fund’s backing of proposals developed by staff across diverse disciplines at the University reflects the breadth and depth of Otago’s research effort, he says.

The new projects are being led by researchers from the University’s Departments of Anatomy, Anthropology &Archaeology, Applied Sciences, Biochemistry, Botany, Geology, History & Art History, Mathematics & Statistics, Microbiology & Immunology, its National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Pathology (Christchurch), Physiology, and Zoology.

Professor Blaikie says the researchers’ investigations cover a broad range of topics within the mathematical, physical, environmental, biological, biomedical and social sciences.

One project will focus on unlocking the 80-million-year-old secrets of New Zealand’s flora and fauna by making opaque kauri amber transparent to reveal the fossilised life within.

Several projects involve investigations at the frontiers of neuroscience, including studying impairment-causing changes in brain cell connectivity after strokes, the potential role of the so-called ‘love hormone’ oxytocin in blocking stress hormone release, and delving into the function of a newly identified neuronal circuit involved in the brain’s regulation of fertility.

Another will provide the first comprehensive analysis of the history and use of the coconut as a commodity in the Pacific. The study will explore the impacts of the production and consumption of this versatile natural product upon individual communities and their culture, and economies and environment within the Pacific and beyond.

The six ‘Fast-Starts’ going to Otago early-career researchers include projects that explore native and introduced fish interactions, earthquake fault mechanisms, and how Maori adapted their traditional Pacific dress forms to suit their new home in Aotearoa.

Also included among the fast-starts is a study of the sensing proteins the Kiwifruit pathogen Psa uses to detect specific chemicals in its environment.

Otago’s Marsden recipients

  • Evolution equations with memory and random fluctuations
    Dr Boris Baeumer (Mathematics & Statistics) $565,000
    Other Principal Investigator: Dr Mihaly Kovacs (Mathematics & Statistics)
  • Pushed to the limits: investigating the significance of agricultural transfers and innovation in southern Polynesian colonisation
    Associate Professor Ian Barber (Anthropology and Archaeology) $720,000
  • Constant coconuts: a history of a versatile commodity in the Pacific world
    Professor Judy Bennett (History and Art History) $710,000
  • Functional and morphological dissection of a plastic neuroendocrine circuit
    Dr Stephen Bunn (Anatomy) $773,000
  • Functional dissection of a novel GABAergic pathway in the brain circuitry controlling fertility
    Dr Rebecca Campbell (Physiology, Centre for Neuroendocrinology) $820,000
  • Memory impairments after stroke, a stressful condition
    Dr Andrew Clarkson (Anatomy) $773,000
  • Mapping neuroplasticity in the brain
    Associate Professor Ruth Empson (Physiology) $820,000
  • Primed for action: bacterial adaptive immunity
    Dr Peter Fineran (Microbiology & Immunology) $773,000
  • Borrowing from nature’s library: fundamental insights into molecular recognition by chemoreceptors
    Dr Monica Gerth (Biochemistry) $300,000 (Fast-Start)
  • Transitions in prehistory: subsistence and health change in northern Chile
    Dr Sian Halcrow (Anatomy) $720,000
  • Redox regulation of cell death
    Associate Professor Mark Hampton (Pathology, Christchurch) $815,000
  • The evolution of the functional diversity of forests
    Professor Steven Higgins (Botany) $808,000
    Other Principal Investigator: Associate Professor David Bryant (Mathematics and Statistics)
  • The causes and consequences of multidimensional individual specialisation in freshwater fish
    Dr Travis Ingram (Zoology) $300,000 (Fast-Start)
  • Oxytocin: a safety brake preventing excessive activation of the stress axis
    Dr Karl Iremonger (Physiology) $300,000 (Fast-Start)
  • A new politics of peace? Investigations in contemporary pacifism and nonviolence
    Professor Richard Jackson (National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies) $595,000
  • Captured in amber: ecological complexity in New Zealand's ancient araucarian forests
    Associate Professor Daphne Lee (Geology) $810,000
    Other Principal Investigator: Dr Dallas Mildenhall (GNS Science)
  • Making war or babies: division of labour and social evolution in parasites
    Professor Robert Poulin (Zoology) $790,000
  • Are genetic shifts in dispersal ability key to resolving the “paradox of the great speciators”?
    Dr Bruce Robertson (Zoology) $808,000
    Other Principal Investigator: Dr Sonya Clegg (University of Oxford, UK)
  • Dressing for survival and success: what pre-European Maori wore for adaptive realisation
    Dr Catherine Smith (Applied Sciences) $300,000 (Fast-Start)
  • Slow creep or fast rupture in faults? Linking nature and experiment to understand the earthquake source
    Dr Steven Smith (Geology) $300,000 (Fast-Start)
  • Developing inversion methods for non-stationary thinning of point processes
    Dr Ting Wang (Mathematics & Statistics) $300,000 (Fast-Start)
  • Use it or lose it: unravelling the genetic basis of flight-loss in New Zealand's alpine insects
    Professor Jon Waters (Zoology) $808,000

