Can babies tell what we are thinking? Could it be possible to create a nose capable of out-smelling even a sniffer dog?

Or what about self-healing, sticky, stretchy electronics, or a high-tech way to return centuries old Maori cloaks to the iwi they came from?

These are some of the intriguing questions being answered among 92 new research projects, awarded more than $53 million worth of Marsden Fund grants announced today.

Other highlights of projects to benefit from New Zealand's premier funder of investigator-initiated research include a volcano model dubbed Mount Doom, that will help scientists simulate devastating pyroclastic flows; the science behind the brain drain, and a study examining role of zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in shaping current sustainability practices.

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Marsden Fund Council chair Professor Juliet Gerrard said while the number of researchers proposals put forward this year was slightly down on last year's application rate, the council still reviewed more than 1200 bids from New Zealand's research community.

From that pool, a subset of 208 proposals progressed to the second round, before the final 92 were selected, making for an overall success rate of 7.7 per cent.

A recent evaluation conducted by researchers at the Wellington-based Motu Economic and Public Policy Research found Marsden funding significantly increased scientific output of the funded researchers.

Compared to similar groups that do not receive funding, a team given Marsden funding showed a six to 12 per cent increase in their academic publications and a 13-30 per cent increase in the papers that cite their work.

"It is great to have some quantitative data to confirm the beneficial impact that receiving a Marsden grant has on researchers," Professor Gerrard said.

"We look forward to seeing these new projects take shape over the next three years and learning what the researchers discover and how this might benefit New Zealand in the long term."

Two types of grants are awarded each year: Fast-Start, which enable emerging researchers to develop their own interests in the research community, and Standard.

The Herald looks at 10 of the most fascinating studies among the grant winners.

1. From the minds of babes

The study aims to find out if the social worlds of infants are structured enough to gradually build theory-of-mind. Photo / iStock
The study aims to find out if the social worlds of infants are structured enough to gradually build theory-of-mind. Photo / iStock

Can babies read our minds?

From an early age, babies can pass tests designed to track mind reading or "theory-of-mind" - reading mental states such as the beliefs, intentions and desires of the people around them.

These abilities correspond to key developmental milestones, crucial for babies to effectively navigate their social world - yet exactly when and how such abilities develop is open to debate.

Many researchers conclude that this skill results from core innate knowledge, because it is too complex for infants to learn from the beginning.

A newly funded Marsden project will test an alternative idea - that theory-of-mind is gradually constructed over babies' first few years as they learn to interpret the behaviour of others.

Professor Ted Ruffman and two colleagues from Otago University's Department of Psychology aim to find out if the social worlds of infants are structured enough to gradually build theory-of-mind, and what information is likely to be most important for them in doing so.

This requires a lot of data on infants' social environments, particularly the behaviour of their main caregivers.

New head camera and eye-tracking technology will record what infants look at during their first three years.

Professor Ruffman will then use this data to examine how caregivers build an infant's environment based on repeated behaviours and how they talk about these behaviours, such as "I like my cup of tea".

Performance on theory-of-mind tasks has been linked to increased empathy, peer acceptance and social skills, meaning that this study could potentially have practical implications for caregiving strategies that help promote children's abilities in these areas.

2. Sniffing out an artificial super-nose

The study aims to see if we can create an artificial nose that it could out-smell dogs. Photo / iStock
The study aims to see if we can create an artificial nose that it could out-smell dogs. Photo / iStock

Could we create an artificial nose so sensitive that it could even out-smell dogs and insects?

That's the aim of a new project by Plant and Food Research's Dr Colm Carraher.

Smell is the most important of all our senses and is based on molecules called odorant receptors, which are in our noses on the surface of olfactory cells. These receptors chemically bind to odour molecules, triggering a reaction inside the olfactory cell, which itself then generates a voltage which our brains recognise as a smell.

Although dogs are often used to supplement our feeble sense of smell, insects are far better - a moth will turn upwind when a single molecule from a desirable source strikes its antenna.

The reason for this incredible ability is that insect olfactory receptors are different from ours.

