Success in funding round

For immediate release
15 September 2016

Three Scion research proposals will receive investment totalling $10.75 million over five years through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment 2016 Endeavour Fund. The successful science projects were announced on 13 September by the Minister of Science and Innovation.

The Endeavour Fund (formerly known as the MBIE Contestable Research Fund) invests in excellent research that can demonstrate significant impact for New Zealand. The funding is available through two types of investment: Smart Ideas and Research Programmes. Scion’s successful proposals are:

Preparing New Zealand for Extreme Fire (Research Programme). $8.75 million over 5 years.

Extreme fire is here, now. With 2015 globally the warmest year on record, New Zealand is not immune to the extreme fire behaviour normally associated with Australia or North America. Images of Hanmer burning are a very graphic warning. Extreme fire can occur in any fire, at any time and is highly dangerous.

Current management strategies cannot suppress these fires, and New Zealand urgently needs new methods, decision support and models to better protect our natural environment, primary producers, vulnerable communities and taonga species.

The annual average direct impact of rural fire on New Zealand’s economy is ~$67 million, with indirect ‘costs’ estimated to be at least 2-3 times direct cost, plus intangible indirect impacts as much as 30-60 times direct costs.

A world-class international team from Scion, US Forest Service Missoula Fire Science Laboratory, University of New South Wales, San Jose State University, US Forest Service Pacific Northwest Laboratory, University of Canterbury and Lincoln University, will challenge existing understanding of fire behaviour based on convection and develop targeted protection against extreme fire. If validated, under the real-world field conditions New Zealand offers, the hypothesis will globally change wildland fire science and drive innovation in fire-fighting decision support, training, mitigation tactics and community readiness.

We address the Government’s investment priorities for the environment by enabling New Zealand to identify, mitigate and adapt to the threat of extreme fires. We will work with the Resilience to Nature's Challenges National Science Challenge to help communities prepare for the threat. All rural fire stakeholders will benefit from this programme, including Rural Fire Authorities, Department of Conservation, rural land owners, and in particular Māori with their large presence in rural NZ, and their role as kaitiaki of our indigenous forests.

A new model for the rapid evaluation of reproductive control in conifers (Smart Ideas). $1 million over 3 years.

New Zealand's forest industry faces significant future challenges; the adoption of GE (genetic engineering) into the breeding programmes of production forests overseas has given them a competitive edge over New Zealand in terms of productivity. New Zealand's forest owners are interested in deploying GE trees but require sterile trees to mitigate social and environmental concerns. The ability to control reproduction would both facilitate field-testing and provide assurance of genetic containment for commercial release of GE conifers. Moreover, reallocation of 5-20% of energy used for reproduction is expected to boost productivity.

Studying reproduction in radiata pine is especially challenging because it takes 6 to 8 years to reach reproductive maturity. Conventional breeding is thus nearly impossible and obtaining research results would take over a decade. Additionally, there is no current model plant for conifers to test hypotheses on gene function and phenotype, unlike in angiosperm research.

Our project aims to develop the first conifer high-throughput model system using the early flowering Pinus densiflora to enable rapid testing of biotechnology-based reproductive control strategies. Using biotechnology we will inactivate genes essential for reproduction to create 'knockout phenotypes'. We will use genome and transcriptome data to identify target genes which can prevent male and female reproduction simultaneously. This has never been reported for conifers.

Deploying GE trees would be a significant step towards facing the industry's challenges. Using GE to develop trees with shorter rotation times, greater wood volume, and improved quality is predicted to add $6.5 billion to New Zealand's GDP by 2051, while the limited reproductive ability of the trees would provide unique benefits such as prevention of wildings and pollen dispersal.

A novel biotech route to new biobased high-performance engineered plastics (Smart Ideas). $1 million over 2 years.

Imagine that your next electronic device or new car contained plastic material manufactured in New Zealand from renewable materials. How will this be achieved?

The Bioinspired Aromatic Polyesters project aims to develop microorganisms to mass produce aromatic polyesters. Petroleum is a major part of the chemical makeup of the vast majority of plastics. The new aromatic polyesters will not be derived from petroleum but will be produced by feeding microorganisms using a similar fermentation to that used for beer production. The polyester can be taken out from the microorganisms and refined for use in the manufacture of plastic products.

Why the focus on advanced plastics? High performance, hard wearing plastic products are increasingly a part of everyday life because they allow strong, lightweight and robust objects to be manufactured. High-value electronics, aviation and automotive, industrial, medical and sporting goods all contain advanced plastic materials. Current drawbacks with advanced plastics are their high cost, due to energy intensive and difficult chemical syntheses.

By developing a biotechnology route to aromatic polyesters this project aims to overcome high production costs and provides a renewable alternative. Success would lead to new opportunities to produce high performance plastics in New Zealand through biotechnology for domestic use and export, and provides manufacturers with new renewable plastic materials with enhanced properties from which to develop a range of lightweight products.

See the Minister’s announcement $209m funding for new science projects