Project Summaries:

Evolution equations with memory and random fluctuations

Dr Boris Baeumer (Mathematics & Statistics)
$565,000
Tel 64 3 479 7763
Email bbaeumer@maths.otago.ac.nz
Other Principal Investigator: Dr Mihaly Kovacs (Mathematics & Statistics)

Evolution equations with memory are commonly used to forecast the behaviour of a complex system such as subsurface transport and storage of carbon dioxide or nitrate, or the spread of an epidemic. Due to storage or incubation time, a common feature is that the history of the system still influences the present ("memory"). It is known that random external forces such as rain or temperature fluctuations can have a large effect. However, what exact conditions can cause a large effect or their likelihood is unknown.

To gain a better understanding of this problem, we will study stochastic semi-linear partial differential equations with memory using recently developed techniques from infinite dimensional analysis. In particular, we will establish well-posedness of these equations and study the regularity properties of their solutions. We will develop numerical approximation techniques and prove convergence with convergence rates. This will gauge the power of the numerical algorithm and ensure its reliability. We will consider both external additive noise and stochastic reaction rates as sources for uncertainty.

This research will help quantify the uncertainty inherent to the system; that is, quantify the influence of measurement error or the environmental stochasticity and hence quantify the predictive power of the governing differential equations.

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Pushed to the limits: investigating the significance of agricultural transfers and innovation in southern Polynesian colonisation

Associate Professor Ian Barber (Anthropology and Archaeology)
$720,000
Tel 64 3 479 8758
Email ian.barber@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Professor Richard Barker (Mathematics and Statistics)

This research is concerned with a profound, unresolved problem in New Zealand archaeology: what role did introduced tropical crops and agricultural technologies play in the colonisation of southern Polynesia, including the Chatham Islands? The adaptation of plant production systems and the seasonal acclimatisation of tropical Asia-Pacific and American crops at Oceania's coldest, southernmost limits represents an extraordinary component of New Zealand Polynesian colonisation. Evidence of this includes the southern-most world records of wet cultivation (far northern New Zealand) and dry sweet potato cultivation (East Coast South Island) respectively. There is rigorous debate about when, where and why these practices began or ceased, and their importance in anchoring colonisation compared to hunting-foraging. Our project defines competing 'foraging-driven' and 'agronomy-anchored' colonisation models. The latter model assumes that early Polynesian cultivators were motivated both to reproduce social systems and satisfy subsistence needs. This model is tested from GIS analyses of archaeological plant production and settlement relationships, new radiocarbon dates for agronomic innovations and land use, and environmental change data from climatically sensitive, production-threshold regions. We will discover the chronologies, technologies and sociocultural as well as economic contributions of New Zealand's first, agricultural products and systems in the colonisation process.

