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Tuesday 5 November 2019 9:42am

Lisa Matisoo-Smith image 2019
Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith.

University of Otago researchers are the recipients of an inaugural Marsden Fund Council Award worth $3 million to investigate genetic predisposition to metabolic diseases like diabetes and gout among Pacific people.

Principal investigators, Professors Tony Merriman and Lisa Matisoo-Smith and Dr Anna Gosling from Otago join Associate Professor Frank Camacho from the University of Guam and Dr Paul Pumuye of the University of Papua New Guinea and their team of researchers in the project.

They are one of two large interdisciplinary projects to receive the inaugural Marsden Fund Council Awards with the Marsden Fund (Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden) allocating a further $19 million to University of Otago researchers for another 31 projects.

Professor Merriman says he is delighted to receive the $3 million (excluding GST) award over three years. The aim of their project is to investigate genetic markers associated with metabolic diseases like diabetes and gout in Pacific people and how these diseases might have evolved.

Tony Merriman image 2019
Professor Tony Merriman.

“A central hypothesis is that the high rate of metabolic disease evolved through genetic selection by infectious disease, in particular malaria. The hyperuricaemic phenotype, a common factor in metabolic disease, may have evolved in Pacific ancestors as a protection against malaria,” Professor Merriman explains.

Professor Matisoo-Smith points out that the presence of skeletal evidence of metabolic disease being found in ancient burials across the Pacific clearly indicates that gout and diabetes is not solely the result of a “Westernised” diet and lifestyle, as it is often assumed.

Dr Gosling says the multi-disciplinary team aims to understand how there could have been historical benefits of genetic variants that now cause disease, which will provide insight into the prevalence of metabolic disease in Pacific populations.

“This project has the potential to change the erroneous and stigma-producing perspective that modern metabolic disease is purely caused by a modern lifestyle,” Dr Gosling says.

Anna Gosling image 2019
Dr Anna Gosling.

In total, 32 University of Otago projects received $22 million of the $83.6 million allocated to 125 research projects throughout the country.

University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says this is an excellent outcome for the University, particularly to have the honour of receiving one of the first major Marsden Fund Council Awards.

“This year has also seen many Otago researchers receive their first Marsden Fund awards, either a Fast Start early-career award, or a standard award as an established researcher. From my own experience, I know the transformative effect that the peer recognition and funding that are associated with being a Marsden Fund recipient can have. We wish all recipients – from both Otago and elsewhere – every success in their research endeavours.”

The successful Otago recipients are:

Standard Grants

Associate Professor Caroline Beck, Zoology

With a little help from my friends: how do symbiotic microorganisms influence regenerative outcomes?

All animals share their bodies with billions of microorganisms, collectively known as the microbiome. The composition of the microbiome is known to affect our health in many ways, from ability to digest foods, to risk of developing Alzheimer's. Recent evidence suggests it can also influence healing and regeneration in vertebrates. In tadpoles of the frog Xenopus, which can regenerate their spinal cord-containing tails, we have found evidence that skin bacteria are important. Through a combination of microbiome analysis, genetic engineering of Toll-like receptors, and manipulation of the skin microbiome, the research will establish both the mechanism of this response and the potential for cultivating a pro-regenerative microbial community. While this work is basic science in a model organism, this novel approach may have wide reaching implications for designing strategies for regenerative medicine in the future.

Professor Blair Blakie, Dr Danny Baillie, Physics

Binary magnetic gas – the next generation quantum-liquid

A gas is a weakly-interacting homogeneous phase of matter, and is completely understood by simple theory. Actually, not any more! Landmark experiments over the past three years have demonstrated a new regime of counter-intuitive liquid-like and even solid-like behaviour in ultra-dilute gases. In this project the researchers develop theory for the next generation of this system – the binary magnetic gas – a mixture of two magnetic fluids with rich intercomponent physics and controllable immiscibility. Their theory will predict a novel liquid-like droplet state and an exotic striped state. In the stiped state the two components of the gas spontaneously separate and self-organise into a set of interleaved fingers. They will study the organisation dynamics and explore if the striped phase realises an elusive supersolid state of matter. Working closely with the only experiment able to produce binary magnetic gases, they will help usher in a new era of exciting physics.

