Claire Voogt and Taylor Farr

New Zealand’s primary industries face a continual threat of biosecurity breaches, but two University of Waikato chemistry students believe there could be natural ways to mitigate the risks posed by bacterial pathogens in agriculture.

Claire Voogt and Taylor Farr, both studying for Master of Science degrees, are recipients of this year’s Sir Don Llewellyn Fieldays Postgraduate Scholarship, splitting the $22,500 fifty-fifty.

They’re investigating how natural metabolites from marine algae can be used to treat pathogenic bacteria, in particular Psa, and their research is being supported by Zespri.

Claire says the competitive nature of coastal ecosystems has resulted in the evolution of algal compounds as natural chemical defences, and unlike natural products from land-based sources, terrestrial organisms have not encountered marine chemical defences and are therefore less likely to survive after exposure to them.

“Each organism has different features and responds to different conditions or environments, so it’s possible that these marine algae may be exploited to maximise the production of desired compounds and be used in commercial applications,” Claire says.

For their research, Claire and Taylor will use samples collected from various locations by University of Waikato divers based in Tauranga, prepare extracts, determine their chemical profiles and then test their effects on bacteria.

The pair, who both majored in Chemistry and Biology in their bachelor degrees, will split their lab time between the university and Plant and Food Research’s Psa containment facility at Ruakura. Their project comes under the umbrella of a larger project involving scientists from the university and Plant and Food Research.

While Claire’s main focus will be on one specific species of algae, Taylor’s project will investigate several species to identify ones with potentially useful applications, particularly in horticulture. “Marine organisms are a rich source of useful and diverse natural products, and mostly have properties different from terrestrial organisms, making them useful for various applications on land,” he says.

“What I’m particularly interested in is identifying bioactive natural products that can be used in the horticulture industry to combat pathogens like Psa. It’s important to develop alternative control methods. It means that in time, there may be potential for growing different algae for commercial use across a range of pathogens.”

Taylor is working towards a career in horticulture, something he’s been interested in since secondary school at Tauranga’s Bethlehem College, earning an NCEA scholarship in Agricultural and Horticultural Science. He’s attended horticultural conferences over the years and as part of a University of Waikato summer research scholarship, he collected data on flowering mānuka at sites all over the North Island, identifying patterns that could allow greater control over the honey production process. “That experience cemented my desire to have a career in the industry,” he says.

Claire says for her, agriculture isn’t a career, it’s a way of life. She grew up on a dairy farm, is a member of the Hamilton City Young Farmers Club and has been a DairyNZ scholar. She’s worked on dairy and goat farms through industry placements at DairyNZ and LIC, represented Young Farmers at Fieldays debating and spoken about careers in agriculture at careers fairs, high schools and Fieldays. For both students, winning the Fieldays scholarship helps take the pressure off their finances to enable them to focus more on their studies.

New Zealand National Fieldays Society President Peter Carr says the two students are deserving recipients. “Once again the Society is pleased to have not only donated these funds to a worthwhile agri-research opportunity but also being part of the final selection panel.

“In Claire and Taylor we have two fine young people, albeit on parallel paths of research, but very much diverse in their aims for end-user capabilities. We wish them well for their academic and employment futures.”

The University of Waikato will have its stand at the Main Pavilion at this year’s Fieldays, running 12-15 June at Mystery Creek. This year’s theme is ‘Cultivating Value’ and the university will feature its latest work in the area of robotics.

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