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Constant coconuts: a history of a versatile commodity in the Pacific world

Professor Judy Bennett (History and Art History)
$710,000
Tel 64 3 479 8607
Email judy.bennett@otago.ac.nz

Within the humid tropics, along the shorelines of atolls and high islands, the coconut palm flourishes, providing food, medicines, cosmetics, and household items for myriad Pacific societies. Yet no commodity history of the coconut exists. As a pathway to understanding globalisation, this research will analyse how from c.l840 onwards, products from the "nut" became commodities, how their production and consumption affected individual communities, power relations, mobility, culture, economies, and environment within the Pacific world and beyond. It will consider why, for most Island societies, the coconut became often the sole export staple, and the consequences of such dependency. A key focus is the fluctuating relationship between production and natural conditions, such as rainfall, as well as external challenges, such as declining markets, which tested indigenous agency. Recently, the coconut's value as a source of biofuel and health and beauty products has significantly revived production. While the distant past is mainly recorded in archives, this network of producers, marketers, governments, and consumers is accessible to ethnographic methods, such as extended observation. The planned book will combine two perspectives: a) commodity chain analysis to trace economic and social linkages; b) ethnographic investigation. Archival and other documentary research will provide evidence for both.

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Functional and morphological dissection of a plastic neuroendocrine circuit

Dr Stephen Bunn (Anatomy)
$773,000
Tel 64 479 7366
Email stephen.bunn@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Professor David Grattan (Anatomy), Professor Brian Hyland (Physiology)

Many neurons undergo reversible adaptation or 'plasticity' to allow them to meet altered physiological demands. This project focuses on a population of hypothalamic dopaminergic neurons (TIDA neurons), which provide a dramatic demonstration of such plasticity during lactation. These neurons normally inhibit prolactin secretion from the pituitary, but during lactation alter their behaviour to facilitate its release. This remarkable adaptation is essential for lactation but the mechanisms responsible are unknown. A recently available transgenic rat expressing Cre-recombinase in its dopaminergic neurons will enable us to effectively address this significant physiological issue, and thereby provide an original insight into an under-explored form of neuroplasticity. Stereotaxic injection of viral vectors carrying ere-dependent indicators into the brains of these animals will be used to meet three interrelated objectives. First, expression of channel-rhodopsin in the TIDA neurons will facilitate the first ever recording of their in vivo activity, allowing lactation-association adaptations to be followed. Second, alterations in the connectivity between multiple TIDA neurons will be determined using a ERE-dependent Ca2+-indicator. Finally, lactation-associated alteration to TIDA neuron morphology will be examined using a ERE-dependent 'Brainbow' vector. This project will therefore provide a comprehensive, multilevel insight into the mechanisms underlying this physiologically important example of neuronal plasticity.

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Functional dissection of a novel GABAergic pathway in the brain circuitry controlling fertility

Dr Rebecca Campbell (Physiology, Centre for Neuroendocrinology)
$820,000
Tel 64 3 479 7343
Email rebecca.campbell@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Professor Allan Herbison (Physiology, Centre for Neuroendocrinology)

Fertility is controlled by a network of neurons within the brain. Our recent morphological studies have identified a surprising new neuronal circuit within this network that, additionally, is altered in a mouse model of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), the most common form of female infertility. We propose here a series of functional studies using the most advanced technical approaches in neuroscience that will characterise the role of this novel neuronal pathway in the regulation of fertility. As this pathway is implicated in the aetiology of PCOS, a full understanding of its function may provide new insights into the treatment of this condition in the clinic.

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Memory impairments after stroke, a stressful condition

Dr Andrew Clarkson (Anatomy)
$773,000
Tel 64 3 479 7326
Email andrew.clarkson@anatomy.otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Associate Professor Ruth Empson (Physiology), Dr Kristin Hillman (Psychology)

Stroke induces impairments in motor and cognitive function with recovery being challenging and very stressful. The prefrontal cortex plays a critical role in memory processes and a stroke to this region results in delayed onset memory impairments. This brain region also plays a role in anxiety and depression. Using animal models our research group will investigate the underlying cause of post-stroke memory impairments and how stress impairs the brains ability to re-organise and communicate with other brain regions. This is significant in the context of stroke recovery as remodelling of connections within the brain is fundamental for recovery.

