Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Marsden minds: Amazing projects revealed

Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato (right) works with a baby and mum as part of her brain research. Photo / Ann Huston
Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato (right) works with a baby and mum as part of her brain research. Photo / Ann Huston

Research to find new Earth-like planets, clean up our waterways, transform computing and reconstruct hundreds of years of history have been granted more than $65 million in Government funding today.

A total 117 projects have been awarded grants by the Marsden Fund, our premier fund for investigator-led research, managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government.

The total funding pool was an increase on the $54 million awarded to 92 projects supported last year.

Marsden Fund council chair Professor Juliet Gerrard said this year's fund also reflected stronger support for early-career researchers, with 49 "Fast-Start" proposals, of up to $300,000 each, getting the green light.

Many of those researchers were looking at issues very much at the forefront of public interest today, such as climate change, nitrogen run-off, immigration and understanding New Zealand's native plants and animals.

"The increased success of our emerging researchers this year gives us confidence that our long-term future is in great shape."

The number of grants awarded to established researchers was also up from 63 last year to 68 in 2016, thanks to the increase in funding.

Topics under investigation by those receiving a standard grant also covered a range of topics of great interest to the country, including slow-moving landslides, ancient Maori social networks, and how melanin acts as a sunscreen.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce, who announced the successful proposals this morning, said the Government set aside $66 million over the next four years for growing the fund as part of Budget 2016.

This would increase the annual amount available for the fund by 49 per cent over four years, growing it to $79.8 million in 2019/20.

"A successful science system needs the right balance of investigator-led research, applied research, and business research and development," he said.

"The Marsden is our pre-eminent investigator-led research fund and is a crucial contributor to building an innovation-led economy and society."

The full list of grant recipients can be viewed here.

The Herald looked at 10 of the projects supported this year.

1. Sleeping to remember or sleeping to forget?

Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato (left ) wants to learn more about how sleep shapes memory. Photo: Lutz Leitmann
Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato (left ) wants to learn more about how sleep shapes memory. Photo: Lutz Leitmann

As we sleep, our brains initiate sophisticated memory processes that are vital for our everyday functioning and help us consolidate freshly-learned information with existing knowledge.

Sleep even regulates how our memory processes facts and emotions.

But while both memory and sleep undergo dramatic changes during infancy, little is known about their relationship during this important period of development.

Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato, along with colleagues from Australia and Germany, will test if sleep makes effective processing of emotional stimuli and experiences easier for six to 18-month old infants.

The $300,000, three-year project will focus on sleep-dependent processing of different types of emotional memories and whether being well-rested versus tired affects the ability of six-month-old infants to recognise emotional faces.

First, they will determine the effect of timing of sleep, investigating whether being well-rested or tired affects the ability of six-month-olds to recognise emotional faces.

Next, they'll aim to discover if taking a nap versus staying awake after learning makes it easier for six to 18-month old infants to selectively consolidate memories for emotional faces - "sleeping to remember" - or lessen the effects associated with recalling emotional episodes, or "sleeping to forget".

Researchers predict that previous sleep prepares the infant brain to accurately encode emotional stimuli, and also that post-learning sleep promotes selective retention of emotional information and reduces the emotional "tone" associated with recalling an emotional event.

Knowing more about how sleep shapes emotional memory and thus regulates which experiences are likely to stick with an infant and in which form, will contribute to a deeper understanding of adaptive and maladaptive development.

2. How diet and exercise affect our cells

Researchers believe initial increases in metabolic activity - short bursts of exercise, or changes in diet - can raise peptide levels to protect against metabolic and oxidative stress. Photo: File
Researchers believe initial increases in metabolic activity - short bursts of exercise, or changes in diet - can raise peptide levels to protect against metabolic and oxidative stress. Photo: File

Two major diseases affecting Kiwis - obesity and type 2 diabetes - are known to respond positively to exercise and a calorie-restricted diet, bringing about benefits including less risk of the disease and a longer life.

A study led by Dr Troy Merry of Auckland University will look deeper at these effects, exploring how diet and exercise affect mitochondria, the energy generating machinery in our cells.

With colleagues from Otago University and ETH Zurich in Switzerland, Merry will look at recently identified mitochondrial-derived peptides such as humanin, which have been linked with protective effects in age-related neurological damage.

The $300,000 project will also focus on how these molecules may protect us from metabolic stress and oxidative stress.

Merry and his team are interested in the effects of short-term and long-term changes of diet or exercise on peptide levels in blood and muscle tissue.

