Taking science beyond the lab

By Nick Smith

Business is running well ahead of projections, says EcoGene's Dianne Gleeson. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Business is running well ahead of projections, says EcoGene's Dianne Gleeson. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Business is booming at New Zealand's only commercial wildlife forensics and DNA diagnostics lab, EcoGene.

There's a pile of fishmeal destined for China that needs to be tested pronto to certify that it contains no ruminant DNA; animal hair from Germany must be analysed to determine whether it belongs to a rare variety of Teutonic field vole; microbiology work related to the PSA virus afflicting the nation's kiwifruit vines continues apace.

EcoGene director Dianne Gleeson admits she's a very busy woman. Business is running "150 per cent" above projections in the 3-year-old company's strategic plan.

"It's a lot more successful than I anticipated," Gleeson says, then laughs. "I thought it could be a nice little niche - it'd be nice if we could just cover our costs and let's not get too ambitious.

"Last year was hugely busy. We were able to respond to national crises and we were right in there [during] the kiwifruit disease outbreak," she says.

"We had the facility to respond immediately, to sequence the whole genome of that disease, which we did.

"Now we've been called upon to do a lot of the diagnostic tests for it. We're dealing with a lot of this stuff on a regular basis."

The company was spun out of Landcare Research in 2008. While Landcare has in the past accepted commercial work, Gleeson says it was seen as an adjunct to the "fundamental science" which was Landcare's raison d'etre.

She is keen to point out that fundamental science, involving genetics in particular, led to most of the innovation that is now in such demand from the commercial sector.

Take those field voles, a protected species in Germany. However your average vole catcher has a tricky time distinguishing one species from another, for relocation to an appropriate environment.

But their hair gives them away, so a trapping programme can be created for the vole species. The intellectual property allowing scientists to make that decision, and profit accordingly, came from fundamental science.

The reason German pharmaceutical group Bayer is engaging a New Zealand company is that there are simply not many multidisciplinary facilities with an international track record in conservation, wildlife forensics and biosecurity.

EcoGene is also in the process of achieving internationally recognised accreditation for its wildlife forensics and DNA diagnosis and will soon be the only lab in the world with that double accreditation.

It's also comparatively cheap. Predator forensic identification costs $35 plus GST. Throw in PCR amplification (a way of amplifying small samples of DNA), sequencing and analysis of positive samples and the price is $65 plus GST.

"We have to be conscious that we're not pricing it away from the type of customers we get - I still want the local wildlife sanctuary to be able to send us a dead kiwi for us to swab and not be a huge outlay for them," Gleeson says. "We have a social and environmental responsibility to have a service that is accessible for everyone to use."

The question of pricing came up in her interview for the inaugural Women in Science Entrepreneurship award, run by investment and venture development firm Pacific Channel, and Gleeson concedes she may need to revisit the pricing regime.

But she was thrilled to win the award, beating Rachel D'Arcy Lacy of D'Arcy Polychrome and Dr Fern Kelly, a PhD graduate in textile chemistry from Victoria University.

EcoGene is still a small business, with revenue of $400,000 last year. But it is growing fast and has already notched some headline-grabbing successes, including its work on the PSA virus, a test to determine possum-trapping efficacy and devising a reliable method of accurately assessing wild stoat numbers.

"The wildlife forensics stuff really interests us and we get excited about that, particularly because that has serious legal outcomes from the work we're providing," she says.

The Wildlife Enforcement Group (Customs and the Ministries of Conservation, Agriculture and Fisheries) is a regular client, and Ecogene has developed tests to identify the endangered Himalayan bear (farmed for its gall bladder and bile).

A case involving smuggled Asian cobra was recently successfully resolved in court.

Previously, much of "this stuff wasn't being tested because there wasn't the facility to do it or it was going to cost a huge amount and it was difficult to send it to Australia for testing," says Gleeson. "We've filled a niche and created work."

This year she's picked up a lot of fisheries work, particularly involving tuna. "There are Northern Hemisphere boats coming down and fishing in the Pacific. Every foreign vessel coming into your ports you have to go on board and sample the processed [catch]. We identify the tuna species from the processed trunks.

"We have the potential to grow into a nice, perfectly formed group."

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