Coastal and Freshwater news

Dr Puddick collecting cyanobacteria samples from Lake Rotorua (Kaikoura)
11 November 2016

Cawthron Institute research on the fast-track to success

An increased number of projects funded and strong support for early career researchers are features of the 2016 Marsden Fund grants.

Amongst the recipients this year is Cawthron Scientist, Dr Jonathan Puddick, who was awarded a Fast-Start grant worth $300,000, for his three-year research project.

Puddick’s project will examine whether toxic algae and non-toxic algae are working together, sharing the competitive advantages of carrying toxins.

Puddick said “It’s fairly well established that toxin production in algae provides an advantage to the producer, through enhanced photosynthesis and better nutrient utilisation, but what’s not clear is why the toxic algae haven’t out-competed their non-toxic counterparts. My theory is that they’re co-operating and sharing the toxins amongst themselves.”

To put his theory to the test, Dr Puddick will assess whether non-toxic algae supplemented with toxins gain the same advantages as toxic algae receive. The special part of his project is that he plans to not only look at algae in the laboratory, but also in the field.

For more videos on cyanobacteria research go to #CyanoResearch

“It’s one thing to show that something happens in the laboratory, but the real proof is to demonstrate that it also happens in the natural environment.”

This research is possible because of a new ‘cryo-sampling’ technique, which Puddick recently developed. “Using liquid nitrogen, we snap-freeze microbial communities and obtain a high-resolution picture of the water column. This technique now allows us to look at natural algal communities at a micro-metre scale.”  

A total of 49 Fast-Start grants were awarded in 2016. These grants aid early career researchers to work on innovative research questions. For Jonathan, the Fast-Start grant means that he can gain experience in leading research programmes, mentor graduate students and expand his present research on the production of algal toxins into a new area.

“I’m excited to be able to conduct this project. The ideas that I’m going to explore may change how freshwater ecologists think about algal communities in the future. Working on the cutting-edge of science is a real thrill.”

Cawthron Chief Executive, Professor Charles Eason says receiving a Marsden Fast-Start grant affirms the strong research capability of young scientists working at Cawthron.

“This successful Marsden project reflects the world-leading and potentially game-changing research being carried out at Cawthron. We want to lead the thinking on major environmental issues and undertake independent research in areas of public interest.”

Professor Eason also comments that Cawthron Institute has a role in helping young researchers to gain experience.

“We recently awarded two scholarships for university students to undertake research at the Institute this summer. The scholarships provide a balance of hands-on learning experiences and scientific excellence. While at Cawthron, students will undertake fieldwork, analysis techniques and learn what it means to work as a professional scientist.”

A total of 117 research projects have been allocated $65 million in this year’s Marsden Fund. This is a 21% increase on the amount of money awarded to 92 projects last year. The Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government.

More information on the 2016 Marsden Fund grants can be found on the Royal Society's website.

The person behind the science
Jonathan Puddick, Analytical Biochemist
PhD (Chemistry), MSc (Molecular Biology), BSc (Biology & Psychology)

Role at Cawthron: Scientist / Technical Consultant within the Analytical Services Research and Development team. Jonathan specialises in using mass spectrometry tools to answer questions and address industry requirements. His job includes developing new ways to analyse compounds using state-of-the-art mass spectrometers, characterising algal bioactives and applying these techniques to better understand our environment.

Favourite part of the work: “This is one of those great jobs where we make new discoveries that have a major impact for New Zealand’s environment and economy. I enjoy science because it’s like solving a huge puzzle, fitting multiple pieces of evidence together to get a more complete picture.”

What Jonathan is most proud of: “Highlights of my career include working on a Marsden research project about the triggers of microcystin production in cyanobacteria, kayaking down the Gorge de Tarn in Southern France to sample for toxic cyanobacteria and working with the Analytical Services testing labs to make sure that New Zealand industries can export their products around the world.”