Specifically, they will investigate how these interventions and the resulting changes in peptide levels contribute to restoring metabolic balance.

They believe that initial increases in metabolic activity - short bursts of exercise, or changes in diet - can raise peptide levels to protect against metabolic stress and oxidative stress.

In contrast, long-term metabolic stress, driven by factors like obesity, may result in a drop in peptide levels and a loss of protection.

This project will pioneer an exciting new field of metabolic research and provide a better understanding of the biological processes underlying diseases like diabetes and obesity.

3. Your eyes: more than just windows to your soul

New research will investigate the drivers behind effects on eyes such as cataracts. Photo: File
New research will investigate the drivers behind effects on eyes such as cataracts. Photo: File

When you read, the lens of your eye must maintain both clarity and the correct shape to focus on the text and refract the light to the back of your eye.

If you get distracted and glance outside, your eye performs an amazing feat of physics to refocus on objects that are further away.

But, because the lens of your eye is made of living cells, does it stay clear and maintain its shape to precisely focus light from both near and far?

A team led by Professor Paul Donaldson, of Auckland University's School of Medical Sciences is working on an answer.

The group, including his university colleagues and collaborators from the State University of New York, have already used high-tech measurements and molecular biology to show that water and sodium ions are pumped around the lens of the eye.

This fascinating natural system helps maintain a hydrostatic pressure in tune with the shape and clarity requirements of the lens.

Donaldson's $810,000 Marsden grant will build on their earlier discovery to determine exactly how the cells of the eye regulate the water pressure to maintain clarity and change the focal length of the lens.

They'll also investigate whether applying mechanical tension to the lens, to mimic lens refocusing, alters water transport and lens power.

The three-year study will also provide clues as to why the process sometimes goes wrong - for instance, when cataracts form in an ageing eye.

Their ultimate goal is to come up with non-invasive, early intervention methods of improving vision and delaying the onset of cataracts.

As ageing and diabetes are two causes of cataracts, the research will have increasing significance as New Zealand's population ages and the incidence of diabetes continues to rise.

4. New nanotechnology to clean up waterways

Nitrate is a known driver of oxygen-depleting algae in waterways. Photo: File
Nitrate is a known driver of oxygen-depleting algae in waterways. Photo: File

One of the biggest polluters of New Zealand's waterways over recent decades has been nitrate, brought by agricultural intensification and overuse of fertilisers.

Its impacts on our cherished rivers and freshwater fauna are wide-ranging; nitrate promotes algae growth - depleting oxygen and killing biodiversity - and is also harmful to human health, reducing the ability of blood cells to transport oxygen around the body.

While nitrate can be removed from contaminated water by converting it to oxygen and nitrogen gas, which are harmless, this approach is impractical without smart catalytic conversion technologies to speed up the process and reduce the high energy requirement.

Helping solve this problem, with a new $300,000 study, is Otago University's Dr Anna Garden.

With Associate Professor Egill Skulason from the University of Iceland, Garden will create new nanoparticle catalysts that can selectively convert nitrate to nitrogen without generating harmful by-products.

Nanoparticles have a high surface to volume ratio, diverse chemical environments and unique reactivity patterns - all good traits for their development into highly efficient catalysts.

Yet, unfortunately, the number of possible nanoparticles of different structures and compositions is virtually limitless.

Garden plans to use computational techniques to come up with an efficient screening process to eliminate nanoparticles that will not be catalytically active, with an ultimate goal of developing an innovation that quickly and safely removes nitrate from drinking water.

5. Submarine landslides on the move

 NIWA scientist Dr Joshu Mountjoy on a previous expedition mapping submarine landslides. Photo: Dave Allen
NIWA scientist Dr Joshu Mountjoy on a previous expedition mapping submarine landslides. Photo: Dave Allen

Some of the largest tsunamis in history have been generated by submarine landslides; among them the 1998 tsunami that sent 15m waves toward northern Papua New Guinea and killed 2,183 people.

But not all landslides generate tsunamis, as the trigger depends primarily on their speed; the faster the landslide the greater the likelihood of generating a tsunami.

The most widely known trigger of submarine landslides is the violent movement of the seafloor as a result of an earthquake.

However, Dr Joshu Mountjoy from the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA), and Dr Gareth Crutchley from GNS Science, believe other short-lived processes may affect where and how submarine landslides are set off.

This duo and their research team, which includes scientists from New Zealand and Germany, have received a $870,000 Marsden Fund grant to determine whether pockets of pressurised gas trapped beneath a submarine landslide, or liquefaction within the landslide, can trigger slope failure and cause the landslide to keep moving.