They "cut out the middle man" by generating tiny voltages as soon as they bind to an odour molecule.

Dr Carraher has developed a method for producing odorant receptors from fruit flies and placing them in artificial membranes.

With a $300,000 Marsden Fast-Start grant, he plans to attach these receptors to sensor surfaces and will test the ability of the sensors to detect and transmit their corresponding odour molecules.

The ability of his artificial nose to detect and analyse smells should rival or even exceed that of insects and dogs, by detecting the individual molecular components of a smell.

This platform technology has the potential to be tuned to a multitude of volatile sensing applications in the future.

3. The hidden influence of ageing dads

Scientific work has suggested that life-history challenges experienced by parents, particularly fathers, may be transmitted epigenetically. Photo / iStock
Scientific work has suggested that life-history challenges experienced by parents, particularly fathers, may be transmitted epigenetically. Photo / iStock

An unseen influence that ageing fathers could be having on their children will be investigated in a new study of what's called epigenetics.

Recent research has enhanced our understanding of the role of epigenetic - or non-genetic - pathways, where environmental factors alter the influence of genes by modifying how they are expressed.

A growing body of scientific work has suggested that life-history challenges experienced by parents, particularly fathers, may be transmitted epigenetically, thereby providing a fitness advantage to their offspring.

Backed by a $840,000 Marsden Fund grant, Otago University's Dr Sheri Johnson will lead a large team of multinational researchers, to test the hypothesis that older males pass on more information about their environment than do younger males.

This extra information may be carried by epigenetic markers, which are acquired during exposure to various environmental challenges.

Building on their current work with ageing zebrafish, Dr Johnson and her colleagues will look at the impact of various environmental stresses, such as toxins, low oxygen, and chemical alarm cues on the epigenes that carry this information.

Dr Johnson aims to determine how the accumulation of challenges experienced by fathers as they age affects subsequent generations, and to identify key candidate genes for transgenerational effects observed.

If older males do deliver good epigenes, this study will break new ground by establishing whether the benefits accrue through ageing alone, through acquired environmental experience, or a combination of both.

The impact of this study could benefit many research themes, including the rapid adaption of invasive species to changing environments, and medical research on obesity.

4. Electronics that stretch, stick and heal themselves

This challenging research could open up unprecedented opportunities for prosthetics. Photo / iStock
This challenging research could open up unprecedented opportunities for prosthetics. Photo / iStock

Can we design electronics that can be stretched and which stick to surfaces like skin?

A team from Auckland University's Department of Chemistry want to achieve this and something even more amazing: electrically conducting plastic materials that are self-healing and easy to make.

Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic and Dr David Barker already have a head-start on their new study - boosted with a $790,000 Marsden Fund grant - by having developed basic principles of the chemistry required.

Their clever idea is based on chemically sheathing conducting polymers with single molecule "strands".

The sheath will provide the stretchable, adhesive and self-healing properties and the core will provide electrical conductivity.

The team also plans to design the sheath to promote specific molecular organisation of the core, which could lead to materials with unusual changes in colour, shape or electrical conductivity in response to stimuli such as light, temperature, and stretching or bending.

This challenging research could open up unprecedented opportunities in the fields of medical devices, health monitoring, prosthetics and soft robotics.

5. Fireworks at Mount Doom

A simulator of a volcanic eruption will help us better get to grips with a phenomenon that remains the most deadly volcanic threat on Earth. Photo / iStock
A simulator of a volcanic eruption will help us better get to grips with a phenomenon that remains the most deadly volcanic threat on Earth. Photo / iStock

A 15 metre-high simulator of a volcanic eruption, dubbed Mount Doom, will help us better get to grips with a phenomenon that remains the most deadly volcanic threat on Earth.

In some eruptions, pyroclastic flows send hot avalanches of gases, ash, and rock speeding down the sides of volcanoes, incinerating almost everything in their path.

In 79 AD, the city of Pompeii was engulfed by such a flow, burying it under tons of ash and killing its inhabitants - and the same threat is also present in a number of North Island volcanoes.

