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Genetics Otago
University of Otago Research Centre

Inaugural Genetics Otago Magazine!


We have been working hard behind the scene for the past couple of months to produce our very first magazine.

‘On the GO 2020′ celebrates and profiles some of our members and the events we have held this year. We hope that you find it an interesting read!

Read On the GO 2020 here.



Genetics Plus Tikanga Equals “Potential for More Good”

Hunting, fishing, forestry. Not the first things that spring to mind when you come across the phrase “quantitative genetics”. But that’s until you come across Otago Senior Scientist Phillip Wilcox (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu), who is (you guessed it!) a quantitative geneticist.


Not that Phil himself would have thought that’s where life would lead when he began work with the New Zealand Forest Service after first getting his forestry degree.
With deer culling part of the job description, Phil’s early career is ‘unusual’ for someone who now lectures in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. But more than that, the work also exposed him to many of the harsh realities of life in some of New Zealand’s more isolated towns.

“My forestry experience [in the Central North Island] put me in small Māori communities,” Phil says. “And it left me with a deep sense of the challenges that these communities face.”

Fast forward to today—via a PhD at North Carolina State University in the States – and the desire to find “practical ways of making a difference” for Māori remains one of Phil’s main motivations. And that’s where modern genetic techniques come in.

“I see these technologies as having almost emancipatory power to Māori communities,” Phil explains. “We’re finding genes that cause or contribute to disease, and some of these genes are specific to Māori communities. Gene-based interventions can therefore be developed for those communities — it’s a tool in the kete (basket) that can and has had real benefits.”

One project Phil’s been heavily involved with is cataloguing the DNA variants in Māori populations to create a “data set to enable faster disease diagnosis”. In fact, analysing this sort of data is what quantitative genetics is all about; for instance, using statistical analysis to estimate disease risk and so “help people make informed choices”.

“It’s a very practical way of making a difference,” Phil says. Indeed, the practical applications of quantitative genetics are so great that many of his students “are getting jobs before they graduate. It’s a data-rich day and age, and having analytical skills is more and more needed for good employment pathways.”

But genetics can also provide a pathway linking modern science to traditional tikanga Māori, Phil reckons, for example in the way that genetics “broadly aligns with the ancestry aspects of whakapapa”. This has allowed scientists like Phil to “open up conversations” and design “ethical frameworks” around genetic research that takes tikanga into account.

“I’ve been mentored by Māori community leaders, kaumātua, with a different view of the world than academics—it’s a wider, more holistic view where they have to deliver solutions for their people.”

As well as being “informed and inspired” by these Māori world views, Phil’s also now more appreciative of how tikanga-informed genetics has “the potential for greater good”.
“We don’t have to leave tikanga at the door; instead tikanga opens doors,” he says. “It’s been an honour and a privilege to be doing this at the flax roots.”

And as for Phil’s own outdoor roots, hunting, diving and fishing still keeps him in touch with whenua and whānau, and provides a welcome balance to a busy academic life.

Written by Mick Whittle

When People and Science Come Out on TOP

Ben Peters isn’t your average scientist – and he’s certainly not what most people think scientists are like.

For a start, he’s a committed member of his local church, an outspoken advocate for both science and social issues, and, to

TOP it all, is the gene-editing spokesperson and Dunedin candidate for The Opportunities Party (aka TOP) in the 2020 General Election. He’s also studied philosophy, theology, management and maths on the way to earning his PhD in Biochemistry, which he now teaches at Otago.

Yet his seeming interest in anything and everything does have a central focus: improving human welfare.

Ben in the plant room next to his transgenic Arabidopsis thaliana plants.

“What drives me is goals-based problem solving,” he explains. “How can we fundamentally help human beings?”

It’s what drew him to biochemistry in the first place (that, and a liking for the “fancy name” when he first heard his two favourite school subjects, biology and chemistry, combined). In Ben’s view, to truly understand human beings, we must first understand the basis of life itself.