Off the northeast coast of New Zealand lies the Tuaheni landslide complex, one of the few global examples of an active slow-moving submarine landslide - and the perfect opportunity to study an active landslide on the sea floor.

Mountjoy will use 3D seismic data collected on the NIWA research vessel RV Tangaroa, as well as sediment core samples collected on the RV Sonne, to look for evidence of pressurised gas and liquefaction in the Tuaheni landslide complex.

Cutting-edge lab experiments on sediment samples will be carried out to determine how the landslides respond to gas pressure build-up and earthquake motions.

The resulting data will be used to model various scenarios by which landslides are initiated and move slowly, or alternatively, fail catastrophically under the influence of both gas pressure and earthquake shaking - finally helping to determine the tsunami hazard potential of such features.

6. Journey to the Earth ... beyond Earth

A new study led by Canterbury University's Associate Professor Michael Albrow (pictured) will try to discover just how many planets there are in our Milky Way galaxy. Photo: Michael Albrow
A new study led by Canterbury University's Associate Professor Michael Albrow (pictured) will try to discover just how many planets there are in our Milky Way galaxy. Photo: Michael Albrow

Since the ground-breaking discovery of the first planet outside our solar system in 1995, the quest to explain the origin and evolution of planets and life has intensified.

But traditional methods used to locate such "extrasolar" planets are hampered by biases that mean they mostly detect planets that are located at distances from their parent star that are much less than the distance of the Earth from the Sun.

A new $870,000 project, led by Canterbury University's Associate Professor Michael Albrow, will draw upon a network of state-of the-art telescopes located around the Southern Hemisphere to discover just how many planets there are in our Milky Way galaxy.

Together with Professor Andrew Gould from Ohio State University, Albrow will develop advanced image processing and computational analysis techniques that will enable high-resolution data of tens of millions of stars to be collected every 10 minutes.

In contrast to previous techniques, this new system will be able to detect planets with masses less than that of Earth.

Ultimately, Albrow hopes to discover planets of similar size to Earth that could potentially support life.

This study will enhance our knowledge on planetary formation and the evolution of life, and contribute significantly to our understanding of the prospects for life outside planet Earth.

7. DNA from dung - reconstructing prehistoric ecosystems

Associate Professor Janet Wilmshurst, based at Landcare Research and Auckland University, assessing rat dung. Photo: Supplied
Associate Professor Janet Wilmshurst, based at Landcare Research and Auckland University, assessing rat dung. Photo: Supplied

Ancient-DNA technology is a rapidly growing field worldwide, driven by new analytical techniques like next generation sequencing and more precise extraction.

In New Zealand, recently set up labs are powering an explosion of investigations into the past.

One of several researchers in this emerging field is Associate Professor Janet Wilmshurst, based at Landcare Research and Auckland University.

Her team will study DNA, pollen, seeds, feathers and parts of invertebrates and plants from preserved dung from kiore, or Pacific rat, recently found in rock crevices in Central Otago.

The team will also seek out other sites of this kiore dung - called "coprolites" - in the North and South Islands.

The kiore was the first and only exotic mammal to naturalise in New Zealand in the 500 years before European settlement.

With the discovery of these coprolites the complete history of a rat invasion can be reconstructed, right back to the kiore's arrival with Maori in the 13th century.

By analysing DNA in ancient kiore dung, Wilmshurst will find out what these invasive rats were feeding on, be it birds, reptiles, amphibians invertebrates or plants.

Radiocarbon dating will reveal how the diet of these rats, and their impact on vulnerable animals and plants, changed over time.

Other questions the project will address are the role kiore played in seed predation and dispersal, and whether rat predation contributed to the extinction of much larger animals such as the moa, more than is currently believed.

This project will provide a global benchmark for understanding prehistoric island invasions and rat impacts on a pristine island ecosystem.

8. Why fly when you can walk?

 Massey University's Dr Gillian Gibb has been awarded a $300,000 Fast-Start grant to investigate genetic mechanisms underlying the pathways to flightlessness. Photo: Ecology Group, Massey University
Massey University's Dr Gillian Gibb has been awarded a $300,000 Fast-Start grant to investigate genetic mechanisms underlying the pathways to flightlessness. Photo: Ecology Group, Massey University

Birds, as we've long known them, are the quintessential flying machines.

But flying costs energy, and also constrains body size, weight, reproduction and shape.
So if you don't have to fly, why bother?

Not surprisingly, some birds - notably our own national icon - have given up flight altogether.

However, some lineages appear more prone to flight loss than others.