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Mapping neuroplasticity in the brain

Associate Professor Ruth Empson (Physiology)
$820,000
Tel 64 3 479 7464
Email ruth.empson@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Dr Andrew Clarkson (Anatomy), Professor Thomas Knopfel (Imperial College, University of London)

The brain contains millions of nerve cells connected together to create densely packed networks much like the streets of a big city. Like city streets, the brain's connection networks have the capacity to change throughout life and in response to brain injury such as a stroke, a phenomenon called "neuroplasticity". Here we aim to use exciting new imaging technology to map neuroplasticity in a specific brain network that is critical for goal-directed movement, and often damaged in stroke. Our findings could help identify how network neuroplasticity can be harnessed for brain self-repair and so drive innovation of brain rehabilitation strategies.

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Primed for action: bacterial adaptive immunity

Dr Peter Fineran (Microbiology & Immunology)
$773,000
Tel 64 3 479 7735
Email peter.fineran@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Dr Stan Brouns (University of Wageningen), Dr Chris Brown (Biochemistry)

The interactions between bacteria and their 'parasites', such as viruses and plasmids, underpin global nutrient cycles, the evolution of pathogens and antibiotic resistance. Bacteria and archaea protect themselves using an adaptive immune system, termed CRISPR-Cas, which has a sequence-specific genetic memory of previous invaders. This memory produces short interfering RNAs that specifically target and destroy invaders. Recently, CRISPR-Cas systems have revolutionised precision genome editing and have, for example, enabled the correction of genetic defects in adult mice. Despite this stunning technological advance, fundamental knowledge is lacking about how memories are derived from invaders. We recently showed that the memory formation process is very robust, and capable of rapidly eliciting new protective memories when facing invaders that were heavily mutated following previous encounters. Exactly how these memories with partial recognition stimulate new memory formation is unknown. We have developed a CRISPR bioinformatic suite to enable accurate identification of the genetic memories and their targets. Using these tools, and our highly active experimental system, we will test our mechanistic model of rapid memory generation and determine if this process is universal to multiple CRISPR-Cas systems. Understanding these systems will have broad implications for biotechnology and prokaryotic evolution.

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Borrowing from nature’s library: fundamental insights into molecular recognition by chemoreceptors

Dr Monica Gerth (Biochemistry)
Fast-Start - $300,000
Tel 64 3 479 7936
Email monica.gerth@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Professor Geoffrey Jameson (Massey University)

Linus Pauling once remarked that "the secret of life is molecular recognition; the ability of one molecule to 'recognize' another through weak bonding interactions." Understanding the high-specificity, high-affinity recognition of ligands by proteins remains a fundamental challenge in biochemistry. The ligand binding domains (LBDs) of bacterial chemoreceptor proteins are excellent models for addressing this challenge. Genome sequencing has revealed thousands of LBDs in bacterial chemotaxis systems, however only a handful have been characterised. We will use a new and generalizable high-throughput screen to identify to characterise the complete LBD repertoire of Psa- a plant pathogen with a complex chemosensory system. By combining biochemical and structural characterisation of selected LBDs, we will gain atomic-level insights into the basis of their exquisite recognition. Furthermore, we will use directed evolution- which mimics and accelerates evolution in vitro -to explore the routes by which recognition of new chemicals can emerge in nature. Together, these experiments will improve our understanding of how proteins selectively bind ligands, and how this process evolves. Ultimately, this will enable the design of new binding proteins that are specific for ligands of choice, which will have wide-ranging applications in biosensor development, targeted therapeutics, and synthetic biology.

