New Zealand researchers are leading the way in fields from water testing to drought-resistant horticulture to clean fuels. Here, we've collected five bright ideas from five different universities around the country.

Letting plants teach us how to produce clean fuel

University of Otago biochemists are working towards new and renewable energy sources that involve harnessing a photosynthesis system used by plants and algae.

One of the long-term goals of Professor Julian Eaton- Rye and his lab is to develop photosynthesis-mimicking systems that produce hydrogen as a fuel directly from water.

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To work towards this, the researchers are focusing on Photosystem II. This molecular machinery found in plants, and certain bacteria, harvests sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

Another project involves altering the metabolism of sunlight-harvesting cyanobacteria - also known as blue-green algae - to produce the fuel substitute butanol instead of sugar.

Factoring nature into economics

The cost of things depends on what you value and what you count right? Ecological Economics - or EE - might sound like a tongue-twisting oxymoron, but it is an innovative, alternative model of green economics gaining traction here and globally.

"Accounting for the cost of human use of 'natural capital', or ecosystem services, is essential in planning for, and ensuring, the survival of life on Earth," says Massey University's Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt.

She is one of the country's leading exponents of the trans-disciplinary approach to economic modelling and planning, which began in the 1980s and integrates scientific, social and economic factors.

"'Ecosystem services' are the collective resources, processes and benefits we derive from the natural environment," she says. Examples are clean drinking water, food/fibre provision, nutrient recycling, flood protection, pollination, biodiversity and climate regulation.

Distinguished Professor Jane Harding discovered a new way to care for newborns. Photo / Supplied
Distinguished Professor Jane Harding discovered a new way to care for newborns. Photo / Supplied

Saving the sugar babies

A cheap and easy-to-administer dextrose gel to treat low blood sugar levels in newborn babies was developed at the University of Auckland.

Neonatal hypoglycaemia is a common problem that affects up to 15% of otherwise healthy babies and is a preventable cause of brain damage.

The University of Auckland study, led by Distinguished Professor Jane Harding, was the first to show that dextrose gel massaged into the inside of the baby's cheek was more effective than feeding alone, for treating hypoglycaemia.

This treatment is safe, simple to use and inexpensive. It will help reduce admissions to neonatal intensive care for intravenous glucose-not only reducing costs but keeping mothers and babies together to encourage breastfeeding.

This study is changing the way babies with hypoglycaemia are treated both in NZ and around the world.

Professor David Hamilton checks one of the buoys. Photo / Supplied
Professor David Hamilton checks one of the buoys. Photo / Supplied

Keeping tabs on water quality

The University of Waikato's Professor David Hamilton leads Lake Ecosystem Restoration New Zealand (LERNZ) and is also President of the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society.

Much of LERNZ's research into improving and maintaining freshwater quality, using the Rotorua (Te Arawa) lakes as a working model, has contributed to the success of LERNZ and its engagement with end-users.

One of its key research outcomes so far has been the development of automated water quality monitoring buoys: the design, construction and installation of solar powered, high-frequency meteorology and water quality monitoring stations which transmit data at 15-minute intervals in near real-time for a range of variables, with the data available online. These stations monitor anthropogenic effects on lakes around New Zealand, in China and Singapore.

Discovering the secrets of drought resistant trees

A scientist from AUT University's Institute for Applied Ecology New Zealand (AENZ) has contributed to discovering the secret to why some trees are able survive and flourish in droughts - it's sugar.

The scientific community has long suspected that some trees are more drought resistant than others, because these plants are able accumulate sugars and starch in their tissues. However this suspicion has remained unconfirmed until now.

AENZ's Dr Sebastian Leuzinger collaborated with an international team in manipulating the levels of nonstructural carbohydrates in seedlings of tropical tree species in Malaysia, and monitoring how effectively they were able to withstand drought.

Research results reveal that the non-structural carbohydrates were critical in helping the seedlings maintain osmoregulation and hydraulic regulation under moisture stress. Elevated levels of these compounds correlated with greater survival chances for plants.

Dr Leuzinger believes the findings could help us respond to environmental change.

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