Could Fiordland be acting as a giant carbon sink?

How do children understand questions, how does notorious myrtle rust attack host plants, and what drives the turbulent weather systems behind Jupiter's swirling Great Red Spot?

They're some of the big questions Kiwi scientists will now be able to answer after winning some of the $84 million just allocated to 133 research projects in this year's Marsden Fund round.

Subjects under investigation cover a range of topics of great interest to New Zealand, including improving our conservation efforts to protect our unique birdlife, developing novel cholesterol lowering therapies, and providing insight on the voyages that first brought humans to Aotearoa.

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Researchers will look at topics such as climate change, increasing the accuracy of predicting earthquake damage, the first systematic study of Maori rock art, and developing better disease-resistant crops.

The cash pool for New Zealand's premier blue-sky research fund, administered by Royal Society Te Aparangi on behalf of the Government, also rose from $65m last year, lifting the number of successful projects up from 117 and the overall success rate up from 10.7 per cent to 12 per cent.

Outgoing Marsden Fund council chair, Professor Juliet Gerrard, said it was especially pleasing to note that the number of Maori principal investigators of successful proposals rose from 5.9 per cent last year to 9.1 per cent this year.

"The continued increase in the number of Maori involved in successful proposals reflects the capacity building that has been under way for several years and, in particular, the emphasis on encouraging Maori to study right through to the PhD level."

Female principal investigators were also at least as successful as males over the last six years, she said.

The Herald looked at 10 of the most exciting new projects.

Unravelling the myrtle rust mystery

Few biosecurity incursions in recent times had proven as threatening as myrtle rust, a serious fungal disease that threatened many iconic plant species - among them, our pohutukawa, manuka and rata.

Since being discovered at a Kerikeri nursery in May, biosecurity officials had been unable to stop its spread to spots elsewhere in the country.

Part of preventing its spread lay in learning how such fungi successfully invade their plant hosts.

In a $300,000 study, Massey University's Dr Carl Mesarich would investigate a common fungus that affects apples, to work out how some fungi were so successful at infecting plants.

Few biosecurity incursions in recent times had proven as threatening as myrtle rust. Photo / File
Few biosecurity incursions in recent times had proven as threatening as myrtle rust. Photo / File

The work would offer new insights into how these types of fungi cause disease, and would create new opportunities for plant disease resistance breeding and pathogen control.

Fungi were among the most destructive disease-causing agents in economically-valuable plants worldwide, and devastatingly successful at invading their hosts, despite plants possessing a wide array of defences against infection.

Many disease-causing fungi had the ability to modify their surface biochemistry and structure - something that allowed them to invade plant tissue and manipulate the plant's immune system to facilitate colonisation.

Yet little was known about the cell surface changes involved, and how these led to the maintenance of specialised infection structures that could survive in a hostile host environment.

Mesarich's work on apple scab fungus aimed to characterise differences between the structure, cell surface biochemistry, protein composition, and gene expression of different fungal structures formed in cultures, plant host tissue, and cellophane membranes.

He would then use this information to pin-point specific genes that played a role in the differentiation and maintenance of infection-related structures, ultimately offering a blueprint to understand such mechanisms in other fungi species.

Silencing immunity of alien invaders

Argentine ants are among the world's worst invasive species. Photo / Jess Russell
Argentine ants are among the world's worst invasive species. Photo / Jess Russell

Another nasty pest about to come under the microscope is the highly invasive Argentine ant.

If Victoria University's Professor Phil Lester and his colleagues could reveal and then "silence" the ants' immunity genes, this could make them more vulnerable to disease and help limit the harm they do to our environment.

Invasive species often had no natural predators to control their numbers, and many rapidly colonised vast areas, out-competing native species and causing widespread environmental damage.

But some of these alien invaders crashed to low numbers only a few years after colonisation - and if scientists could learn why, their spread may be able to be controlled.

One leading theory for this boom and bust cycle was that pathogens, or tiny disease-causing organisms, were responsible.

As an invader accumulated bacteria and viruses in its new habitat, it spent precious resources fighting the infection, thereby reducing its fitness and competitive ability.

Professor Phil Lester (centre) with research colleagues (from left) Antoine Felden, James Baty and Monica Gruber. Photo / Jess Russell
Professor Phil Lester (centre) with research colleagues (from left) Antoine Felden, James Baty and Monica Gruber. Photo / Jess Russell

Lester and his team want to test the theory in the Argentine ant, one of the world's worst invasive species, and responsible for millions of New Zealand dollars spent each year in reduced crop production and treatments attempting to control their numbers.

The researchers would use the latest genetic techniques to identify and switch off the genes that enabled the ant's immune system to fight a variety of pathogens.