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Transitions in prehistory: subsistence and health change in northern Chile

Dr Sian Halcrow (Anatomy)
$720,000
Tel 64 3 479 5265
Email sian.halcrow@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Dr Bernardo Arriaza (Universidad de Tarapaca, Chile), Dr Vivien Standen (Universidad de Tarapaca, Chile), Dr Andrew Millard (Durham University, UK)

The transition to agriculture marks a critical tipping point in history, precipitating a radical departure from the preceding 2.5 million years of human life. This newly acquired mode of sustenance affected every facet of society including social complexity, technological innovation and settlement patterns. Human skeletal remains provide the only direct evidence for assessing responses to the development of agriculture. Despite the advantages of food security, the model of prehistoric health change during this transition posits that there was a universal negative effect on human well-being. However, recent work indicates that the patterns of biological response to the development of agriculture are far more complex than originally thought. We now have an unparalleled opportunity to test this model of health change with exceptionally large and well-preserved skeletal samples in northern Chile. We will strengthen the model of health change by documenting dietary and health evidence, employing new approaches to study diet and a comprehensive array of accepted macroscopic methods. This project represents a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the origin and complex processes of human biological changes during a seminal event in history, one that has far-reaching consequences for our society today.

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Redox regulation of cell death

Associate Professor Mark Hampton (Pathology, Christchurch)
$815,000
Tel 64 3 364 0009
Email mark.hampton@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Dr James Murphy (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia), Dr Vikas Kumar (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, India), Professor Guy Salvesen (The Burnham Institute for Medical Research, USA)
Multicellular organisms have carefully regulated death programs to remove damaged or unwanted cells. Faults in these programs contribute to human disease. Apoptosis is the best-studied cell death program, and drugs have been designed to promote apoptosis in cancer cells. Necroptosis is a newly recognised cell death program, and little is understood about the cellular changes that occur upon activation. Our preliminary data indicate increased oxidation of specific cellular proteins and a dramatic loss in mitochondrial function during the early stages of necroptosis. This project will use newly-developed technology to unravel the details of these redox changes and their significance in the initiation and regulation of necroptosis. We will also determine if the sensitivity of cells to necroptosis can be promoted or inhibited by genetic and pharmacological modification of the antioxidant pathways of cells.

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The evolution of the functional diversity of forests

Professor Steven Higgins (Botany)
$808,000
Tel 64 3 479 9146
Email steven.higgins@otago.ac.nz
Other Principal Investigator: Associate Professor David Bryant (Mathematics and Statistics)
Associate Investigator: Professor Thomas Hickler (Goethe University Frankfurt/Main)

The study of biodiversity is biased towards species diversity even though functional diversity, the diversity of roles that species play, is fundamental to human welfare and earth system functioning. A paradox is that species diversification does not necessarily lead to an increase in functional diversity since an increase in species number can be supported by packing more species into a fixed niche volume and by expanding a niche volume. We will study conifer and angiosperm forest tree lineages and expose the mechanisms by which niche geometry and trait evolution interact to determine the evolution of functional diversity.

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The causes and consequences of multidimensional individual specialisation in freshwater fish

Dr Travis Ingram (Zoology)
$300,000 (Fast-Start)
Tel 64 3 479 7991
Email travis.ingram@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Dr Marcio Araujo (Universidade Estadual Paulista, Brazil)

Every individual in a population is unique, and differences in resource use among individuals can have important consequences for ecosystems. Ecological niches encompass numerous resources such as diet and habitat, but we know little about how individuals differ in multiple ecological dimensions. We will use emerging methods to measure individual resource use in New Zealand freshwater fish, and to calculate the extent and dimensionality of niche variation. We will focus on interactions between native common bullies and introduced perch in wetland ponds. We will ask whether niche variation in bullies responds to the introduction of perch, and how the effect of perch compares to other habitat characteristics. We will then test whether knowing the ecological dimensions in which individuals are most variable is important for predicting how a population's resource use will shift in response to environmental change. Finally, we will ask whether the effect that a population has on its ecosystem depends on whether individuals use similar resources or differ in one or in multiple ecological dimensions. We predict that knowing the dimensions of variation among individuals will be essential for understanding how species interact with their environments.