Dr Christopher Brown, Biochemistry

New Ways of Terminating Bacterial Gene Expression

A comprehensive understanding of how bacteria control gene expression is important for determining how they cause disease, and provides antibiotic targets. Correct termination of transcription is a critical step in gene expression. In bacteria, there are two established termination mechanisms. However, Dr Brown's analysis of new genome-wide data, and preliminary experimental data strongly suggest that transcription also terminates via one or more novel mechanisms. These mechanisms are likely to be more important in pathogens that lack one of the well-established mechanisms. Dr Brown and his team propose to investigate fully this novel way of stopping using a combination of bioinformatic, transcription assays, and genetic approaches in bacteria. Through this research, they expect to open up this new area of study, and potentially provide novel targets for antibiotics.

Professor Michael Colombo, Psychology

The code for visual objects in the avian brain: Advancing computer vision to rival a bird's eye view of the world

Computer vision is part of our daily life, and saves lives by detecting hazards in industrial workplaces and reducing or eliminating human errors in demanding tasks, such as driving vehicles. Most computer-vision software is based on the architecture of the primate visual system. Interestingly, the avian visual system is architecturally different from that of primates in that it is based on clustering rather than layering of neurons. As a result, the brains of birds contain as much as twice as many neurons as that of primates of the same mass. The result is that the avian system packs far more firepower than the primate visual system, and is possibly computationally more efficient than that of primates. Can we adopt this different, more effective architecture to improve computer vision? This Marsden grant will use a combination of the latest brain imaging technology and single-neuron recordings to explore the computational mechanisms underlying the processing of complex information (e.g. faces) in birds. Professor Colombo's team aim to bring New Zealand to the forefront of the biology: technology interface to facilitate the development of computer-vision architecture with mechanisms derived from the incredibly powerful avian visual system. The ultimate goal is to translate their discoveries into greatly enhanced computer-vision software.

Dr Tilman Davies, Mathematics & Statistics

A new generation of statistical models for spatial point process data

A dataset comprising the spatial locations of events or items of interest is called a spatial point pattern. Such data arise in myriad areas, as diverse as epidemiology, ecology, and archaeology. Typically, models for the distribution of such data incorporate two fundamental components, one relating to persistent spatial (fixed) effects and the other reflecting (stochastic) interactions between points, such as a tendency to cluster together. For example, for a pattern of disease cases the first component would relate to the variation in underlying population density while the latter could represent infectious transmission.

A fundamental task, with critical practical consequences, is to separate these components in the analysis of any given pattern. This is notoriously difficult because of a lack of identifiability: in most current models the two competing representations of spatial variation yield identical predictions, and therefore cannot be distinguished even with unlimited data. However, leveraging recent developments on some specific examples, allied to progress in related areas of statistics, Dr Davies' team will develop a new, comprehensive suite of flexible 'hybrid' models incorporating both components in an identifiable manner, overcoming a decades-long stalemate on progress. This will allow them to attack important research questions that have previously remained elusive.

Professor Jorg Frauendiener, Mathematics & Statistics

Gravitational waves from rotating black holes

The interaction between black holes and gravitational waves is still not completely understood and there are tantalising open questions that need an answer. One particular question is whether it is possible to deform a black hole to such an extreme that it would cease to be a black hole and transform into something else. Mathematically, this is about the stability of black holes, in particular of the class of black holes discovered by New Zealander Roy Kerr in 1963. One way to gain insights into this problem is to simulate a Kerr black hole that is deformed by bombarding it with gravitational waves. The Otago gravity group led by Professor Frauendiener has developed a powerful numerical framework for analysing situations like this where one needs to follow the development of a system for a long time and over large distances. The main ingredient which has not been used in other numerical approaches is the application of a powerful mathematical trick, which is rooted in conformal geometry: one can redefine what time and space mean without changing the physical properties of the simulated system. In this way the long time and distance scales become accessible to numerical treatments.

Associate Professor Barbara Galland, Women's & Children's Health, DSM
Professor Rachael Taylor, Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine

Sleep loss in children: perchance to eat?