This innovative immune-silencing treatment could then be administered to ants in the wild through baits specifically designed to only target Argentine ants.

If the three-year, $925,000 project is successful, not only could the system control the Argentine ant population in New Zealand, but potentially could be adapted to other highly invasive species around the world.

Out of the mouths of babes

Victoria University researcher Dr Deirdre Brown has received a $840,000 grant to examine the best approaches to question children in criminal and welfare investigations. Photo / Supplied
Victoria University researcher Dr Deirdre Brown has received a $840,000 grant to examine the best approaches to question children in criminal and welfare investigations. Photo / Supplied

Another Victoria University researcher, Dr Deirdre Brown, has received a $840,000 grant to examine the best approaches to question children in criminal and welfare investigations.

From a young age, children learn that they are expected to answer adults' questions.

When children are interviewed about past events, they rarely say when they do not understand a question, or are unsure about an answer.

Instead, children often tried to comply by answering in unexpected and sometimes inaccurate ways.

In some situations - particularly when police officers or social workers interview children about possible maltreatment - such behaviour could have serious ramifications.

To help children in such settings, interviewers often teach them "ground rules" where children are asked to say "I don't know", "I don't understand", or "that's not right" when needed.

Yet researchers still didn't know how well children of different ages understood these ground rules, what impact these rules had on their behaviour, or how best to teach them.

Brown's three-year project would take a closer look at the problem and determine the most effective teaching method.

The findings could help adults prepare children to answer questions about their experiences, ensuring we gained better, more accurate information when making decisions about children's well-being.

Our hidden cultural treasures

Rock art is a crucial medium to understand the world view of past peoples - and few Kiwis might realise we have a wealth of it here in New Zealand.

Fewer still, might know that rock art remains amongst the least understood and most at-risk form of Maori heritage.

Rock art near Kaingaroa Forest Village in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / File
Rock art near Kaingaroa Forest Village in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / File

This was particularly true in the North Island, where there may be as many as 120 sites, compared with the 30 that were known until recent discoveries.

With a $300,000 grant, Dr Gerard O'Regan, of the University of Auckland's James Henare Maori Research Centre will carry out the first systematic study of Maori rock art across the north.

A close up of Maori rock art near Kaingaroa Forest Village in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / File
A close up of Maori rock art near Kaingaroa Forest Village in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / File

His planned archaeological survey, involving local iwi and kaitiaki, spans sites from Auckland, Northland, Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty, to King Country, Taranaki and the East Coast.

O'Regan's three year study would also look at the different ways Maori used rock art, whether it was a common practice shared across North Island iwi, or whether it originated as a series of unrelated innovations.

Matauranga Maori, or Maori knowledge, about rock art was currently limited - a consequence of colonial actions that disrupted connections between Maori and their lands Weathering, erosion, and land development for forestry or farming had further threatened the continued survival of these cultural treasures.

Documenting the nature and location of rock art across the North Island would help Maori protect them, and unlock a new window into the worlds of our ancestors.

How do we deal with traumatic memories?

It's commonly thought memories of traumatic experiences are fragmented, causing them to emerge jumbled, with pieces missing.

Under that view, trauma is remembered by special mechanisms that only allow the brain to record shallow aspects without deeper conceptual processing.

Many people also believe that, with the right therapy, traumatic memories can be re-assembled and "traumatic amnesia" reversed to bring back coherent memories of such events.

Otago University's Associate Professor Rachel Zajac, left, and the University of Waikato's Professor Maryanne Garry, right, will use experimental methods to test and compare how people recall traumatic and non-traumatic memories. Photo / Supplied
Otago University's Associate Professor Rachel Zajac, left, and the University of Waikato's Professor Maryanne Garry, right, will use experimental methods to test and compare how people recall traumatic and non-traumatic memories. Photo / Supplied

While that view might seemed reasonable, it rested entirely on the underlying idea that traumatic memories behaved differently from non-traumatic memories.

Was it really true?

Surprisingly, there was no scientific evidence to prove memory fragmentation was harmful, that it was encoded by a special mechanism - or that traumatic amnesia even existed.

Two psychology researchers have received a $695,000, three-year grant to explore the secret life of traumatic memories.

Otago University's Associate Professor Rachel Zajac and the University of Waikato's Professor Maryanne Garry will use experimental methods to test and compare how people recall traumatic and non-traumatic memories.

Zajac and Garry suggest that while fragmentation occurred for most memories, people might appraise traumatic memories differently.

This set in motion a chain of behaviours that could shape memories, psychological wellbeing - and even the willingness to question events.