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Oxytocin: a safety brake preventing excessive activation of the stress axis

Dr Karl Iremonger (Physiology)
Fast-Start - $300,000
Tel 64 3479 5210
Email karl.iremonger@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Dr Valery Grinevich (University of Heidelberg, Germany)
Mentor: Professor Allan Herbison (Physiology, Centre for Neuroendocrinology)

Uncontrolled stress hormone release is detrimental to health. In particular, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones can lead to both neurological and metabolic diseases. While activation of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons enhances stress hormone release, the neural circuits preventing excessive stress hormone secretion are unclear. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is released within the brain that acts to reduce anxiety and regulate social behaviour. Oxytocin is also released within the hypothalamus during stress where it acts to inhibit the stress response. Oxytocin neurons are in close proximity to CRH neurons and it is our hypothesis that local oxytocin release acts as a safety brake to prevent excessive CRH neuron activation. To address this hypothesis, we will use electrophysiology to determine how oxytocin regulates the excitability of CRH neurons in brain slices from mice. We will also use optogenetics to induce endogenous oxytocin release within hypothalamic brain slices. Finally, we will study how exposure to stress modifies oxytocin signalling onto CRH neurons. This current proposal will advance our limited understanding of how stress axis excitability is controlled by local circuits within the hypothalamus. This information may provide useful therapeutic targets for modulating stress axis output and therefore stress hormone release.

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A new politics of peace? Investigations in contemporary pacifism and nonviolence

Professor Richard Jackson (National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies)
$595,000
Te; 64 3471 6461
Email richard.jackson@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Dr Jeremy Moses (University of Canterbury)

Pacifism and nonviolence can be a highly successful and viable approach to political reform, and has the potential to form the basis for civilian national defence, nonviolent peacekeeping and a peaceful political order. Yet, few scholars have attempted to understand the discursive and theoretical basis of public, political and academic understandings of nonviolence and pacifism, or its consequences for policies related to national defence and war, international relations, war memorialisation and political culture more generally. This study is the first systematic exploration of the social, political and academic discourses of nonviolence and pacifism, and the nature and consequences of its current status as a form of 'subjugated knowledge' in contemporary society. It will offer new insights and understanding of why nonviolence and pacifism remains a form of subjugated knowledge, despite its well-documented successes, and fill an important research gap in the current literature on nonviolent movements. More importantly, it will have genuine normative potential for peace workers seeking to transform violent cultures and build positive peace, indigenous communities seeking to de-subjugate traditional forms of knowledge, and scholars and practitioners of international relations and foreign policy seeking to reintroduce pacifism as a legitimate form of political theory into international politics.

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Captured in amber: ecological complexity in New Zealand's ancient araucarian forests

Associate Professor Daphne Lee (Geology)
$810,000
Tel 64 3 479 7525
Email daphne.lee@otago.ac.nz
Other Principal Investigator: Dr Dallas Mildenhall (GNS Science)
Associate Investigators: Dr Alexander Schmidt (University of Goettingen, Germany), Dr John Conran (University of Adelaide), Dr Elizabeth Kennedy (GNS Science), Dr Jon Lindqvist (Geology)

Iconic araucarian forests have an 80 million-year-long history in New Zealand, determined from pollen and plant macrofossils. But, the fossil record is silent about the rarely-preserved but diverse, distinctive, fragile, mainly soft-bodied organisms such as arthropods and fungi that comprise 95% of biodiversity in forest ecosystems. Widespread amber (kauri resin) is a valuable archive that is abundant in coal and other sediments. However, New Zealand amber is opaque and was previously thought to be devoid of fossils. Using a special technique to restore its transparency, we have discovered exquisite 3-dimensionally-preserved organisms such as nematodes, spiders and their webs, pseudoscorpions, mites, springtails, midges, wasps, ants, beetles, bark lice, moths or butterflies and many types of fungi from amber collected during a pilot study. These groups play essential roles in modern forests but their evolutionary history in New Zealand is largely unknown. Our aim is to explore and integrate data on the biota captured in amber with research on modern kauri forests to reconstruct their history. The initial discoveries show remarkable ecological complexity and demonstrate the potential of the amber biota to revolutionize our understanding of the role of evolution, extinction and environmental change in the formation of New Zealand's forest ecosystems.

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Making war or babies: division of labour and social evolution in parasites

Professor Robert Poulin (Zoology)
$790,000
Tel 64 3 479 7983
Email robert.poulin@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Professor Laurent Keller (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)
Division of labour is a cornerstone of all complex modular systems, and the key to their efficiency and resilience. Among living organisms, division of labour is epitomised by social insects like ants and termites, which consist of a reproductive caste and other castes performing different functions. Yet relationships between colony fitness, functional specialisation and the evolution of sociality are still unresolved. Division of labour has recently been discovered in parasitic flatworms, which form clonal colonies within their hosts comprising distinct reproductive and soldier castes. These colonies face intense competition from other parasite species for control of host resources. Using these social parasites as a simple model system, we will test fundamental hypotheses regarding the evolution of complex, multi-caste societies. With in-vivo and in-vitro experiments, we will explore kin and enemy recognition, communication between castes, behavioural plasticity within castes, and the factors driving shifts in caste ratios within colonies. Our research on this new system will elucidate key evolutionary forces shaping social structure and division of labour.

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Are genetic shifts in dispersal ability key to resolving the “paradox of the great speciators”?

Dr Bruce Robertson (Zoology)
$808,000
Te 64 3 479 4110
Email bruce.robertson@otago.ac.nz
Other Principal Investigator: Dr Sonya Clegg (University of Oxford, UK)
Associate Investigator: Professor Ian Owens (The British Natural History Museum)
The "paradox of the great speciators" has puzzled evolutionary biologists for over half a century. A great speciator requires excellent dispersal ability to explain wide distributions, but reduced dispersal ability to explain high numbers of divergent, isolated forms. Rapidly changing dispersal abilities are assumed, but identifying a mechanism has proved elusive. We take a novel approach by examining genetic changes at "migration" genes in a great speciator (the Zosterops white-eyes). These genes were recently shown to switch migrants into year-round residents. These genetic switches may simultaneously affect dispersal and behavioural characteristics within populations and individuals leading to differentiation of populations, potentially leading to speciation. The white-eyes are an ideal study system as they contain over 80 species that have differentiated over hundreds to hundreds of thousands of years. They also display varying dispersal ability along the continuum from migratory to resident, with some populations containing both migrating and non-migrating individuals, allowing us to examine the genetic switches at the level of the population and individual. Our study will be the first to address the role that evolutionary shifts in genes associated with dispersal ability play in speciation and provide a resolution to an enduring paradox.

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Dressing for survival and success: what pre-European Maori wore for adaptive realisation

Dr Catherine Smith (Applied Sciences)
Fast-Start - $300,000
Tel 64 3 479 7548
Email catherine.smith@otago.ac.nz
Mentor: Professor Richard Walter (Anthropology and Archaeology)

New Zealand was the last landmass colonised by humans. Study of the earliest New Zealand colonists is not only evidence of a remarkable migration from tropical Polynesia, it provides an unrivalled vision of the impact of a foreign environment on culture change. The shift to a colder climate meant the survival of Maori relied on exploitation of unknown plants and transformation of Pacific textile technologies. Early Maori clothing must have been among the first modifications to established Polynesian material culture, yet is largely unstudied. What is the relationship between Pacific clothing and the emergence of indigenous Maori dress? Early Maori textiles in museums are evidence of the radical and explosive culture change that took place after arrival in New Zealand. The study of early Maori dress artefacts (tapa, raranga cloaks), using a co-ordinated suite of innovative and internationally-proven analytical techniques that draw on established research relationships, will plainly illustrate how new plants and climate impacted on clothing. In doing so the creativity and ingenuity with which the first New Zealanders adapted to new conditions is made manifest, relationships to traditional Pacific dress forms are revealed, and the place of textiles in the emergence of indigenous Maori culture acknowledged.