“The thing that really excites me [about molecular biology] is the level of understanding that this gives us for solving human problems – like when medicine applies the findings of biochemistry and genetics.”

Yet according to Ben, health isn’t the only area where such science can help “solve problems that affect people in a detrimental way”. For example, Ben points to environmental concerns such as pollution and climate change, and asks whether we could use gene-edited crops to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, say, “or use designer microorganisms to consume plastic waste” 

This also explains his interest in politics.

In Korea before presenting at an international conference.

“The reason why we’re not equipping scientists to solve problems is because we have a political system that hasn’t featured scientists,” he reckons. But with the COVID crisis showing the crucial importance of scientific advice, Ben’s hopeful that the situation will improve.

Educating and informing people about science is, therefore, one of Ben’s major motivations; another is to highlight “all the diverse pathways that scientists can go into,” especially for school students thinking of studying science at Otago.

And for those that do, Ben encourages them to “take interest papers that give you a flavour a bit outside the norm”.

“It gets you in touch with other issues and rounds out your understanding,” he says. Who knows, it might also help to make the world a better place.


Written by Mick Whittle

Photos Supplied by Ben Peters



Parasites in Paddocks

“So you’re from New Zealand and you’re studying sheep?” the immigration official asked, obviously confused. “And you’re doing it here in Ireland?”

Now a Genomics Scientist at AgResearch’s Invermay Campus outside Dunedin, Kathryn is still working on sheep genetics – although, as she laughingly admits, it’s not what she ever thought she’d be doing, despite growing up on a farm in Southland.

While studying genetics and zoology at Otago, one of her more immediate plans was simply to see more of the world.
“I’d always wanted to do an exchange,” she explains. So when the opportunity came up to complete her zoology papers at the University of Glasgow, it seemed an obvious choice.











“All of my great-great-grandparents are from Scotland,” she says. “Glasgow is a great place and the university has a beautiful campus.”
(Just so you know, the University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 and is “the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world,” according to its official website.)

It was also the lure of travel that eventually took her to Ireland, to study at the Irish equivalent of AgResearch, Teagasc, once she’d completed her Master’s degree at Otago (researching the genetics of sheep resistance to stomach parasites).
“It was really good to go overseas again and get to experience a different working environment and a diversity of students.”

Now back home in New Zealand, ‘diverse and different’ also sums up her AgResearch role after the narrower focus of her doctoral

“It’s been a useful learning curve going from one specific project to being involved in many,” Kathryn reckons, with her current job dealing with everything from pneumonia and other livestock health issues to the effects of environmental stress (such as climate change) on plant and animal genes.
“I enjoy it because I get to combine genetics – applied genetics – to an industry that I care about,” she says.

And as an expert on animal disease, she’s even been able to get something positive from this year’s human coronavirus pandemic: “COVID has certainly made explaining disease transmission to farmers much easier.”


Written by Mick Whittle

Photos supplied by Kathryn McRae

GO Symposium

Join us for the GO Zoom Symposium on the 18th November.

This is an in-person Symposium with Zoom links between the main rooms in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington. Come along to hear some fantastic talks and a chat over lunch.

Registration is now open and we are accepting abstracts and nominations for awards until 30th November.

Register Here


More Info


A Mother of a Wasp Problem …

Photo Credit Mick Whittle

When mum-to-be Gemma McLaughlin packs up her bucket and spade, it’s not to practise sandcastle building for the baby who’s due in December. Rather, she’ll be off to dig up the nests of some of New Zealand’s most hated insects – the German or the common wasp – dressed in protective bee-suit and layers of sting-proof denim, with a fellow researcher coming along for added safety.

She’s even got a Facebook page where members of the public can contact her about nests on their property.

As to why Gemma’s so keen to collect these aggressive pests: her PhD focuses on potential genetic techniques to eradicate these non-native nuisances. Ironically, though, while her ultimate aim might be to kill off these invasive critters, much of the practical work in the lab actually involves keeping them alive. “They’re not like bees, no-one deliberately raises them,” she says.