Their research could have important implications for how we understand memory, and help to guide clinicians as they addressed the traumatic memories of their patients.

Do we eat less food if it has a complex texture?

There are many factors contributing to a worldwide obesity epidemic, which has seen global obesity nearly triple over four decades a point where nearly 40 per cent of adults were overweight and 13 per cent were obese.

In New Zealand, one of the world's fattest nations, almost one in three adults were obese and a further 35 per cent were overweight, according to the latest Ministry of Health statistics.

A big part of the puzzle is why people continued to eat, or eat between meals, when they were full.

Feeling full could be heightened by spending more time and effort on chewing food.
However, recently it had also been shown that the sense of feeling full could be accelerated by food texture - and in particular, complex textures.

Complex textures might be a combination of many sensations, such as crunchy, creamy, and crispy like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate.

Alternatively, they may be just a few textures sensed with high intensity, like a tooth-breakingly-hard Gingernut biscuit.

Complex textures might be a combination of many sensations - or just a few textures sensed with high intensity, like a tooth-breakingly-hard Gingernut biscuit. Photo / File
Complex textures might be a combination of many sensations - or just a few textures sensed with high intensity, like a tooth-breakingly-hard Gingernut biscuit. Photo / File

Yet the mechanisms that connected textural complexity with the feeling of fullness were not well understood.

University of Auckland researchers Professor Bryony James, Associate Professor Michael Hautus and Dr Nicholas Gant aim to fill this crucial knowledge gap by finding whether the increased effort required to chew texturally complex foods resulted in a cascade of sensory inputs to the brain, stimulating signals to the gut.

Their $945,000 study would draw on an interdisciplinary approach, using functional MRI to investigate the response of the human brain to different food textures, and linking these neural responses to food material properties and to perceptions of texture.

This hallmark study would directly connect the responses of our mouth, brain and gut to the physical properties of the food we eat.

Ultimately, the research stood to contribute to a better understanding of appetite and eating - and enable better insight into how to combat the rising obesity epidemic.

Could life have originated on land?

Determining the origins of life is one of the great scientific challenges of our time.

Recognising traces of early life in rocks after billions of years of alteration by natural processes remains difficult.

It was therefore unsurprising that the time when life began remained unknown.

Recent revelations have also thrown doubt over whether we really know where life actually began on Earth.

The discovery in deep-sea hydrothermal vents of "extremophiles" - heat loving microbes that constitute Earth's most primitive living things - spawned the popular notion that life originated in the ocean.

But a new discovery in Western Australia challenged this view.

Scientists uncovered a 3.5 billion-year-old rock formation in Pilbara, originally thought to be an ancient marine basin.

It contained well-preserved mineral, chemical, and textural indicators of ancient life - the earliest convincing evidence to date.

However, newly discovered geothermal sediments indicated the formation preserves a remnant of Earth's oldest known land-based hot spring.

If proven, this would extend the known geological record of inhabited terrestrial hot springs on Earth by around three billion years, and push back the existence of life on land by 580 million years - to a time comparable with some of the earliest known ocean fossils.

One of the scientists involved in that work, Professor Kathy Campbell of the University of Auckland, will now use a $958,000 grant to drill into the Pilbara hot spring for new evidence on some of the earliest life on Earth - and even clues to help find remains of past life on Mars.

Western Australia's Pilbara region has yielded discoveries that could change what we understand about the origin of life on Earth. Photo / File
Western Australia's Pilbara region has yielded discoveries that could change what we understand about the origin of life on Earth. Photo / File

Campbell's team sought to extract a core of unweathered rock to sample for geochemical, mineral, and organic analysis, and to compare with modern-day hot spring deposits they studied previously.

This could yield a better understanding of microbial-mineral-fluid relationships, and reveal the ancient environmental and geochemical conditions under which earliest life on land developed.

Fascinatingly, results from the project would inform the upcoming Nasa Mars 2020 mission as to the best location on Mars to explore for possible signs of extraterrestrial life, in a hot spring setting that also formed over three billion years ago - a time on the red planet when volcanism was active and water flowed across its surface.

Some members of the team are helping to present the science case for the rover site selection process currently underway in the US.

Is the missing CO2 hiding in Fiordland?

Our understanding of where and how the carbon dioxide we produce is stored in New Zealand is growing each year.

One eye-opening Niwa study this year suggested our forests and other land areas may be sucking up to 60 per cent more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than previously thought - and we could likely thank our native trees for much of it.

Now, researchers will take a closer look at one carbon-absorbing enigma - heavily-forested Fiordland - that could change our understanding of the future impacts of climate change in New Zealand.

