25 March 2004 Lincoln Biotron Gives NZ 'Powerful Research Tool'
A powerful $3.5 million biosciences research tool – only the third of its kind in the world, and the first in the South Hemisphere – was opened today (25 March) at Lincoln University by Prime Minister Helen Clark when she launched the campus-based National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies.
The "tool", known as a biotron, is essentially an encased and biologically secure, climate-controlled laboratory unit that duplicates, on a small scale, an exterior growing environment.
While there are many simple climate-controlled units known as biotrons worldwide, very few are like Lincoln's with an associated rhizotron facility allowing processes beneath the soil surface to be studied at the same time as above-surface phenomena.
(A rhizotron is an encased core of soil with small portals along its length allowing the insertion of monitoring and measuring instruments.)
The biotron is part of a $25 million investment by the New Zealand Government in a National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies at Lincoln University, financed from the Ministry of Education's Centre of Research Excellence Fund.
"The biotron is a powerful research tool," says centre director Professor Alison Stewart.
"The beauty of it is that it bridges the gap between the complexity of real field communities of plants, insects and micro-organisms and the simplicity of laboratory or greenhouse experiments.
"Development of the biotron is a major step forward for New Zealand's biological sciences and allows us to join an elite group of countries with access to such a facility," she says.
(The UK and Finland are the only two other places with facilities similar to Lincoln's.)
"The biotron moves New Zealand into the forefront of ecological research and underpins the new biotechnologies coming through.
"With the biotron we can test many of the concerns that the public have about organisms without having to go to a field trial.
"We can show the public and the world that we have done the health and environmental tests and allay public fears before we take anything out into the field."
The Lincoln University biotron is currently made up of four environmental microcosms, each housed in separate walk-in chambers with computer-controlled climates. Eventually the number will be doubled.
A computer-controlled air conditioning system delivers daily/seasonal cycles of temperature, humidity and light with separately controlled soil temperature and irrigation to replicate rainfall.
Each microcosm contains sufficient soil to allow plants to be grown for several seasons and there is a video imaging capability to provide time-lapse visual recording of shoot and root development, insect movements and microbe invasions.
The potential biosecurity uses of the biotron are particularly significant. For example scientists will be able to use it to simulate various climates around New Zealand or the globe to test and evaluate how damaging – or helpful – particular organisms can be.
One of the first experiments is to test the ability of insects to carry naturally occurring fungal plant pathogens onto gorse and broom to act as natural biological herbicides.
The National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies, the biotron's parent body, has four strategic objectives, matching the New Zealand Government's national strategic goals of innovation, economic development and environmental sustainability.
The strategic objectives are –
• To pursue world-leading biosecurity practices: Developing state-of-the-art sensor technologies; molecular identification systems and mathematical models to protect against pest and disease incursions at borders and elsewhere.
• To pursue new generation biocontrol: Developing advanced biocontrol technologies for sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.
• To pursue advanced agri-biotechnology: Using biotechnology to create opportunities for developing superior crops with enhanced resistance.
• Matauranga Maori bio-protection: Developing agricultural technologies that value and sustain matauranga and tikanga Maori leading to greater Maori participation at all levels of primary industry development decision-making.
"In summary, the centre's tasks involve research at the cutting edge of science and its application in the form of new technologies to the protection of New Zealand's greatest assets – its land and the land's sustainable economic productivity," says Professor Stewart.
While based at Lincoln University, the National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies is in fact a national collaboration of scientists and researchers from 12 organisations including universities, Crown Research Institutes and a whare wananga. The four principal partners are Lincoln University, AgResearch, Crop and Food Research and Massey University.
About Professor Alison Stewart:
Dr Alison Stewart, a plant pathologist, came to Lincoln University in 1994 after 10 years on the staff at Auckland University.
Initially appointed as an Associate Professor, she was promoted to a Personal Chair in Plant Pathology in 1999 and subsequently became leader of the University's Microbial and Plant Sciences Group.
Scottish-born with a BSc (Hons) from the University of Glasgow and a PhD from the University of Stirling, Professor Stewart is a specialist in the ecology and control of fungal diseases of economically important vegetable crops.
Her work in this area has included research on the control of onion white rot, a costly problem for the New Zealand onion industry, and Sclerotinia rot of vegetables.
In dealing with soil-borne pathogens she has been particularly interested in developing non-chemical methods of control – the biological and cultural approaches of integrated disease management.
Professor Stewart and her team carried out prize-winning research on the use of beneficial fungi like Trichoderma as the basis for non-chemical plant protection agents. This work involved collaboration with Christchurch bio-science company Agrimm Technologies Ltd which has produced a range of products based on the research.
In November 2002 Lincoln University won its bid for Centre of Research Excellence funding to establish a National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies and Professor Stewart was named as the centre's director.
Ian Collins, Journalist, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand