Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Kiwi scientists take their knowledge to the world

How do you stop cows burping? Or override Parkinson’s disease? And what happens if you blow up dynamite deep below ground? Jamie Morton celebrates 10 top pieces of Kiwi science and innovation.
GNS Science geophysicist Stuart Henrys with one of the ocean bottom seismometers which were deployed off the Wairarapa and Kapiti coasts as part of the project. Photo / Margaret Low, GNS Science
GNS Science geophysicist Stuart Henrys with one of the ocean bottom seismometers which were deployed off the Wairarapa and Kapiti coasts as part of the project. Photo / Margaret Low, GNS Science

Making thunder underground

If anyone says science is boring, ask them how many professions let you blow up hundreds of kilograms of dynamite to create seismic waves. In doing so, a team of New Zealand researchers have rocked the world's understanding of what happens beneath the Earth's shifting jigsaw of tectonic plates.

Researchers from GNS Science, Victoria University and other institutes gained this long-elusive picture by drilling a series of bore holes, tens of metres deep, between Wairarapa and Kapiti.

After setting off huge explosive charges - including up to 500kg of dynamite in 50m-deep bore holes - they monitored 1200 seismometers to see how the seismic waves changed as they moved through the earth.

The seismic "reflections" allowed them to build a 3D-picture of what was happening below the Australian and Pacific plates.

For the first time, researchers could show how the plates were gliding on a layer of "soft" rock 10km thick and weak enough to let the plates shift many centimetres a year.

The revelation could answer some of the biggest mysteries surrounding plate tectonics and the very formation and evolution of our planet. Whether the New Zealand insights apply to the rest of Earth remains to be seen.

GNS geophysicist Dr Stuart Henrys is using the data to develop a new, 3D velocity model for the Wellington region that will help scientists better locate earthquakes.

The conundrum of the belching cow

We can make our vehicles more fuel-efficient and source more electricity from renewable energy, but how do we stop our cows burping?

Half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture - and much of that comes from ruminant animals like cows and sheep. In their rumen, in the front part of their stomachs, a soup of microbes breaks down the plant material they've ingested before converting it into fatty acids that are absorbed for energy.

The process creates hydrogen gas. Microbes convert that into methane, which is mostly belched - rather than farted - into the atmosphere.

At a time when nations are trying to slash emissions to meet climate targets, the vexing problem of the methane-burping cow has fallen to scientists at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGGRC), both in Palmerston North.

Remarkably, they have found more than 100,000 compounds, a number of which might be safe for the animal, which could slash methane emissions by upwards of 30 per cent. They work by shutting down the activity of those micro-organisms converting the hydrogen into methane, by either killing or severely suppressing them.

Testing is in the early stages - and a long way from the market - but the researchers say their breakthrough is something Kiwi farmers can be excited about.

Otago University's Professor Allan Herbison. Photo / Supplied
Otago University's Professor Allan Herbison. Photo / Supplied

Sealed with a kiss

What do Hershey's Kisses have to do with fertility?

A wonder protein was accidentally discovered a decade ago by scientists in Hershey. They named it -kisspeptin after the Pennsylvania, US, town's famous and delicious export.

Their breakthrough dramatically changed our under¬standing of how our bodies work - and over the past few years, a group of Otago University researchers have been shedding more light on kisspeptin's incredible role.

The protein, encoded by the KISS1 gene in humans, triggers a cascade of biochemical changes that lead to fertility and puberty. Scientists have suggested other important medical applications, namely using it to block the production of hormones that nurture tumours in breast and prostate cancers.

A landmark study led by Otago's Professor Allan Herbison, published in 2013, revealed the cellular location of signalling between kisspeptin and its receptor, which together spark the biochemical processes that ultimately enable fertility.

Coming to an understanding of the ¬exact mechanism by which kisspeptin acted as a master controller of reproduction leads to even more heady questions - namely, how did it turn the neuron on?

Last year, the team published the first direct evidence that kisspeptin neurons were working together to generate the small, episodic hormone pulses crucial to normal reproductive functioning.
They estimated that up to a third of all infertility cases in women involved disorders in the area of brain circuitry - and expected the findings to have an impact on regulating fertility in clinics in the future.

Otago University's Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith. Photo / Supplied
Otago University's Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith. Photo / Supplied

Where did we come from?

Call it the ultimate family tree - not trying to find out where your great-great-grand-
mother came from, but pinpointing your ancient ancestors in Europe, Africa or Asia.
The National Geographic global Genographic Project has drawn on people's DNA, collected from mouth swabs from hundreds of thousands of participants across the globe - to predict our geographic origins.