So Gemma’s had to teach herself ‘Wasp Husbandry 101’ just to have live insects to study.

“The larvae are so demanding, so the workers are always foraging. They work so hard.”

This has given Gemma both plenty of work to do herself, raising broods of young wasps, and also “a begrudging respect” for the adults. Yet it also points to why these social insects are such a problem in New Zealand: that their incessant feeding robs many of our native species of food. Most infamous for consuming massive amounts of ‘honeydew nectar’ in beech forests (an important food for native animals), these wasps also eat substantial numbers of native insects.

“They’ve also been known to kill baby chicks and clear out the carcass,” Gemma reckons.

Helping get rid of this huge conservation threat, therefore, is one of Gemma’s main motivations. “I want to make a difference – I want to say I’m doing worthwhile science,” she says. “Our country is so unique.”

Photo supplied by Gemma

It’s what led Gemma into genetics in the first place, and to completing a Masters’ degree on the DNA of the Tasman booby, a remote island seabird.

“They were thought to be extinct and I was looking at whether the [recently-rediscovered] island populations were in need of genetic rescue.”

An OE in Europe then followed, including a job as a lab technician with a schizophrenia research group at King’s College, London. “I loved working there, it was really multinational,” Gemma recalls.

Re-motivated by the experience, she returned to New Zealand determined to undertake an applied genetics project “on invasive species management”. Wasps seemed an ideal candidate, with the idea of targeting these particular insects for genetic control (say, by turning off genes) a novel area of research.

“It feels strange, like I’m the first person doing this in the world,” Gemma says.

Of course, while actually applying genetic technology to pest control is still “years away”, Gemma’s already making a difference every time she turns up to dig up a wasp nest.

I get to interact with the public a lot more than I would otherwise and get a better picture on their feelings towards genetic research.”

Written by Mick Whittle

Young Scientist’s (adrenaline-fuelled) Meditations on Gene Editing and Conservation

Photo Credit Mick Whittle

Away from her work in genetics – currently as a “baby bioinformatician” – Anna Clark likes to meditate. But forget joss sticks and yoga poses; what Anna has in mind is the “adrenaline meditation” of surfing and white-water kayaking.

“It’s more a mindful awareness or definitely a mindful state of consciousness,” Anna explains, “forcing you into the present with every stroke, reading the water.

While this might seem a world away from the biological data interpretation (the ‘bioinformatics’ bit) that’s been a large part of her Masters’ degree, for Anna there’s a clear link.

Photo supplied by Anna Clark


“Being out in the wilderness and experiencing the problems first-hand makes me appreciate why I’m doing this work,” she says. “When I am sitting in my office challenged by the fine details of my project, I have to bring myself back to the wider picture.”



And Anna’s ‘wider picture problems’ are increasingly urgent for New Zealand: the seemingly never-ending threats our native flora and fauna face from invasive pests, such as possums, stoats and rats.

She’s one of a growing number of young, “purpose-driven” geneticists who want to use their scientific know-how and enthusiasm for wider community benefit – in her case, through conservation.

“I came into this [studying genetics at Otago] with a problem I wanted to solve: pest control.”

Photo supplied by Anna Clark

Not that such a science-based ambition would have been obvious when she was growing up; her family were organic farmers wary of modern science, especially genetic modification. It was only when she joined a conservation group at high school and saw the damage done by invasive species, that Anna felt “a switch over” in her perspective, along with a growing curiosity about the social resistance to the topic of genetics.

“My parents taught us to be independent thinkers and I wanted to know what was going on here,” she says. “To understand the science [and ask] where’s the evidence for what works?”

However, she also appreciates “the emotional drive” behind opposition to genetic technology.

There needs to be more engagement with affected communities who feel like their values are being disregarded,” she reckons. “I think it’s very, very important for scientists to have the courage to listen to others and to others’ opinions. We have a social obligation to engage, and to think and talk about our research.”

So Anna tries to walk the talk when she’s travelling around New Zealand having “off-the-cuff conversations” about saving our living taonga (treasured) species.

