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Genetics Otago
University of Otago Research Centre

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.

GO Student Fulbright Success!

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.

Image credit University of Otago Health Sciences Communications

For more details on the 2020 Fulbright recipients visit

Visiting Professor Susan Clark

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.

Anna Clark

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:

Image and article credit to University of Otago Health Sciences Communications and Anna Clark

GO Members Win Early Career Awards for Distinction in Research

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
Genetics Otago

Postgraduate Retreat

The 28th of July saw the first Genetics Otago Postgraduate Retreat for almost a decade. Dunedin didn’t disappoint with the weather and postgrads from anatomy to zoology, along with several staff members spent a beautiful day at Orokonui Ecosanctuary. 
The formal part of the day began with a session of tips and tricks for travelling to and presenting at conferences presented by Dr Tanya Major. It was great to hear about the importance of networking and participants enjoyed practising their ‘elevator pitch’. 
A panel of academics visited and held a Q and A session discussing their academic career in genetics. The variety of panellists, that spanned from fresh post-docs through to PIs, gave valuable insight into the charm and challenges that come with an academic career and students enjoyed hearing their personal experiences. 
After a great lunch in the Orokonui Café, we all enjoyed getting out into nature and exploring the ecosanctuary. Feedback on the venue was only positive with many emphasizing that it was great to get away from campus and be outside. 
The final session for the day saw a visit from Jo Budai from the Career Development Centre who talked about CV writing and job applications. This was followed by an informal discussion about some of the struggles and issues students have faced during their study and where to go for help. 
Everyone who attended thought that it was a worthwhile event and would love to see it happen on a more regular basis. The day wouldn’t have been possible without the huge effort put in by our student rep, Anežka Hoskin, to organise everything. So thank you Anežka and thank you, everyone, who came along and helped make the day such a success.  

HRC Grant Success

Another year and another round of Health Research Council Grants to a number of our members!

Genetics Otago would like to congratulate those members on their success. We are proud to let you all know that these successes make up 20% of all University of Otago gained HRC grants for 2019 and 11% of all HRC grants awarded in this round!

A large number of GO members will be working on these projects over the next few years and we look forward to updates on their work.

GO Member HRC Grants 2019:

Heoi anō tāku mō nāianei
Genetics Otago