The literature strongly suggests sleep loss in children promotes unhealthy eating, but 'how' this occurs is largely unknown. This team proposes a randomised, crossover experimental design to determine how sleep loss influences energy intake. Specifically, they will manipulate individual sleep patterns of 110 children aged 8-12 years so each child receives one week of sleep restriction (1h less time in bed than usual) and sleep extension (1h longer), with one week washout in between (resume normal sleep) whilst undertaking repeated assessments of outcomes of interest: eating in the absence of hunger within an ad libitum feeding experiment at the end of each experimental week; eating behaviours (appetite regulation, eating for reasons other than hunger); type, quantity and timing (24-hour recalls); context of eating including hidden eating (using novel wearable cameras) and desire for treat foods (computerised task). We will also determine if sleep loss changes energy balance through promoting more sedentary behaviour and less physical activity (7-day actigraphy/motion sensor). Collectively, this data will advance the understanding of the pathways by which sleep loss may change eating behaviours and appetite in children, leading to a cascade of effects on food choices, energy intake and weight gain.

Dr Paul Gardner, Biochemistry

Are molecular mis-interactions a major constraint on the evolution of cellular and genomic complexity?

Cellular genomes vary in size by six orders of magnitude. Bacteria can have genomes as tiny as 160 kilobases, whereas some plant genomes are as mighty as 150 gigabases. The large range of genome sizes, and the corresponding number of proteins and RNAs, leads to a combinatorial explosion of potential molecular mis-interactions in crowded cells. Recent theoretical research suggests that mis-interactions place major limits on protein and RNA sequence evolution, and selects for sequences that can avoid mis-interactions while still maintaining function. An efficient way to reduce the impact of mis-interactions is to compartmentalise cells. These compartments may have allowed the diversity of eukaryotes to increase and to exploit different environments. However, it is becoming apparent that many bacteria and viruses also use compartments. Dr Gardner's team hypothesise that subcellular compartments are essential for organisms to transition from small to large numbers of genes. They will test this hypothesis by identifying and characterising subcellular compartments from organisms covering a broad range of genome sizes and subcellular complexities. The best multi-disciplinary meta-analysis, bioinformatics, genetics and spatiotemporal cellular imaging techniques will be used to tackle this central question in evolutionary biology.

Professor David Grattan, Anatomy

Why do males have prolactin?

The aim of the proposal is to investigate the hormonal basis of parental behaviour in males. The role of fathers in promoting healthy development of their offspring is acknowledged, but just what is happening in the paternal brain during this important process is largely unknown. We aim to test the hypothesis that the pituitary hormone prolactin, which we have recently shown is critical for maternal behaviour, has an analogous function in the male. This would provide an explanation for the longstanding question about what this "lactation hormone" actually does in males.

Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, Dr Hauiti Hakopa, Physical Education

Te whai wawewawe ā Māuitikitiki-ā-Taranga: Revitalisation of Māori string figure knowledge and practice

Māori string figures are known as “whai”, from “te whai wawewawe ā Māuitikitiki-ā-Taranga” – to follow in the deft footsteps of the mythical hero Māui. Whai are a unique method used by many indigenous and Pacific Islands cultures to store, record and transmit cultural knowledge. There are over 500 whai patterns yet most current practitioners would struggle to produce 20, let alone know the individual chants, prayers and associated narratives embedded within whai. Today, whai is a culturally important art and knowledge system close to extinction. It was documented in 1927 that whai knowledge and practice was suffering significant loss. Since then, there has been no extensive examination of whai, let alone widespread use of it. Employing a kaupapa Māori approach, our all Māori research team will examine the knowledge system and practice of whai, develop best practice intergenerational transfer of whai knowledge and appropriate storage of whai knowledge for Aotearoa and the Pacific. Our work will be vital in revitalising this unique, complex mnemonic system that documents and transmits Māori knowledge and practice.