The Taupo eruption unleashed 1,800 years ago - the most violent within the last 5000 years - sent a devastating pyroclastic flow moving at between 600km/h and 900km/h across 80km of surrounding land.

Due to their extreme danger and unpredictability, many of the basic properties of pyroclastic flows remain undiscovered.

A new joint project will study the thermodynamic effects of these flows at the Massey University-based Mount Doom, which contains six tonnes of super-hot pumice.

Led by Massey University's Dr Gert Lube and Professor Shane Cronin from Auckland University, the study will test if, and under what conditions, heat is a key factor in controlling the speed, spread, and destructive potential of pyroclastic flows.

Findings from this research will improve existing hazard models, enabling them to better explain and predict the potential effects of pyroclastic flows.

6. A road map for intracellular traffic

New therapies to combat inflammatory and autoimmune diseases could arise from this study. Photo / iStock
New therapies to combat inflammatory and autoimmune diseases could arise from this study. Photo / iStock

New therapies to combat inflammatory and autoimmune diseases could arise from a study aiming to map out the process that unlocks the benefits of a certain receptor in our body.

Receptors are specialised proteins, part of a complex system of chemicals and signalling pathways in the body which transmit information about appetite, pain and emotion.

These receptors can recognise and talk to neuro-transmitters - the chemical messengers in the brain - along with hormones and cannabinoids, which are a class of chemicals produced in the body, but are also present in drugs such as cannabis.

Recent research has shown that activation of cannabinoid receptor 2, or CB2, can have beneficial effects on a wide range of immune-related diseases. But for these receptors to act, they must first travel from the inside to the surface of the cell.

Auckland University researcher Dr Natasha Grimsey's preliminary findings have already indicated that a specialised region within these receptors are responsible for sending them towards the cell surface.

A Marsden grant will allow her and colleague Dr Andrea Vernall, from the University of Otago, to investigate how this happens and identify small molecules which stimulate the process.

It's the first study to investigate CB2 cell surface delivery - a pathway that, once understood, carries the potential to regulate the process and target new therapies for diseases and cancers of the immune system.

7. Secrets of the heart

A complex chain of events that can sometimes result in heart disease and heart failure will be unpicked by a team of scientists. Photo / iStock
A complex chain of events that can sometimes result in heart disease and heart failure will be unpicked by a team of scientists. Photo / iStock

A complex chain of events that can sometimes result in heart disease and heart failure will be unpicked by a team of scientists led by Dr Pete Jones, from Otago University's Department of Physiology.

In our heart muscle cells, the level of calcium within the cell is key in determining the strength of the contraction, and thus heart function.

Within these cells, calcium is stored in specialised structures, and the release of calcium from these stores is dependent on the action of a molecule called the ryanodine receptor.

Tiny molecules called reactive oxygen species, which are found in all cells, play an important role in regulating the receptor and in turn the release of calcium from stores inside heart cells.

However, cell stress causes increases in the formation of reactive oxygen species, which in turn is thought to lead to an increase in calcium release and therefore the strength of the cardiac contraction; in this way an excess of reactive oxygen species can result in heart disease and even heart failure.

One problem researchers have had in studying the effect of reactive oxygen species on calcium release has been a difficulty in determining levels of reactive oxygen species in the region of the ryanodine receptors.

The location of these receptors means that simply measuring levels of reactive oxygen species in the middle of the cell may not reflect the levels close to the receptors - in the same way that measuring light levels in the middle of a room may not reflect light levels in the corners of a room.

Dr Jones and his team will build on a recent breakthrough in the development of a reactive oxygen species fluorescent sensor that will be directly attached to the ryanodine receptor.

He hopes to unravel the mystery of how changes in reactive oxygen species alter calcium signalling in normal heart tissue and during disease.

Understanding how and when the reactive oxygen species production sites surrounding the calcium release unit are disturbed, will offer a new perspective on how calcium balance is maintained in the heart and how it becomes corrupted during disease.

8. Track the black: the whakapapa of paru

Intricately-woven cloaks use traditional black dyes derived from iron-rich paru (mud) applied to New Zealand flax fibre. Photo / iStock
Intricately-woven cloaks use traditional black dyes derived from iron-rich paru (mud) applied to New Zealand flax fibre. Photo / iStock

The latest scientific technology could allow the return of centuries-old taonga to iwi they once came from.