A recent study indicated the amount of CO2 absorbed from Fiordland's atmosphere may be underestimated. Photo / File
A recent study indicated the amount of CO2 absorbed from Fiordland's atmosphere may be underestimated. Photo / File

Modelling future levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere required a good understanding of the amount of CO2 that is both entering and leaving the atmosphere (CO2 flux) today.

Yet there was currently large disagreement in the estimates of land-based CO2 fluxes.

In particular, the CO2 flux for Fiordland, one of the largest indigenous forests in New Zealand, has recently been contested.

A recent study indicated the amount of CO2 absorbed from Fiordland's atmosphere may be underestimated.

Forests play an important role in the flux of carbon as they release CO2 during plant and soil respiration, and uptake CO2 during plant photosynthesis.

Niwa's Dr Peter Sperlich will work with an international group of scientists to finally determine whether Fiordland's forest really is more productive than previously thought and can account for the missing CO2.

Researchers are taking a closer look at heavily-forested Fiordland in a study that could change our understanding of the future impacts of climate change in New Zealand. Photo / File
Researchers are taking a closer look at heavily-forested Fiordland in a study that could change our understanding of the future impacts of climate change in New Zealand. Photo / File

Sperlich would draw heavily on isotopic analyses to probe the processes that affect CO2 flux, and how these are affected by different environmental conditions.

Specifically, he planned to measure CO2 and related trace gases in coastal background air, before and after it has passed over Fiordland.

This would lead to a deeper understanding of the CO2 flux in Fiordland, and whether it could account for the difference in current atmospheric estimates in this region.

Findings from the $300,000 study would improve current methods for estimating regional carbon fluxes, increasing our certainty in New Zealand's inventory of greenhouse gas emissions regularly reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Massive stars: neighbours from heaven or hell?

No star is an island.

Stars were not isolated systems that lived their lives without interacting with their surroundings.

This was particularly the case for the most massive stars - those greater than eight times the mass of our own sun.

Throughout their life these huge stars "feedback" into their surroundings by firing out massive amounts of ultraviolet radiation and belching super strong winds, ionising and heating everything around them.

Even in death, they were spectacular; creating a massive explosion called a supernova that can both trigger and suppress the formation of other stars in the neighbourhood.

The physics of massive star formation and the redistribution of mass, energy, and metals throughout the stars' life cycle, were the missing ingredients required to connect the galaxies that we observe today to models of galaxy evolution.

Dr Anna McLeod aims to find out how massive stars regulate the formation of other stars, and hence the development and growth of galaxies. Photo / Supplied
Dr Anna McLeod aims to find out how massive stars regulate the formation of other stars, and hence the development and growth of galaxies. Photo / Supplied

Alongside researchers from Germany and the UK, the University of Canterbury's Dr Anna McLeod sought to determine how these stars regulated the formation of other stars, and hence the development and growth of galaxies.

Using some of the newest and largest telescopes in the world, McLeod would describe the features of several massive stars.

Her work would also dissect nearby galaxies into tiny regions and obtain high-quality spectra for each, gaining valuable insights into massive star feedback in action.

Findings of the $300,000 study could provide the observational platform needed to significantly advance our understanding of one of the most important astrophysical processes in the universe.

Youth-quake: how our youth are putting hope into action

Youth stop for a picture with Labour Party leader and new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / File
Youth stop for a picture with Labour Party leader and new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / File

Faced with climate change, growing economic inequality, and political instability, the future of the world may seem bleak.

Young people would live the longest with these challenges and their consequences, and recent elections and social movements have seen a resurgence of youth engagement and activism globally.

The so-called "youth-quake" behind the recent meteoric rise of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was a striking example.

In this context, hope for social change could be a powerful catalyst for political action.

Associate Professor Karen Nairn, of the University of Otago's College of Education, planned to explore how our young people put their hopes for social change into action.

Her $840,000 project would investigate what inspired them to join collectives and social movements, and what kept them involved.

Associate Professor Karen Nairn of the University of Otago's College of Education. Photo / Supplied
Associate Professor Karen Nairn of the University of Otago's College of Education. Photo / Supplied

Working with politically-engaged 18 to 29-year-old New Zealanders through interviews, observation and social media, Nairn would investigate what issues these young people perceived as the most urgent, their visions for the future, and their views on the most effective ways to make change.

There was much research on the threats and challenges facing the current generation, and on youth resilience in the face of adversity.

Yet few people had looked at the importance of hope as a powerful motivator towards social and political action.

In doing so, this project would challenge stereotypes of youth as disaffected, apathetic and self-interested - while also highlighting the hope and visions for the future that our future leaders were actively working toward.