Associate Professor Niels Kjaergaard, Physics

Reactive Cold Collisions in Steerable Optical Tweezers

Chemical reactions are vitally important to our everyday lives, yet at a fundamental level they remain poorly understood. A chemical reaction is basically a collision where molecules form a new product. At room temperature, the observed pace at which this happens is an average over a large range of collision energies which blurs the picture of what is going on. Here the team study chemical reactions without any blurring: they prepare the reactants in specific quantum states and collide them at distinct and extremely well-defined energies. To do so, they harness separated, nanokelvin-cold molecular gas clouds in test tubes of light formed by optical tweezers - a tool that won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. By steering the optical tweezers, they can gently bump the tiny and frigid clouds together to induce reactive collisions and conduct a chemistry experiment just above zero absolute temperature. Here obscured effects become observable and quantum mechanical interference can profoundly enhance or suppress a process. They will measure reaction rates with unprecedented resolution focusing on elementary reactions that can be modeled with state-of-the-art theory. Their investigations in the ultracold domain will provide new insight into how more complex chemical reactions can be probed and controlled.

Professor Brent Lovelock, Tourism

"Bad nature": The social dimensions of invasive alien species and their management in New Zealand

New Zealand faces a huge ecological problem from invasive plants and animals spreading across the country impacting native species and landscapes – a problem expected to grow with climate change. Controlling invasive species, at a cost of NZ$1.4 billion annually, depends upon ongoing public awareness and support. However this is in question due to disagreement over what is 'good' or 'bad' nature. Some invasive species may be important for local communities e.g. for food, firewood, recreation or tourism, leading those communities to reject control programmes. Also, New Zealand is becoming more culturally diverse, but we know little about how Māori, Pasifika or recent migrants value invasive species, nor the views held by young New Zealanders. In this research Professor Lovelock's team explore these questions, investigating, within communities, the level of tolerance for invasive species and the level of support for their control. Four case-studies each explore peoples' values associated with a contentious invasive species: Wild pigs, Northland; Wilding conifers, Southern Lakes; Himalayan tahr, Southern Alps; and Koi carp and rudd, Waikato. This study will help understand how attitudes to invasive species are formed, and consequently how to generate support for their current and future management.

Associate Professor David Orlovich, Botany

Fruit body differentiation in mushrooms and truffle-like fungi

The repeated evolution of similar physiological and morphological traits occurs throughout life. This repeated appearance of similar phenotypes is likely to be governed by common genetic and cellular mechanisms. Identification of shared genetic pathways can reveal mechanisms underlying development of complex structures. The repeated parallel evolution of truffle-like fungi is an excellent model system in which to discover such common genetic mechanisms. Truffle-like fungi evolved independently many times to rely on animals to disperse their spores, rather than wind like their mushroom ancestors. Based on preliminary genomic analysis, this team hypothesise that switching from mushroom to truffle-like growth has occurred due to convergent changes to a small number of discrete genetic pathways. Comparative genomics and transcriptomics will be used to identify the hypothesised genetic alterations for the switch between mushrooms and truffles. They will test experimentally if these changes are sufficient to turn mushrooms into truffles in the laboratory using model truffle/mushroom species pairs. They will address crucial gaps in knowledge of the assembly of fruiting bodies and will improve understanding of convergent evolution within ecologically relevant organisms. The results will enable future hypotheses to be tested about the factors driving the evolution of truffle-like fruiting bodies.

Dr Glenn Reid, Dr Catherine Drummond Pathology, DSM

From friend to foe: How do cancer cells convert the p53 tumour suppressor gene into an oncogene?

Drug resistance in cancer was once thought to be solely due to the selection of pre-existing mutant cancer cells. However, the inability of molecularly targeted drugs to yield durable responses is now thought to be due to a small subpopulation of slow-cycling cells. These cells adapt to drug treatment by switching to drug-tolerant states that allow them to survive and eventually acquire the mutations that lead to the recurrence of resistant tumours. How the transition to these drug-tolerant states is regulated remains unknown. Preliminary data implicate oncogenic Δ133p53 isoforms of the p53 tumour suppressor gene as central regulators of drug tolerance. The Δ133p53 isoforms are normally present in a small subpopulation of cancer cells and are expressed at high levels by cells surviving initial drug treatment. The researchers will determine whether Δ133p53 levels are enriched in slow cycling cells and how they are regulated by microRNAs. This research will reveal how oncogenic Δ133p53 variants contribute to drug tolerance and could lead to an entirely new class of cancer treatment.