The beauty of the sprawling project was its complex algorithms - incorporating nearly 150,000 "Ancestry Informative Markers" across the human genome - which could place 83 per cent of people to precise locations in their country of origin.

Of 100 samples taken in Wellington, northern European lineages were found to be the most common, and most people of European ancestry averaged 2 per cent Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in their genetic make-up.

Retracing the ancestry of Maori and Pasifika people has proved a tougher task, but Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith has been using around 200 Maori and Pacific samples contributed to the Africa to Aotearoa Project to complete the puzzle of New Zealand's ancient ancestry.

"That will be a big step for us and we are getting there," the Otago University biological anthropologist said.

This year, Matisoo-Smith is applying new DNA technology to ancient human ¬remains originally recovered from Marlborough's Wairau Bar, where some of the earliest evidence of New Zealand -settlement has been found.

If her team can extract enough mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence from the 42 individual samples recovered from the site, they could unlock one of the biggest insights yet into our country's history.

Otago University's Professor Wayne Patrick and Professor Monica Gerth. Photo / Supplied
Otago University's Professor Wayne Patrick and Professor Monica Gerth. Photo / Supplied

When gas becomes gold

A husband and wife team have a new take on the old children's tale of Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold.

Otago University biochemists Dr Monica Gerth and Dr Wayne Patrick have developed enzymes that could ultimately see what started as greenhouse gases become ingredients for tyres and paints.

The couple's creation hinges on a pollution-eating microbe developed by Chicago-based company LanzaTech, designed to produce chemicals from greenhouse gases. As a bonus, the two chemicals - butanone and 2-butanol - come from petroleum, which it is hoped can be replaced with something more sustainable.

LanzaTech's naturally-occurring microbe - only as chemically risky as baker's yeast - can turn waste gases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into bio ethanol.

The process also produces a chemical building block known as 2,3-butanediol, which Patrick and Gerth have developed enzymes to target.

They want to spin it into butanone, which is a key ingredient in paints, varnishes and adhesives, and 2-butanol, which is needed in the production of synthetic rubbers, particularly car tyres.

The worldwide market for these chemicals is in the millions of tonnes and billions of dollars a year.

"We have engineered enzymes to do the reactions we were aiming for, albeit weakly," Gerth said. -"Improving them to commercially viable levels is the next challenge."

Do you have the 'Jolie' gene?

When Angelina Jolie had her breasts and ovaries removed, the spotlight turned to the gene mutation that compelled her to do it.

The Hollywood star discovered through genetic tests she had an extremely high risk of developing cancer because of a defective BRCA1 gene.

The genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are found in all ¬humans and are normally expressed in cells of the breasts and other tissue, where they help repair damaged DNA. But if these helper genes turn ugly and mutate, they can boost the cancer risk.

The New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation estimates a woman with a BRCA gene change will have a 50-85 per cent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and a
20-40 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Each year, about 1600 Kiwi women undergo genetic testing to identify risks of BRCA mutation, but current measures have been called expensive and arguably inefficient, returning few positive results for the number screened.

Dr Logan Walker and his colleagues at Otago University believe they may have found better screening tools through a new tissue-analysis procedure that would prioritise patients for genetic testing.

"It's designed for a pathologist who looks down a microscope at tissue and the idea is to be able to develop a test that experts will be able to use."

With genetic testing becoming cheaper and more accessible, he felt it was critical to find a way to better triage high-risk cases ahead of testing.

Later this month, Walker will update the global BRCA-focused consortium Enigma on the research, which is being supported by the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation, the Health Research Council and Breast Cancer Cure.

The Kiwi innovation that blasted off

Mahia, a tiny settlement south of Gisborne, is poised to become New Zealand's Cape Canaveral.

Launch pads and facilities are being installed near the seaside village from where Auckland-based Rocket Lab plans to send its revolutionary Electron rocket into orbit.
Thanks to Kiwi innovator Peter Beck's company, sending fridge-sized satellites into space could cost firms about $6.6 million, compared with current prices of more than $100m.

It's partly due to the rocket's size - about a third that of other rockets at just 16m - but more to do with its efficiency.

The rocket powers its turbo pumps with small high-performance electric motors and lithium polymer batteries instead of large gas generators, generating 4600lb of thrust.
More impressively, its Rutherford engine is the first to use 3D printed parts for all its primary components in a space vehicle.

