UNESCO Science Partnership Building Bridges in the Pacific

UNESCO science partnership building bridges in the Pacific

A potentially game-changing low-cost mobile genetic diagnostics system to detect and quantify pathogens in food, water, humans, livestock and crops in Pacific Islands is among projects Massey University will lead with its newly established partnership with UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

The UNESCO UNITWIN Network on Science for Pacific Small Island Developing States (Science for Sustainability in Oceania) partnership aims to help protect crops and agriculture, advance conservation efforts and environmental sustainability, as well as the foster better health and economic prosperity for people in the region.

UNITWIN (University Twinning and Networking Programme) networks are designed to frame international research and education collaborations between academics in a project-based approach, but do not directly fund them.

The aim is to help address challenges being faced by communities in different parts of the world, says Professor Peter Lockhart. He is a biologist from the Institute of Fundamental Sciences and – with the support of Massey’s Pacific Research and Policy Centre – he has brokered the partnership with UNESCO in a first for New Zealand.

Projects undertaken over the next four years will be varied – involving studies of human health and natural resources. One of the key projects centres on the development and evaluation of field-deployable DNA amplification diagnostics for pathogens that affect people, livestock and crops, and the problems they cause for economic security, Professor Lockhart says.

Modest-looking yet powerful new tools – the ZyGEM PDQeX and the Diagenetix BioRanger – for on-the-spot DNA testing of pathogens are pivotal to the initial projects. These are currently being tested by Professor Lockhart and his research team on a range of species from kauri trees to shellfish.

These small, portable devices are poised to save huge costs and time in responding to biological hazards that threaten the livelihoods of communities, producers and exporters across the Pacific. They can be used to answer questions like – Are the shellfish safe to eat? Can we drink the water? is the produce free from pests and disease before export?

Team member Dr Richard Winkworth has developed a DNA diagnostic for Phytophthora,with financial support provided by the New Zealand Bio-Protection Research Centre, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence. Phytophthor is a fungal-like organism that is causing dieback in the kauri forests in New Zealand, but also affects common Pacific Island crops such as taro, avocado and cocoa.

To further show how their novel experimental approach can be applied, the team have gone on to develop a diagnostic for the Phytophthora causing black pod rot in the cocoa plantations of Papua New Guinea and Samoa. Most recently, Dr Winkworth has led a project with the Auckland Zoo and the New Zealand Department of Conservation to develop a diagnostic and screen for a fungal disease on tuatara.

“All of these diagnostics are currently being used in the lab, but this situation is set to change – there are new low-cost devices we are evaluating that could make DNA testing readily field deployable. We have recent MBIE Catalyst seed funding and support from the New Zealand company Custom Science to evaluate this technology for projects in New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa,” Professor Lockhart says.

Strengthening research partnerships across the Pacific

Professor Lockhart, who has worked for over three years to secure the networking arrangement with UNESCO, says that; “by adopting a project focused approach, where collaborations between researchers from different institutions and countries are formalised under a UNESCO UNITWIN network, we hope to create opportunities to strengthen relationships and build research capability in our region – in New Zealand and elsewhere in Oceania.”

“The value of our first projects – helping to make DNA diagnostics more readily field deployable – is that they have the potential to be used by non-specialists to obtain information that could be useful for everyday decision-making, such as on farms, by businesses and communities.”

Initial projects involve four founding institutional partners: Massey University, Unitec Institute of Technology, the National University of Samoa and the University of the South Pacific. The number of formal institutional partners will grow as further projects are developed and funding secured.

The New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO provided initial funding to bring the founding partners together to identify first projects. It also provided financial support for a project aimed at assessing and improving water quality in Samoa. Additional financial support has also been provided by AGMARDT, the Massey Lincoln Agricultural Industry Trust, the New Zealand Bio-Protection Research Centre and MBIE (through their Catalyst and PSAF programmes).

At Massey University, the initiative is creating opportunities for collaborations between the College of Sciences, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Health and College of Creative Arts.

“Furthermore, in alignment with expectations for a UNESCO UNITWIN network, our projects seek to build bridges between the academic world, civil society, local communities, entrepreneurs, decision and policy-makers,” Professor Lockhart says. “Our initiative – led from Massey’s Pacific Research and Policy Centre – will promote science, provide training opportunities, and evaluate and help implement new technologies in Oceania (including in New Zealand) that have purpose for evidence based decision-making.”