Professor Martin Sellbom, Psychology

Understanding the psychopathic personality: a neural motivation systems approach

What makes a psychopath? What processes drive someone to exploit and intimidate others, ruining lives, and creating massive social impact? Neuroscience already explains many mental processes. A well-established Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory has led to predictions of excessive approach and insufficient withdrawal (fear) activation in psychopathy. The research team's novel neural functions approach will undertake the first direct neural test of these hypotheses using established electroencephalographic (EEG) measures of these system sensitivities. The group of participants they will test is also highly novel: they will recruit a large cohort of individuals from the community (not from prisons) who will undergo extensive careful diagnostic and neurophysiological testing. This recruitment is key – although psychopathy overtly involves flagrant violations of societal rules and often leads to incarceration, most psychopathic individuals operate within our communities, frequently creating hostile work environments, as well as major emotional distress, and financial hardship for those in their wake. So called “successful” psychopathy in the community is poorly understood. The research team's innovative multidimensional approach, linked to strong underlying neural theory, should provide new theory-based understanding of psychopathic individuals' motivational processes in the community determining which they share and which they do not with those with substantial criminal histories.

Professor Glenn Summerhayes, Archaeology

Crossing the Divide from Asia to the Pacific: Understanding Austronesian colonisation gateways into the Pacific

The expansion of Austronesian speakers across one third of the world's surface began out of Asia some 4000 years ago, ending in New Zealand 800 years ago. The nature of this expansion is slowly becoming understood. Major gaps still remain, particularly on the island of New Guinea where there is a consensus that Austronesian speakers bypassed it on their way to Remote Oceania. Yet, work by archaeologists at Otago is leading to a serious rethink of this expansion. This project will re-focus archaeological attention to north-eastern New Guinea in determining its role and impact on the expansion of all Pacific peoples. It will do this by focussing on an area crucial in assessing the nature of Austronesian occupation: the lower and middle Ramu river valley that bordered an inland sea 5-3000 years ago. Evidence of Austronesian occupation through pottery manufacture is now known to exist in the Sepik basin and coastal regions with pottery being moved from these two regions into the interior of New Guinea. The Ramu Valley would have been an important conduit linking the coastal and inland regions when the sea existed. It is our task to assess this link.

Professor Margreet Vissers, Pathology, University of Otago, Christchurch
Dr Mary Berry, Paediatrics, University of Otago, Wellington

Exploring the epigenetic mechanisms by which maternal nutrition and metabolism influence prenatal development

Epigenetics reflects the interaction of nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (environmental influence) and has captured the imagination of biologists, epidemiologists, social scientists, philosophers, health professionals and nutritionists. That the nutritional status of the mother can affect the lifelong health of the developing foetus has created great interest in how these processes work and in whether specific nutrients can impact epigenetic mechanisms of development in utero. The enzymatic addition of methyl groups to DNA and their removal is an integral part of epigenetic programming. It is now known that the enzymes responsible for these reactions depend on micronutrients for activity. Of particular interest are the TET enzymes that catalyse the removal of methyl groups from DNA, that are highly active during prenatal development and that have been found to require vitamin C for optimal activity. Humans depend on dietary vitamin C, and insufficient intake is common. This team will investigate the effects of low maternal vitamin C status during pregnancy on prenatal development. They will monitor the effects of maternal vitamin C status on TET-dependent epigenetic changes and post-natal development in the offspring.

Fast-Start Grants

Dr Tim Candy, Mathematics & Statistics

Global Behaviour of Nonlinear Dispersive Partial Differential Equations

Understanding the global in time behaviour of nonlinear dispersive partial differential equations is a major open problem. It is particularly challenging as nonlinear effects can lead to highly non-dispersive behaviour, such as coherent soliton solutions, and the formation of singularities. This project will address this problem for important model equations in mathematical physics (in particular nonlinear Dirac and Zakharov systems) by developing new multilinear restriction estimates. These estimates are closely related to the unsolved restriction conjecture in harmonic analysis. Thus the results obtained will be of wide interest to both the dispersive equations, and harmonic analysis communities.