In all, Electron uses nine Rutherford engines on its first stage of launch, and a vacuum variant of the same engine on its second stage.

The vehicle, capable of delivering a 150kg payload to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit, is scheduled to make its first test flight from Mahia later this year.

Tackling the migraine mystery

Nausea, dizzyness and excruciating pain: people who suffer migraines will tell you few things are as unpleasant.

Scientists have been nearing a breakthrough solution to migraines, which, despite affecting about one in 10 men and nearly two in 10 women, have treatments that are too often ineffective and come with nasty side effects.

Increasingly, researchers are targeting a protein called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which triggers the pain and nausea of migraines and causes the swelling of blood vessels intertwined with nerve endings on the side of the head.

Last week, US-based Alder BioPharmaceuticals announced it had developed an injected, CGRP-tackling drug that cut the number of attacks by 75 per cent in a third of its trial's 600 participants.

Meanwhile, at Auckland University, scientists have been investigating the link between CGRP and a receptor it activates, called AMY1.

A new class of drugs called gepants have been developed to block CGRP activity at the hormone's receptor in the nerves but they haven't ¬proven as effective as expected.
Professor Deborah Hay, of the university-based Maurice Wilkins Centre and Centre for Brain Research, and her team suspect part of this might be because the drugs haven't also targeted AMY1, which could prove the hidden key to migraine treatment.

Hay has been invited to talk to the American Headache Society's annual scientific meeting in June. Her colleague, Dr Christopher Walker, has been awarded funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation and other groups to explore whether drugs targeting AMY1 might also be ¬developed towards other kinds of pain, such as arthritis.

Otago University's Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie.  Photo / Supplied
Otago University's Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie. Photo / Supplied

Rewiring Parkinson's disease

We associate Parkinson's disease with famous ¬sufferers like Muhammad Ali and Michael J Fox, yet it afflicts more people around us than we probably realise - and as many as 10,000 Kiwis over-60.

Its heart-breaking symptoms - tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement - typically become clear only once much damage has already been done, or when 70 per cent of dopamine-producing brain cells have degenerated.

There's no cure and treatments range from drugs to "deep brain stimulation" delivered by a stopwatch-sized device implanted in the chest.

Now a Kiwi team is pursuing an extraordinary new treatment and asking whether this brain malfunction can be manually recoded.

Their work centres on optogenetics, where a specially coded viral vector is inserted into the brain and introduces into cells a light-responsive protein.

By shining blue light on the proteins, they are stimulated and used to influence neurons to behave normally.

This might sound far-fetched, but Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie and her colleagues at Otago University have "recorded" activity from a normally-functioning rat brain and replayed it into a Parkinsonian one. The movements improved significantly.

With two years of funding from Brain Research New Zealand, they're taking these preliminary findings to the obvious next step: repeating the experiment using a human brain.

The image shows mitochondrial movement. The mitochondria in a donor cell have been labeled with a yellow fluorescent protein that allows visualization under a microscope. Photo / Melanie McConnell
The image shows mitochondrial movement. The mitochondria in a donor cell have been labeled with a yellow fluorescent protein that allows visualization under a microscope. Photo / Melanie McConnell

Upgrading dodgy DNA

We swap our crashed computers and broken-down cars for better, brand-new ones all the time - but can we do the same with dodgy genes?

Scientists at the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute of Medical Research are excited by the prospect of one day being able to replace them with custom-designed DNA - which could combat about 200 different diseases and help millions of people.

Last year, they published ground-breaking trials that demonstrated the movement of a key form of DNA between cells in an animal tumour.

It centred on mitochondrial DNA, which encodes key proteins in the machinery that converts ¬energy from food into chemical energy particularly important for brain and muscle function.

With the exception of reproduction, scientists had always thought these genes stayed within cells.

But that was until Professor Mike Berridge and his team removed mitochondrial DNA from breast cancers and melanomas in mice and later watched as replacement mitochondrial DNA naturally shifted from surrounding normal tissue. After adopting the new DNA, the cancer cells went on to form tumours that spread to other parts of the body.

That might have seemed like bad news but the study was a leap in cellular biology. It could usher in a new field where synthetic mito-chondrial DNA is custom-designed to replace defective genes and combat the many diseases in which they're implicated.

Meanwhile, Berridge will investigate whether the mitochondrial transfer is facilitated by damage to mitochondrial DNA - in a new three-year, $800,000 study supported by the Marsden Fund.

- Herald on Sunday

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