“I want to figure out why people believe what they do,” she says. “If I introduce the concept of genetics, most are really interested – and some even get frustrated that they haven’t heard of its potential application outside of food and medicine. I think these are vital conversations to be having, particularly for the recruitment of young scientists. Everyone wants to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ your work applies to them.”

Yet while she’s happy to spread the word – “You can’t stop me talking about my research,” she laughs – she’s also aware of what she still doesn’t know.

“Career-wise, I’m taking it one step at a time,” she says. “I feel like I haven’t experienced enough to know just yet.”

So once she finishes up with her COVID-delayed Masters’ (focusing on genetic controls for rodents such as the Ship rat, Rattus rattus), a world of further learning opportunities beckons – along with some well-deserved white-water meditation, of course!

Written by Mick Whittle

When Conservation and Combat Collide

A coin toss at the end of Josh Gilligan’s first year at Otago could, via an intriguing series of steps, help conserve a kaleidoscope of our native plants and insects.

And like any good story, this one’s full of unexpected twists and turns.

So let’s begin at the end – of Josh’s first year studying biology – when the decision to take genetics in second year came down to a simple toss of the coin.

“When I went to the first genetics lab and the lecturer said ‘we’re now going to mutate some bacteria’, I was immediately hooked,” Josh says. “I just fell in love with every weird aspect of it.”

Fast forward a few years, and Josh was “thinking of genes as Lego building blocks to work out how a protein functioned” during a summer studentship in synthetic biology. Next, it was Honours, looking at enzymes in glycolysis (the metabolic pathway where glucose is converted into energy).

“I found it exciting and engaging,” he says. “It gave me the drive to keep going, even when experiments failed.”

At the same time, Josh was training hard for his black belt in Taekwondo: “If you’re spending your whole day thinking, then it’s nice to blow off steam.”

Though in this case, ‘nice’ meant “fighting people for an hour straight”, followed by breaking boards “until nothing’s left in the tank”. And if martial arts sounds miles away from the genetics lab, Josh reckons there’s lots in common.

“Self-control, integrity, perseverance – and once you’ve fought 60 people in a row, a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] failing is no big deal.”

Josh holding a ‘pseudo-nest’ that they use to keep the wasps in captivity. Photo Credit Gemma McLaughlin

With his black belt safely (ahem) under his belt, Josh next became an assistant research fellow, whose initial job was tracking down pollen sources in samples of honey. This led to work in a project looking at molecular ways to knock out the genes of invasive vespula wasps, then eventually to another pest species, the European paper wasp.
Unlike vespula wasps, which can be controlled with poisoned bait, paper wasps “prefer live insects”. Unfortunately, Josh explains, in New Zealand, this means these wasps “killing and eating our native butterflies and moths”.


As the paper wasp is spreading southward through the country, this is bad news for much more than tasty native insects. “New Zealand’s ecosystem evolved with native pollinators, including our butterflies and moths,” Josh says – and if the pollinators go, then that threatens our native plants as well.

“I want to look at techniques to get rid of these wasps before they become a major issue,” Josh says. It’s a motivation that’s led to his proposed PhD: “How can I do that in a way that only affects wasps in New Zealand?”

His initial idea is “to try find genetic variants that are only found in New Zealand populations”. 

And while this will take much more than simply tossing a coin, the determination and dedication that have got Josh this far will undoubtedly see him right.

(Did you know: The collective name for wasps is a ‘nest’ or ‘swarm’; for butterflies it’s a ‘kaleidoscope’ – and for moths it’s a ‘whisper’.)

Written by Mick Whittle

Keeping People at the Forefront of Medical Genetics

Discovering two of the three genetic variants implicated in a rare disease has been a particular career highlight for Otago medical researcher Emma Wade. Yet meeting and talking with the patients who benefit from her work is even more special.

“All our projects start with people,” Emma says. “They start with people and they end with people.”

