Kiwi research investigating links between zinc and autism is one of more than 100 projects awarded nearly $60 million in funding under the just-announced Marsden Fund for the next three years.
The autism research, awarded $740,000, is a collaboration between Auckland University researcher Dr Johanna Montgomery and Professor Craig Garner from Stanford University in the US.
Many of the genes that had been found to be changed in autism-related disorders (ASD) involved proteins that were positioned at the boundary - or synapse - between nerve cells.
This suggested the behavioural dysfunctions in ASD were linked to changes in this boundary region, where nerve cells can more easily communicate with each other.
Dr Montgomery and Professor Garner had identified how ASD-related changes to a group of proteins called Shank proteins alter the structure and function of the boundary region, and how zinc could change the function of these proteins.
Levels in zinc, which is present in the brain and is known to influence the way that nerve cells communicate with each other, also appeared to be lower in ASD patients and zinc therapy can improve ASD symptoms.
Dr Montgomery's new research would therefore focus on understanding more about how zinc and Shank proteins interact with each other, in a study that had the potential to identify and describe a zinc-dependent signalling pathway that could be at the heart of ASD.
The projects to receive funding covered a wide range of topics, including: better understanding the Christchurch earthquake to mitigate earthquake hazards in similar cities; learning more about zinc therapy for autism-related disorders; and exploring how television shapes perceptions about Maori identity, particularly among Maori.
Twelve projects received funding of $800,000 or more.
Other highlights among the Marsden-funded projects included a GNS-led investigation into whether the southern edge of the Hikurangi Plateau controlled Otago tectonics, Massey University research on sex-based song traditions in New Zealand bellbirds, and Victoria University study on whether ice sheets in Antarctica could stabilise themselves.
The 109 successful Marsden Fund projects were selected from a pool of 1157 proposals submitted for consideration by the Marsden Fund Council.
"The Marsden Fund supports our brightest and best researchers - both those starting on their careers and those who are already established," said Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce, in announcing this year's round.
"Their research will help strengthen New Zealand society and increase innovation, which is key to building stronger economic growth and prosperity for New Zealanders and their families.
The Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, aimed to enhance the quality of research, support the advancement of scientific knowledge in New Zealand, and contribute to the global knowledge base.
The fund is governed by the Marsden Fund Council, which is appointed by the Minister of Science and Innovation.
The awards are split into two categories - fast-start awards are for early career researchers and worth up to $300,000 over a three-year period, while standard awards are for all applicants and can be worth as much as $850,000 over a three-year period.
A further $20 million had been allocated over four years in this year's Budget, which allowed the Marsden Fund Council to recommend an extra 22 proposals for funding this year.