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Slow creep or fast rupture in faults? Linking nature and experiment to understand the earthquake source

Dr Steven Smith (Geology)
Fast-Start - $300,000
Tel 64 3 479 7515
Email steven.smith@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Associate Professor Giulio Di Toro (University of Padua), Associate Professor Cristiano Collettini (Sapienza University of Rome), Dr Stefan Nielsen (Durham University, UK)
Mentor: Professor David Prior (Geology)

Catastrophic earthquakes occur when active faults move abruptly, but many active faults also slip or creep slowly without causing damage. Examining rocks along fault planes in the Earth’s crust is a powerful way to study the complex physical and chemical processes that control this diversity in slip behavior. However, critical information on fault dynamics remains hidden because of our inability to link the structures we see in rocks to a particular slip style (creep or rupture). Using two powerful fault simulators, we will produce a unique suite of laboratory fault rocks over the entire spectrum of slip rates relevant to the seismic cycle. State-of-the-art microanalysis in the Scanning Electron Microscope, combined with numerical modeling, will be used to characterize the microstructures and deformation mechanisms in the laboratory fault rocks at nanometer to micron scales, and to compare laboratory fault rocks to natural examples of active and ancient rupture zones in the Earth. Our results will provide a quantitative microstructural framework for the distinction between fast and slow deformation in fault rupture zones, opening the door to a wealth of new information on the seismic cycle and contributing to a more complete understanding of hazard in seismically active areas.

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Developing inversion methods for non-stationary thinning of point processes

Dr Ting Wang (Mathematics & Statistics)
Fast-Start - $300,000
Tel 64 3 479 7773
Email twang@maths.otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigators: Associate Professor Jiancang Zhuang (Institute of Statistical Mathematics), Dr Koji Kiyosugi (University of Tokyo)
Mentor: Professor Richard Barker (Mathematics and Statistics)

The whole pattern of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle can be reconstructed when missing pieces are randomly dispersed. Can we restore original point patterns when missing data exist in the long-term records of point processes related to natural or social phenomena, such as earthquakes, crime and disease prevalence? The degree of completeness of these records varies dramatically. There are more missing data from early time periods compared to recent periods, and smaller events are more likely to be missing than substantial ones. Inversion reconstructs the original process, based on a record with incomplete observations. However, existing inversion methods have been limited to the cases where the probability of missing events is stationary. This project will develop analytical and numerical methods to inverse point processes with non-stationary missing probabilities, where the probability of missing an event depends on time and event size. Particularly, we will investigate two types of missing probabilities, one being a deterministic function of time and size, and the other a stochastic function also dependent on the history of the process. The methodology developed in this research will benefit the advancement of knowledge in probability theory and contribute to applications associated with missing data problems in point processes.

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Use it or lose it: unravelling the genetic basis of flight-loss in New Zealand's alpine insects

Professor Jon Waters (Zoology)
$808,000
Tel 64 3 479 5847
Email jon.waters@otago.ac.nz
Associate Investigator: Associate Professor Peter Dearden (University of Otago)

Evolution in reverse- the 'use it or lose it' principle- underpins much of the world's biological diversity, yet we know little about the genetic mechanisms underlying this key process. NZ's alpine habitats support a host of recently-evolved flightless insect lineages, providing a unique system for understanding how animals respond rapidly to new conditions. In particular, our extraordinary diversity of wing-reduced alpine stoneflies represents a natural laboratory for understanding how species form. We will use genomic techniques to test for 'speciation genes': the genetic changes that cause repeated losses of flight in high-altitude populations. We will also undertake comparative studies of winged and wingless species to help understand the biological consequences of flight loss.

For further information, contact:

Professor Richard Blaikie
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise)
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 8513
Email dvc.research@otago.ac.nz

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