This human element is hugely important to the Manchester-born geneticist, whose PhD project at Otago focused on a rare genetic disease, Frontometaphyseal Dysplasia (FMD), that causes life-limiting bone deformities. Despite this condition’s rarity, Emma’s research has much broader medical applications.

“We still don’t understand large swathes of the [human] genome,” she explains. “But we’re slowly developing methods to find out. What we learn from rare diseases can then help more widely.”

Emma’s also become much more “computer savvy” to deal with the “huge amount of information on what genes do” – a far cry from what sparked her original childhood interest in popular science.

“I was just fascinated by how we usually turn out okay when there’s so much that could go wrong,” she recalls. “Then there was a big anthrax scare that got me really interested in infectious diseases.”

This fascination led to a degree in genetics at the University of York in England, which incorporated a year in a cystic fibrous laboratory in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

“I got a taste of genetic disease research and of academia, and the strong clinical link to actual patients was really valuable.”


So when the opportunity arose to combine this all in a PhD at Otago, heading to the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ was a no-brainer.

As for her own ground-breaking genetic discoveries: “Seeing a paper published was really good. I thought, ‘this is actually quite cool’.”

Even more cool was the “really good talk” she then had with an Australian patient with FMD.

“He showed me that they were discussing my research in a Facebook support group.”

Now a postdoctoral fellow in Professor Stephen Robertson’s Clinical Genetics Laboratory at Otago, Emma’s part of a team working with patients and fellow researchers from all over the world.

“The gene we work on is really interesting, mutations can cause about ten different disorders,” she says. “We don’t yet know everything it does, but it has implications all over the body.”


Written by Mick Whittle, images provided by Emma Wade.

Pop Goes the Weevil

When Sarah Inwood tells visiting schoolkids about her research, the response is always: “Urgh! That’s so gross – tell us more!”

That’s because Sarah’s PhD subject is both gruesome and fascinating; a parasitoid wasp that not only injects venom and an egg into its weevil prey, but whose larva then eats the still-living victim from the inside out. She’s studying the genetics of how the wasp does what it does. Or rather, working out how the grass-eating weevil has now become better at fighting off its parasitic predator, at least in New Zealand. To investigate this, she does everything from collecting the weevils in the field to analysing their genes in the lab, just like on the CSI shows she watched as a kid.

“Sure, things take a lot longer than on tv, but I’m still working with all the chemicals and cool equipment,” she says.

As for gathering the weevils in the first place, this involves using “leaf-blowers in reverse”.

“I’ve spent plenty of time vacuuming paddocks,” she reckons.

And this is hugely important research. Despite its ghastly reproductive cycle, in New Zealand the tiny wasp is a hero while the grass-eating weevil is the real villain, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage to Kiwi pastures. When the wasp was first introduced as a biological control in the 1990s, it killed up to 90% of the destructive weevil pests.

Now, though, with these wasps only killing half as many weevils as they used to in some areas, Sarah is part of a nationwide team desperately trying “to figure out how the weevil has evolved resistance”.

There are two main possibilities, Sarah explains: either the weevil is now somehow better at “hiding” from the wasp or else its immune system is now able to kill the parasite. She’s testing the first of these, “whether it’s something stopping the weevil being recognised in the first place.”

Weevil with an emerging wasp larva. Image credit Sarah Inwood

From a genetic perspective, the weevil – officially, the Argentine stem weevil (Listronotus bonariensis) – has an advantage over the parasitoid wasp (Microctonus hyperodae). Because the wasps reproduce asexually, with each one an identical genetic clone of its mother, generation after generation, they evolve much slower than the sexually reproducing weevils.

Sarah’s job, therefore, is tracking down the genetic changes that may have been selected to give the weevil an advantage.

Not that she ever thought she’d be looking at insect pests and biocontrols when she decided to study genetics at university. Yet growing up on a farm in Canterbury, perhaps this field of research was inevitable.

“I knew that Otago had a really good genetics course, but I wasn’t sure what you could do with it…Now I can do something I really love and still be involved with agriculture.”

Text and photo credit to Mick Whittle.