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Researchers trial sustainable biocontrols for food industry

18 October 2023

‘Nature’s ninjas’ could help protect kiwifruit and bees from dangerous pathogens if new research by a team of Canterbury and Otago scientists pays off.


UC Senior Lecturer Dr Heather Hendrickson has been awarded MBIE funding valued at $8.9m


The term ‘nature’s ninjas’ has been coined by scientist Dr Heather Hendrickson, a senior lecturer from the School of Biological Sciences at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC), to describe phage biocontrols – viruses that attack specific bacteria in an organism. 

This capacity sets them apart from antibiotics, which often kill beneficial bacteria as well as harmful ones. 

“Phages have a fairly limited host range,” Dr Hendrickson says. “This means that if you gave a phage to a honeybee, it could infect the pathogen being targeted without being likely to infect other important micro-organisms in the same bee, such as the good gut-bacteria keeping the bee healthy.”

SDG 15 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 - Life on the Land.

Her interdisciplinary research team has been awarded $8.9 million from the 2023 Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Endeavour Fund over five years to trial phage ‘cocktails’ designed to combat key agricultural pathogens. Targets include the kiwifruit vine canker (or Psa), and the American Foulbrood (AFB) virus that attacks honeybees. 

While Aotearoa New Zealand’s primary sector faces a dwindling supply of sustainable solutions to combat such pathogens, our geographical isolation does deliver an advantage, Dr Hendrickson says.  

“If we take the example of the King Salmon native to the North Pacific, it’s affected by far fewer pathogens in New Zealand than in its native habitat. 

If there were hundreds of different pathogens affecting these industries, it would be much harder for us to design a combination of phages that would be effective against all of them.” 

Her project’s co-lead, University of Otago Professor Peter Fineran, will lead research into phages that affect pathogens of cherries and kiwifruit. Other collaborators include Plant and Food Research, Cawthron Institute, BioSouth Ltd, and Apiculture New Zealand, while Māori scientists and researchers will contribute valuable indigenous perspectives on the implications for the taiao (environment). Their mātauranga is especially relevant given the prevalence of Māori-led businesses in the primary sector.   

Dr Hendrickson says the project to date has received valuable support from stakeholders. She particularly appreciates the beekeepers who provided researchers with soil samples — a contribution that hasn’t gone unrewarded. 

“They got naming rights on the phages that were discovered in their samples. So far, we’ve had people name them after Dame Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and even after themselves.”

As well as improving Aotearoa food sector productivity and security, this venture will strengthen a manufacturing bioindustry capable of supporting highly skilled jobs and enhancing access to environmentally conscious global markets. Longer term, Dr Hendrickson believes the platform will be ideally positioned to address emerging threats to food production, and even to medically relevant human pathogens. 

“If we build the intellectual and physical infrastructure to use phages safely in agricultural industries, we’ll be well positioned for potential future applications, including those targeting human pathogens.”

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