Māori scientists lead effort to combat plant pathogen

Damage caused by Myrtle Rust, a plant fungus. Brisbane City Council. CC-BY-2.0

Press release from the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

Expert reaction - Science Media Centre

The recent finding of myrtle rust on Raoul Island pōhutukawa trees marks a significant and very sad milestone in a long history of impacts of invasive pathogens, pests and weeds on New Zealand's unique flora and fauna, says Dr Andrea Byrom, Director of the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

Myrtle rust is a highly invasive plant pathogen whose impacts - if it establishes on the New Zealand mainland - will not be limited to our native flora. The pathogen also has the potential to pose a serious risk to primary industries, because it affects all species of the plant family myrtaceae, such as feijoa, eucalyptus, and mānuka. In Australia, the disease has - worryingly - caused the extinction of several treasured plant species of significance to Aboriginal Australians.

Dr Byrom says: “Fortunately, in 2016 the NZ's Biological Heritage National Science Challenge funded a multidisciplinary research project aimed at boosting the preparedness of NZ's biosecurity system for an incursion of this plant pathogen.”

The research project, ‘Māori solutions to biosecurity threats and incursions to taonga species’ is led by a Māori research team from the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University in collaboration with Te Turi Whakamātaki (the Māori Biosecurity Network), Auckland Council, Scion, Plant & Food Research, Better Border Biosecurity, the Department of Conservation, the Ministry for Primary Industries, and international collaborators in Australia, South Africa, the UK, and the US.

A major strand to the project is to make better use of surveillance data to inform incursion responses just like the one we are now facing. The research team recognized early on the potential impacts of the pathogen, and have a network of citizen scientists and researchers ‘ready to act’ with their international counterparts.

Dr Byrom says: “Critical to the success of any response will be a rapid and coordinated approach. We will need to make maximum use of all available information collected formally by DOC and MPI. But equally importantly right now, there is no better time to put into action one of the strategic priorities outlined in MPI's 'Biosecurity 2025' action plan: making the best use of 4.7 million engaged and biosecurity-aware citizens, keeping an eye out for the first signs of this disease. Scientists in the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge will work closely with the Māori Biosecurity Network, DOC, and MPI to make every effort to prevent the spread of this disease to the mainland of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Project Overview

Māori have developed practices and methods such as the use of ritenga (customs, laws, and protocols) and whakapapa (species assemblages within a holistic ecosystem paradigm) to mitigate risks and threats to both endemic biodiversity and primary production systems from pests, weeds and pathogens. However, the 21st century has seen a rapid increase in species introductions to New Zealand with dramatic consequences for both Māori livelihoods and cultural integrity. Our research focuses on a model case study highly relevant to Māori cultural integrity in order to demonstrate the biodiversity benefit from a functional hapū/iwi-specific response, which includes mātauranga approaches, to biosecurity risks and threats. As a consequence, hapū, iwi, and Māori organisations and researchers alike will be challenged to draw on both traditional and contemporary sources of knowledge to achieve transformational, Māori-led outcomes for the benefit of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Based on nationwide Māori community hui and researcher consultation we have chosen as an exemplar the plant pathogen myrtle rust (Puccinia psidii) which threatens terrestrial taonga of the Myrtaceae family (mānuka, rātā, pōhutukawa). The project includes development of a Māori community response, and upskilling young Māori scientists in the pathology and potential impacts of the disease.  Until recently, this exemplar represented a pre-border incursion threat.

The aim of the project is to protect New Zealand’s biological heritage via Māori-led preparedness that incorporates Māori innovation and knowledge with traditional science scholarship and capability development. Focus on hapū, iwi, and Māori organisational responses to emerging and current biosecurity risks and threats across both managed and native ecosystems will optimises the prevention and management of biological incursions and their future impact on culturally, ecologically and economically important species. It will strengthen Māori connections with their environments, giving effect to the principles of kaitiakitanga (guardianship of natural resources), maramataka (seasonal planning) and socio-ecological links to promote and protect our taonga species and their ecosystems.

In addition, this project strengthens partnerships among New Zealand scientists and Māori communities, and with international collaborators based at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute in Pretoria, South Africa and Charles Darwin University in Australia. It will also nurture potential collaborative partnerships with KEW Botanical Gardens, UK and the USDA Forest Service in Hawai’i, USA.

For further information, contact Project Leader Dr Nick Waipara: 021 222 9067 Nick.Waipara@aucklandcouncil.govt.nz or the Biological Heritage Challenge, support@biologicalheritage.nz