Dr Catherine Collins, Anatomy

Piecing together Pacific prehistory using genomics and the commensal model

Advances in ancient DNA technologies have prompted researchers to re-think views on human settlement across the globe, including the Pacific region. Despite recent publication of genomic data from ancient humans in this region, a number of questions about the settlement and interactions in the Pacific remain. The origins of the Lapita people, and their interactions with other people in the Pacific, remain unclear. Current datasets are also not sufficient to understand the settlement of Central and East Polynesia. Dr Collins' team propose to apply the latest aDNA techniques to the commensal model, to generate new genomic data from modern and ancient Pacific rats and ancient chickens to greatly improve the resolution of our data compared to existing datasets. Specifically, it will be the first commensal study in the Pacific to investigate what nuclear DNA can tell us about the origins and admixture of Pacific people, which is not possible using mtDNA alone. As human remains are rarely excavated in the Pacific, applying the commensal model opens up the possibility to study island groups for which we do not have ancient human data for. Generating genomic data for commensal species will allow us to answer specific questions with the most appropriate data.

Dr Sarah Diermeier, Biochemistry

Assessing the molecular mechanism of a cytoplasmic long non-coding RNA

Genome-wide studies revealed the presence of up to 100,000 genes encoding for long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) in the human genome. More than half of all lncRNAs localise to the cytoplasm, but their functions and molecular mechanisms remain largely elusive. We recently identified 169 lncRNAs essential for cell viability in metastatic breast cancer, including many cytoplasmic transcripts. Here, the team propose to study the molecular mechanism of the lncRNA lncTNBC1, a previously uncharacterised cytoplasmic lncRNA, which significantly impacts cancer cell growth.

Based on preliminary data on this tumour-specific molecule, they hypothesise that lncTNBC1 acts by binding to other RNA molecules in the cell, thereby modulating protein synthesis of essential cell growth regulators. Their results will contribute to unravelling new functions of cytoplasmic lncRNAs in the cell and their potential as new prognostic and/or therapeutic targets in cancer.

Dr Edwina Dowle, Anatomy

Battle of the body snatchers; do co-occurring parasites help or hinder each other?

Parasites routinely manipulate their hosts, altering their hosts' behaviour through molecular subterfuge to enhance their own survival and transmission. But what happens when multiple parasites infect one host: do they conflict or collaborate? Multiple hairworms are frequently found in a single wētā. Each hairworm manipulates the host to optimise its own survival and reproductive opportunities, but what is optimal for one hairworm may not be optimal for all. The host
behavioural manipulation induced by an emergent or late development hairworm is not only lethal to the cave wētā host, but also to any co-occurring early development or pre-emergent hairworms present within the host. If they are to survive, pre-emergent hairworms must seek to sabotage the host manipulations induced by larger co-occurring emergent hairworms until they too are ready to emerge. This battleground for genetic supremacy is further complicated by the role of kin selection whereby closely related co-occurring hairworms may sacrifice their own survival for that of a close relative. Dr Dowle's team propose to couple phenotypic and behavioural assays with powerful molecular techniques to reveal the mechanism(s) that conspecific co-occurring parasites employ to help or hinder each other's development.

Dr Kiel Hards, Microbiology & Immunology

Are quinones a novel mechanism for interspecies electron transfer?

Bacteria live in all environments on earth, ranging from our guts to clouds, volcanoes and everywhere in-between. A near universal truth for these diverse ecosystems is that bacteria live in complex microbial communities, interacting and communicating with other microbes in a variety of poorly understood ways. Many bacteria generate energy for growth by a process called cellular respiration. Some bacteria cannot perform respiration on their own, only doing so with the help of another bacterium. These bacteria often partake in a process called interspecies electron transfer, where different steps in respiration are connected between two or more bacteria to form a complete circuit. Several infectious bacteria exist that contain incomplete respiration pathways and it has historically been assumed that they don't generate energy by respiration. However, the virulence of these bacteria depends on the presence of these partial respiration steps. Dr Hards hypothesises that quinones, molecules capable of transporting electrons inside a cell, are a previously unrecognised way to perform interspecies electron transfer between such bacteria. This research will investigate the ability of group B streptococci, bacteria with partial respiration pathways and a cause of severe infections in newborns, to perform interspecies electron transfer at the molecular level.

