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.”
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
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.
“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.”
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
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.”
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
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
Genetics Otago would like to congratulate Anežka Hoskin who has recently been named a Fulbright NZ Science and Innovation Graduate.
Anežka has been a member of Genetics Otago while completing her MSc in Genetics working with Prof Tony Merriman in the Department of Biochemistry along with Dr Phil Wilcox and Ngāti Porou. Her research centred around genetic contributions to gout and type 2 diabetes specifically in the Māori and Polynesian communities. She is passionate about removing the whakamā (shame) and increasing knowledge surrounding these metabolic diseases.
Anežka will now complete a PhD in Genetics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
For more details on the 2020 Fulbright recipients visit https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/releases/otago741603.html
Genetics Otago and the Epigenetics User Group were lucky to be able to host Professor Susan Clark on campus on the 4th and 5th of December. Professor Clark is the Head of the Genomics and Epigenetics Theme at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
Susan has had a fascinating career which she discussed with a group of postgraduate students over drinks and nibbles in the Staff Club during her visit. Of particular note is her great contribution to the study of DNA methylation through her development and implementation of bisulphite sequencing. The students also had the opportunity to ask questions and gained valuable insight into their own research paths and were encouraged by Prof Clark to always “think outside the box”.
A special meeting of the EUG Hub was held on the 5th of December where Susan gave a talk on Best Practices for validating DNA methylation biomarkers from large scale studies. Leader of the EUG Aniruddha Chatterjee commented that “the topic was very relevant and the discussions very stimulating”.
This was a wonderful way to end the year for our EUG Hub who are hosting a Symposium and Workshop on the 12th and 13th March 2020 (for more information and to register please visit the Events page).
‘“I am really impressed to see the turnout and the enthusiasm and interest here in epigenetics. If I gave this talk in Sydney I am not sure that I would get a similar turnout. ” – Professor Susan Clark.
If you would like to learn more about Professor Clark and her research you can read her biography here.
I came to Dunedin from Hurunui, North Canterbury, but I’ve lived all over the show, from the banks of Lake Ellesmere to Cromwell. In high school I was involved in a restoration project up the Nina Valley in the Lewis Pass, trapping predators like possums, rats, stoats and weasels. Over the seven years I realised trapping and poison are a Band-Aid for a long term challenge – if we’re serious about eradication we need to be innovating new tools. My research project for my Masters in Genetics is looking at a genetic pest control method called “gene drive” and how we could use it to control or eradicate invasive mammal species in New Zealand. Despite current pest control systems our wildlife continue to decline. We can’t keep doing what we’ve done in the past, we have to think outside the box. That’s why I’m interested in genetic pest control technology because it’s a different way of approaching our invasive species problem. It’s not something we can use right now, but imagine where we’d be if we’d implemented it 20 years ago! As researchers we get to mentally challenge ourselves to answer these difficult questions and advance our understanding of the world we live in. I actually sustained a pretty severe brain injury last year when I was hit by a car whilst cycling to uni. This was a big fork in the road and over the course of six months I seriously considered dropping everything and pursuing a career that demands less brain power. But when I look back, what got me through was finding ways to look at the bigger picture and think about how I can best lean on my strengths in order to make a difference!
AND NEWSFLASH: the amazing Anna Clark has just been named as a Blake DOC Ambassador for 2019/20! Fantastic news and well deserved.
AND if that’s not enough for further inspiration from Anna herself, here’s a link to a recent TedxYouth talk she gave recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5U6cbrqW-o
Image and article credit to University of Otago Health Sciences Communications and Anna Clark
Two of the six researchers who have been awarded the University of Otago’s annual Early Career Awards for Distinction in Research are Genetics Otago Members.
Dr Tim Hore (Anatomy) and Dr Erin Macaulay (Pathology) have each recieved $5000 for personal development and membership to the O-Zone Group (a group lead by GO Deputy Director Dr Louise Bicknell, providing networking and collabortation opportunity to early-mid career researchers).
Congratulations Erin and Tim!
More Information from the Otago Bulletin:
Dr Tim Hore (Anatomy)
Brought up on a Maniototo farm, Dr Hore completed secondary school and his undergraduate degree in Dunedin. His PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra was in the rapidly evolving field of epigenetics.
After post-doctoral research at Cambridge, he set up his own epigenetics laboratory in Otago’s Department of Anatomy in 2015. Epigenetic modifications are tiny chemical changes to DNA that act like signposts instructing cellular machinery what to do. His team is working on understanding how this relates to inherited memories.
“I really enjoy the buzz of new understanding, and because of recent technologies in the field of genetics, there is plenty of new understanding up for grabs.”
Dr Erin Macaulay (Pathology)
Originally from Boston, USA, Dr Macaulay completed her PhD in genetics at the University of Otago in 2011. Since 2013 she has been working as a research fellow at the University’s Dunedin-based Department of Pathology, and in August she was appointed as a lecturer in the same department.
Dr Macaulay’s epigenetics research examines both the placenta and cancer growth in an attempt to find commonalities between the two. During early pregnancy the placenta grows like a tumour, invading into the uterine wall to establish a nourishing blood supply for the baby but, unlike a malignant tumour, it knows when to stop.
“I love searching for clues about disease in a healthy tissue that many people just cast aside. Of course we all want to cure cancer, but realistically I do hope my research can contribute a meaningful piece to the cancer puzzle.”
Read the full article here.
Kia ora! Nau mai, haere mai!
Welcome to our new Blog site. This site is here to keep you up to date with the news and events of Genetics Otago and its members. If you are a member of GO already we hope that this site will act as a space to share your news, house useful resources and create a sense of community.
If you are asking who is GO? Head over to the About Us section, have a read and if you think you fit into our community you will find a link to sign up to our mailing list.
You will find contact details for key GO people should you need to ask any questions or locate us in the Contact Us tab. There is also information about our Tech Hubs, where you are able to sign up to any of the hubs that are relevant to your research and log in to the hub portals if you are already a member.
If you are a GO member and have something exciting to share or a story you want to post let us know, we would love to feature you in our next post!
Heoi anō tāku mō nāianei