Dr Karyne Rogers of GNS Science and Te Papa curator Rangi Te Kanawa will combine their skills of isotope analysis and preserving traditional Maori kakahu, or cloaks, in a clever new social sciences project.

Intricately-woven cloaks use traditional black dyes derived from iron-rich paru (mud) applied to New Zealand flax fibre during the manufacturing process. Many of these kakahu are in museums, but often it's unclear where they come from.

Dr Rogers and Ms Te Kanawa will develop new ways of understanding the history of these taonga.

Matauranga Maori, or Maori knowledge, about traditional paru use will be gained through interviews with key community and iwi members.

Using experimental techniques and statistical modelling, the researchers will construct a database to identify unique and diagnostic geochemical properties of paru from sites across New Zealand.

The outcomes will reveal undiscovered geochemical correlations between individual paru pits and heritage textiles.

This will allow unprovenanced taonga to be returned to iwi, and empower iwi to protect, restore and acknowledge the cultural importance of paru for the provision of black dye in the marae setting.

9. Cold case: Solving Antarctica's sea ice paradox

The findings will also be relevant to other geophysical situations, aside from Antarctica, where ice and water interact. Photo / iStock
The findings will also be relevant to other geophysical situations, aside from Antarctica, where ice and water interact. Photo / iStock

If the ocean underneath it is becoming warmer, why then is sea ice around Antarctica expanding?

A study led by National Institute of Water and Atmosphere scientist Dr Natalie Robinson will help unravel this apparent paradox, the answer to which partly lies in the effect that the warming ocean is also having on Antarctic ice shelves - the floating extension of the land-based ice sheet.

Melting of ice shelves by the ocean creates water that becomes supercooled as it rises towards the surface, and this very cold water contributes to thickening of sea ice, especially near to the coast.

In her study, Dr Robinson will examine the mechanisms controlling the growth of sea ice in the continent by testing how the ice crystals that grow and aggregate in supercooled water affect turbulence and heat transfer in the upper ocean when they form an ice crystal matrix between sea ice and ocean.

This research will provide new information that can be fed into climate models, thus improving the simulation of our future climate.

The findings will also be relevant to other geophysical situations where ice and water interact, such as sub-ice shelf ocean cavities, cloud formation and even extra-terrestrial systems such as Jupiter's moon, Europa.

10. The science behind the brain drain

Researchers will examine why our best and brightest minds leave our shores for better opportunities elsewhere. Photo / iStock
Researchers will examine why our best and brightest minds leave our shores for better opportunities elsewhere. Photo / iStock

It's long been known as the brain drain - our best and brightest minds leaving our shores for better opportunities elsewhere.

Now, researchers will examine the key drivers behind it.

Migration is particularly relevant to New Zealand, which has the OECD's highest skilled emigration rate, as well as a high-skilled immigration rate.

Economic models predict that migration is driven by financial incentives, such as higher expected income in the destination country.

A new project to be led by Dr Isabelle Sin of Wellington-based Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, and Associate Professor Ran Abramitzky from Stanford University, will test these models by analysing changes in New Zealand student support policy that created variation in the incentives to migrate.

The researchers will compare the decisions of two groups of individuals whose only difference is their expected financial gain from emigration.

Two main theories will be tested.

First, that interest-free student loans for New Zealand-based graduates, which provides a financial incentive for borrowers to remain here, affects the decisions of students to emigrate.

This will shed light on how responsive migration is to financial incentives.

Second, that the wealth of students affects both domestic and international migration - providing evidence on whether financial constraints inhibit skilled migration.

New Zealand is considered an ideal country for such a project, given our highly-skilled population has the right to live and work in Australia, so international migration decisions are largely free of regulatory barriers.

There is also plenty of detailed data that gives a longitudinal view of tertiary graduates' movements over recent years.

Findings will have implications for New Zealand migration and education policy, and for other countries that are using or seeking to use similar financial incentives.