Dr Anna High, Faculty of Law

Rape, Passivity and Permission: A Comparative Analysis of Law on Consent and Reasonable Belief

Where a person is passive throughout a non-consensual sexual encounter, should the law preclude the other actor from claiming they reasonably believed that person was consenting? One view is that a reasonable person will look for a positive expression of willingness, rather than assuming an internal attitude of consent from failure to physically resist or verbally object. This “affirmative consent” model — only yes means yes, rather than no means no — has been adopted in a number of jurisdictions, and is gaining increased support, in light of anti-coercion/harassment cultural movements such as #MeToo, as a means of protecting sexual autonomy. In New Zealand, a recent judicial split on the question highlights a pressing need for review of consent and reasonable belief in consent in sexual violence law, and whether rape law should be reformulated based on evolving social norms about access to the bodies of others. This research project will develop and adopt a novel “sexual dignity” framework in order to critically analyse New Zealand rape law, focusing on sex involving complainant passivity [failure to resist and absence of active participation]; compare the New Zealand approach with reformed jurisdictions; and make recommendations for law reform in New Zealand.

Dr Matthew Larcombe, Botany

The ecology diversification: do processes that promote and constrain diversification operate along different niche axes?

Controversy surrounds the role of competition during lineage diversification. The bounded hypothesis suggests that competition imposes ecological limits on the number of species, whereas the unbounded hypothesis proposes that evolution associated with speciation allows new species to avoid competition. Dr Larcombe's team recently produced the first empirical evidence that bounded and unbounded processes contribute equally to diversification, and they hypothesise that they do so by operating along different ecological niche axes. This project tests this new hypothesis. By combining comparative phylogenetics and empirical studies in conifers, we will produce new mechanistic information about the influence of niche dimensionality on biological diversification.

Dr Tanya Major, Biochemistry

The Role of Epigenetics in the Inappropriate Activation of the Innate Immune System During Gout Flares

Have you ever wondered why your sibling has a disease and you do not? Siblings share (roughly) half their genes, and are often raised in the same environment. So why does one brother develop gout and not the other? Many diseases are complex, affected by both genes and environment. Gout is one of these diseases. It is an auto-inflammatory arthritis characterised by sudden flares of extreme, debilitating joint pain. Gout flares are a consequence of the innate immune system (your first defence against infection) inappropriately reacting to non-threatening environmental cues. Epigenetic chemical marks on genes can control the influence of environment on immune system responses. Epigenetic marks are removed or added to genes in response to environmental factors, changing the way these genes are controlled. Many of these factors trigger gout flares. Is the overlap between gout flare triggers and environmental influencers of epigenetic marks a coincidence? Dr Major's team hypothesises that environmental factors are triggering gout flares through their influence on epigenetic control of the innate immune system. They will use state-of-the-art epigenomic tools to determine whether epigenetic marks play a major role in activation of the innate immune system, leading to gout flares in one brother, but not the other.

Dr Sara Miller, Chemistry

Development and assessment of a multi-spectroscopic fiber optic probe capable of disease diagnosis in the gastro-intestinal tract

Current practice for detection of gastrointestinal (GI) disorders involves imaging the GI tract lining through endoscopic imaging and biopsy collection. This can be time consuming and expensive, with potential for misdiagnosis. A non-destructive, point-of-care identification tool that reliably detects and classifies multiple illnesses for a faster treatment pathway is desirable. Raman spectroscopy, a light based and non-destructive method, has been demonstrated as a potential cancer detection method. Dr Miller's team propose to couple additional spectroscopic methods to this to improve diagnostic accuracy. They will develop and test a multi-spectroscopic fibre probe and associated classification models with coeliac disease as the model illness.

Dr Nhung Nghiem, Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington

Predicting risk of diabetes complications and costs using machine learning with equity analysis

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning pose enormous potential for improving quality of life but also significant social, cultural and other risks. It is therefore crucial to ensure that machine learning models do not create or exacerbate inequities in healthcare, due to biased data and unfair algorithms. In New Zealand, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are the leading causes of premature death and disease burden and major sources of health inequities for Māori, Pacific, and Asian populations due to socio-economic, cultural and health system factors. This research aims to use Aotearoa's rich social and health datasets to build equity into the machine learning models and predict cardiovascular disease risk and healthcare costs among people with diabetes. This innovative study will pioneer the transfer into this emerging AI field of equity concepts that have been well-developed in social disciplines, creating novel fairness algorithms. This study is likely to be the world's first that integrates the knowledge of cultural and group health experts to inform fairness AI algorithms in diabetes and cardiovascular health. Many of these deaths could potentially be prevented, the results could therefore assist in designing prevention programmes that are suitable for these populations; and health sector cost planning.