This might be because the physiological or ecological traits are limiting; there are no flightless hummingbirds, for instance.

Possible comparisons between flighted and flightless New Zealand rails. Photo: Supplied
Possible comparisons between flighted and flightless New Zealand rails. Photo: Supplied

Massey University's Dr Gillian Gibb has been awarded a $300,000 Fast-Start grant to investigate the genetic mechanisms underlying the pathways to flightlessness.

She'll use genetic techniques to explore the well-studied ecological and physical differences between related flightless and flighted birds.

Many of New Zealand's endemic birds have evolved flightlessness, sometimes independently, but this research will focus on birds in the rail family.

Rails are an ecologically and culturally significant part of New Zealand's bird fauna, and contain the flightless weka and takahe.

Gibb plans to compare pairs of two closely-related species of rails - in each pair, one can fly and the other cannot.

The flightless weka will be compared to the flighted buff-banded rail, and the flightless takahe to the pukeko.

Gibb will use comparative genomics analyses to reveal whether a conserved set of genes are implicated in the development of flightlessness, and will also investigate what order, timing and degree of variability there is in the combination of genes operating in different birds.

This research will enhance our understanding of many important genetic pathways, including limb development, reproductive capacity, immunology and metabolism.

The knowledge gained will have application in many other species and provide new insights into the molecular foundation of a profound ecological and evolutionary shift.

9. Energy efficient 'super chips' for computers

Dr Yawen Chen from Otago University has received a $300,000 grant to develop new, efficient architecture and communication paths for a light-based microprocessor. Photo: Supplied
Dr Yawen Chen from Otago University has received a $300,000 grant to develop new, efficient architecture and communication paths for a light-based microprocessor. Photo: Supplied

A microprocessor is like the brain of a computer.

In the past microprocessors usually had a single core - a processing unit - but today, to speed up computing time, the latest microprocessors can have tens, hundreds, or even thousands of cores within a single chip.

However, the current bandwidth and limited power budgets of such chips restrict their performance.

This results in bottlenecks, not just for supercomputers and large-scale data centres, but for everyday smartphone users - we're all familiar with the after-school slowdown.

Dr Yawen Chen from Otago University has received a $300,000 grant to tackle this problem.

With university colleagues and researchers from China's Xidian University, she will develop new, efficient architecture and communication paths for a light-based microprocessor.

A recent ground-breaking ONoC (optical network-on-chip) based microprocessor has a bandwidth up to 50 times greater than state-of-the-art electrical processors, and uses only 1.3 watts of power to transmit a terabit of data per second.

However, most existing ONoC designs don't take full advantage of optical communication to maximise performance and save energy.

It's this area the study will focus on.

The three-year project will advance the current state-of-the-art network theories and techniques for microprocessor design, fostering fresh knowledge about high-performance, more energy-efficient computing.

10. The making of Maori society

Auckland University researchers work with members of Ngati Hei on Great Mercury Island. A Marsden Fund grant will help them analyse some of the recovered material. Photo: Supplied
Auckland University researchers work with members of Ngati Hei on Great Mercury Island. A Marsden Fund grant will help them analyse some of the recovered material. Photo: Supplied

No culture is socially static and, over several centuries, the Polynesian colonists who settled New Zealand began to create a new type of society.

Relatively autonomous village-based groups transformed into larger territorial hapu lineages, which later formed even larger iwi associations.

Traditionally, information passed down through the generations by word of mouth has provided the best evidence of these complex, dynamic changes in social organisation.

However, a novel $705,000 project will use archaeological evidence to examine how social networks beyond the village changed as Maori society developed.

Obsidian and a dog bone that were recovered from Great Mercury Island. Photo: Supplied
Obsidian and a dog bone that were recovered from Great Mercury Island. Photo: Supplied

Professor Thegn Ladefoged from Auckland University's anthropology department will work with colleagues to reconstruct ancient systems of inter-iwi trade and contact by looking at the physical evidence of everyday life - tracing when and where ancient tools made from obsidian moved throughout New Zealand.

By combining traditional archaeological techniques, sophisticated Geographical Information System (GIS) data and social network analysis modelling with local iwi input, the team will gain new insights into how Maori society emerged and flourished in the past.

Proposed experiments will use obsidian hydration dating as a method for determining the age of New Zealand artefacts.

The collaborative research will also connect or reconnect Maori with their taonga held in museums and university archaeology collections.

The integration of science, archaeology and local knowledge on a rarely seen scale, makes this one of the most unique and exciting Marsden-funded projects in recent years.

- NZ Herald

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