Success in the Marsden Funding round

13 November 2015

Plant & Food Research is involved in four projects funded in this year’s Marsden Funding round, the most successful Marsden round for the Institute.

Plant & Food Research will lead three projects – tracing the evolution of smell, building an electronic nose, and understanding flower colour in snapdragons – and will also be involved in a project with Victoria University of Wellington to understand salt tolerance in plants.

The development of diverse and sensitive olfactory sensors was a major step in sensory biology evolution, triggered by the evolutionary steps that saw animals leave the water and start to populate the land. Professor Richard Newcomb will lead a project to understand the origins of the olfactory receptor genes in insects, one of the most diverse and sensitive olfactory systems in the animal kingdom. By generating maps of the olfactory genes identified in a number of species, the team will be able to determine the evolutionary pathway of these genes from their origins in ancient insects. This research will also allow the team to test the hypotheses that the evolution of these receptors coincided with the origin of flight which required new systems for finding mates, detecting prey and avoiding predators.

Dr Colm Carraher will lead a project also looking at insect olfactory systems, but at the intersection between biotechnology and nanotechnology. By producing insect olfactory receptors and immobilising these on a biosensor, the team is hoping to develop the first ultrasensitive detection device based on the diversity of compounds that insects can sense. The project will initially use receptors from the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and identify the best way to attach these to a biosensor. It is anticipated that, if successful, new devices could be tuned to a multitude of applications in the future by tailoring the device with olfactory receptors specific to compounds of interest.

Red and white snapdragons (Antirrhinum species) have the same genes present for control of flower colour, however an additional genetic control has developed in the white flowered varieties to switch off colour development. Dr Nick Albert will lead a project, collaborating with science teams at the University of Edinburgh and the John Innes Centre in the UK, to determine the method by which these genes are controlled, thought to be through natural evolutionary steps that have led to the genes being silenced. By understanding how these genetic controls have evolved, the scientists hope to understand more about how different species of plants may have evolved.

High salt levels in soil are a significant threat for world food production. A project led by Professor Kevin Gould at Victoria University of Wellington and Plant & Food Research’s Dr Kathy Schwinn will look at the New Zealand native iceplant, Disphyma austral or horokaka, which is highly salt-tolerant when producing red-coloured betalain pigments. These red pigments are rare in plant species and are thought to change the way sodium moves through the plant, protecting tissues from damage. Understanding the mechanism the plants use to protect against salt stress may help breed new varieties of crops with increased tolerance to high soil salinity.

In 2015, the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the New Zealand Government, awarded a total of $53 million in total to 92 research projects. The Fund contributes to the development of researchers with knowledge, skills and ideas and supports research excellence and knowledge advancement in science, engineering and maths, social science and the humanities.

Emma Timewell
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