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Collaboration leads to funding success

Collaborative research between AgResearch and Massey University has been recognised with a prestigious Marsden Fund grant.

Professor Nigel French from the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences at Massey University and AgResearch Scientist Dr Grant Hotter, who are both based at the Hopkirk Research Institute, have been awarded Marsden funding for a comprehensive study of Campylobacter in New Zealand.

The Marsden Fund, which supports excellence in cutting-edge research in New Zealand, recently announced its largest ever investment of $54 million across a range of projects. With Marsden regarded as a hallmark of excellence, competition for grants is intense and projects are subject to a rigorous selection process.

Professor French and Dr Hotter’s project, titled ‘Cows, starlings and Campylobacter in New Zealand: unifying phylogeny, genealogy and epidemiology to gain insight into pathogen evolution’, was one of just 90 successful applications to the fund out of 817 preliminary proposals. The pair are working with other collaborators in New Zealand and the United Kingdom on the research project, including Dr Patrick Biggs from the Allan Wilson Centre at Massey University and Dr Philip Carter from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited (ESR).

Their Marsden project combines recently developed analytical tools with detailed sequencing studies, to gain a thorough understanding of the natural processes of mutation and recombination (a process where larger sections of genetic material can be incorporated into, or become shuffled within, descendent strains) in the evolution of C. jejuni and C. coli.

The team will further their understanding of the role of mutation and recombination, along with selection, migration and isolation in the evolution of Campylobacter, by capitalising on next generation sequencing technology, major advances in population genetics and New Zealand’s unique history, ecology and geographical isolation.

Using the population biology of C. jejuni and C. coli as a paradigm, they aim to gain an insight into pathogen evolution and emergence when ecosystems are disrupted or sequestered — an issue of immense global importance.

Ultimately, it’s hoped the research will lead to an understanding of how and why C. jejuni emerged to become such a prominent human pathogen, and will enhance our ability to anticipate further evolution and restrict the emergence and spread of new strains.

"Part of the project involves re-sequencing sixty C. jejuni genomes with Massey University's newly acquired Illumina Genome Analyser, so the work sits at the cutting edge of research linking bacterial genomics, evolution, population biology and epidemiology,” Dr Hotter says.

"The Marsden funding means our initial collaborative focus at the Hopkirk on small scale PCR (polymerase chain reaction)-based studies looking at strain variation can now expand to examine genome-wide variation."

This collaborative work follows a host of projects between Professor French and Dr Hotter, who began working together on Campylobacter research in 2006. Combining Dr Hotter’s expertise in molecular biology and molecular genetics with Professor French’s epidemiology knowledge, the pair have been looking at differences between Campylobacter strains at the genome level, to uncover why some strains are found in humans and why some strains cause disease and some don’t.

An initial project studied the presence or absence of different genes across a range of Campylobacter strains, and based on the results from this, the pair delved into more focussed projects, looking at poultry and ruminant related strains. This research has already identified specific genes and patterns of gene presence or absence that can differentiate key strain types.

It is hoped this set of projects will contribute to knowledge to reduce contamination through the food processing chain. Professor French and Dr Hotter’s research partnership is just one of a group of collaborative projects between AgResearch and Massey University at the Hopkirk Research Institute.

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Left to right, Dr Grant Hotter, Dr Patrick Biggs and Professor Nigel French at the incubator they use for growing Campylobacter

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