Dr Amandine Sabadel, Chemistry

How to fit parasites in food webs? A compound-specific stable isotope approach

Parasites are a ubiquitous component of all ecosystems. They account for a substantial share of the earth's biomass, represent up to half of all species, and are involved in 50-75 per cent of food web trophic interactions. However, exactly how parasites fit within the classical food web structure is poorly understood; what is their “true” trophic position, and is energy assimilation from their hosts greater than the relatively inefficient transfer between non-parasitic species? This project's novel approach using stable isotopes of amino acids as specific biomarkers will provide considerable insight into parasites' role and dynamics within a food web. Using a New Zealand freshwater trematode and its multiple hosts (a snail, an amphipod and a fish) in a combined ecology and isotope chemistry study, the team will accurately calculate the trophic position of each life-stage of a parasite's life cycle, and investigate the impact of the different life-stages (endoparasitic and free-living) on energy flow through a freshwater food web. Their findings will provide the essential energetic parameters to construct a comprehensive model, leading to a radical improvement in understanding parasites impacts on food web structure.

Dr John Shaver, Religion

The Longitudinal Study of Cohesion and Conflict: Testing Hypotheses of Social and Religious Change in Fiji

Religion is ubiquitous, yet the fundamental question of how religion affects people remains unclear. Some see religion as social glue; others view it as a mechanism for social control. Existing datasets cannot settle these enduring debates. Dr Shaver's team will collect longitudinal ethnographic and cooperative network data from individuals living in Fijian villages and squatter settlements undergoing intense social change, creating the Pacific's first longitudinal ethnographic study of religion and society. By simultaneously measuring individual and community units over time, these social conditions will function as “natural experiments,” affording an understanding of the dynamic interplay between religious institutions, cooperation and inequality. Published datasets, data analysis scripts, and data visualisations will furnish an enduring and fully open scholarly resource; five peer-reviewed articles in high impact journals, four conference presentations, a workshop, and a new methodological textbook will advance a pioneering quantitative approach to the ethnographic study of cultures among the next generation of social researchers. Dissemination of findings will involve local communities in applied policy recommendations.

Dr Susan Wardell, Social Anthropology

Online Medical Crowdfunding in New Zealand: Illness, giving, and moral emotion

Online Medical Crowdfunding (OMC) is an increasingly common way to raise money for healthcare needs not covered by the system. To elicit donations, campaigners must share images and stories of illness online, for an audience of both friends and strangers… turning compassion into capital. But not all campaigns are successful.

Almost nothing is known about the social context and practice of OMC in New Zealand (NZ). The study takes a multimethodological approach to the topic, with an overall ethnographic lens. It starts with a quantitative content analysis of OMC campaigns – to find out the 'who', 'what' and 'why', considering how this relates to New Zealand's healthcare system and social structure. This sets the scene for a series of in-depth case studies, highlighting the lived experience of campaigners, and a set of interviews with people who have recently viewed or donated to OMC campaigns. A central focus is the role of 'moral emotions' (e.g. sympathy, pity, or contempt) on social media, and how these might connect and position people. This study is unique in bringing campaigners and audiences into the same picture - offering a socio-cultural perspective on a fast-growing phenomenon which affects healthcare outcomes for thousands of people each year.

Dr Joseph Watts, Religion

Cross-cultural Patterns in Theory of Mind: Using text analytics to identify structure and variation in mental state attributions in the Pacific

The ability to understand the mental states of others is central to human life. Explanations about the cognitive basis of this ability make different predictions about how mental state attributions vary across cultures. This project will use text analytics to build a database of mental state attributions in Pacific cultures. This database will be used to identify the structure and variation in mental state attributions across cultures and test how ecological and cultural factors explain variation. This will show how Pacific cultures expand our understanding of human psychology and how text analysis can identify structure and variation in human cognition.

For further information, contact:

Dr Anna Gosling

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
Tel +64 3 479 9065
Mob +64 21 279 9065

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