Four projects led by Massey University researchers have been awarded more than $12 million in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) 2021 Endeavour Fund.
A collaborative Research Programme between Massey University and AgResearch has been awarded $9.2 million over five years, to develop innovative compostable SmartBioplastic food packaging.
The project, entitled ‘Smart Bioplastic food packaging to extend shelf-life and reduce pollution’ is being co-led by Principal Scientist Dr Eric Altermann from AgResearch and Distinguished Professor Nigel French from Massey’s School of Veterinary Science and includes collaborators from Scion (NZ), Oregon State University (USA), North Carolina State University (USA) and Precision Protein Delivery Solutions (PPDx, USA).
This project will leverage the expertise and capability of both Massey University and AgResearch to develop SmartBioplastic food packaging materials capable of providing widespread economic, environmental, and health benefits to New Zealand, from existing biodegradable plastic films and coating-liquids based on underutilised by-products such as wood chips, zein, chitosan or pomace.
Food packaging plays a critical role in protecting fresh food from damage and contamination, but Dr Altermann says the petroleum-based plastics most commonly used, have significant detrimental environmental impacts.
“We hope to enhance New Zealand’s exports by increasing the shelf life and product safety, creating a new class of globally-relevant food packaging materials. This will reduce waste by creating a new high-value use for low-value secondary streams from primary industry,” he adds.
“The development of shelf-life extending SmartBioplastics will be challenging, and require cutting-edge, multidisciplinary science approach. Our team consists of experts in microbial genetics, fermentation, packaging, food safety, and environmental persistence, as well as the presence of major industry representatives,” Professor French says.
Optimal pasture yield with less fertiliser
Associate Professor Paul Dijkwel’s successful project, entitled ‘Enhancing legume nitrogen fixation to reduce fertiliser use’ will investigate the genetic basis of a plant trait that allows optimal pasture output with heavily reduced nitrogen fertiliser use. He was awarded $1 million from MBIE’s Smart Ideas funding round, for a three-year project.
Dr Dijkwel, from Massey’s School of Fundamental Sciences, says that while nitrogen fertiliser supports plant growth effectively, it has a highly undesirable side effect; fertiliser strongly inhibits nitrogen-fixation by clovers and therefore abolishes this natural source of nitrogen that has been traditionally utilised by farmers.
“We have discovered a trait in the legume Medicago in which this nitrogen-fixation inhibition process is disrupted. Transfer of this trait to clover will greatly reduce fertiliser use because clover uses less fertiliser, while continuing to enrich the pasture with fixed nitrogen. Inhibition of nitrogen-fixation is a very robust process, and our discovery of a Medicago truncatula plant line that is resistant to inhibition of nitrogen-fixation is ground-breaking.”
Cutting-edge methods to map biota
Dr Kristin Stock from the School of Natural and Computational Sciences has been awarded $1 million to develop cutting-edge methods to map more than 12 million biota specimens collected in New Zealand and Antarctica over 250 years.
Her Smart Ideas project, entitled ‘BioWhere: Developing Methods to Georeference New Zealand’s Biota from Text’, will unlock vast stores of data, enabling biodiversity protection, pest management and climate change response.
Dr Stock and her team will work with Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research, Kew Gardens (UK) and the Natural History Museum (UK) to develop the automated methods.
“Currently, the locations of many specimens are depicted with complex natural language [textual]
descriptions and only a fraction of these have been mapped due to the considerable cost of manual mapping,” Dr Stock says.
“The methods developed by the project will be applicable to a range of other domains including disaster response, cultural heritage, and health,” she adds.
Together with Māori, the team will co-design a place names gazetter, clarifying historical usages and inter-relating Māori place names used by different hapū and iwi for the same place, alongside early European narratives.
“This will raise the profile of Māori knowledge generated from long-held cultural perspectives in placing language on the land (taunaha, take whenua, take tipuna, take kitea) to reflect the adage - kei te whenua te reo, kei te reo te whenua - the language is in the land and the land is in the language - and encourage people of New Zealand to use original Māori place names through increased knowledge and understanding.”
Sub-surface mapping tool to be developed
Dr Gabe Redding from Massey’s AgriFood Digital Lab has also been granted $1 million from the Smart Ideas fund, for the project entitled ‘High-Resolution Underground Imaging with Airborne Ground-Penetrating Radar’.
The team includes Massey researchers Professor Jonathan Procter, Dr Samuel McColl, and Dr Morio Fukuoka, as well former Massey staff members Associate Professor Steven LeMoan (Norwegian Colour and Visual Computing Research Laboratory) and Dr Faraz Hasan (University of Buraimi), alongside Associate Professor Patrice Delmas (University of Auckland), and Daniel Parker (inSite Archaeology Ltd).
The three-year project will provide an innovative, cost-effective and versatile tool to assist detection and mapping of sub-surface features for applications in agriculture, archaeology and civil engineering.
“Mapping of sub-surface features requires high-end equipment that is cumbersome and requires expert skills to handle. This results in a high risk-to-reward for sub-surface exploration in New Zealand, especially in regions of rugged topography, with limited ground access,” Dr Redding says.
As an alternative, drone-borne Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) has been recently proven a viable approach, but Dr Redding says there are two major issues – low spatial resolution and poor interpretability of data for non-experts.
“Our project will address these technical challenges and create a unique platform to produce georeferenced, 3D, high-quality visualisations of drone-borne GPR surveys, augmented by automatic feature recognition techniques in order to facilitate data interpretation,” Dr Redding says.
The 2021 Endeavour Fund received 547 proposals with only 69 granted funding.
Massey University’s Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes, is immensely proud of Massey staff's success in the latest funding round and says that these projects are testament to the excellent research teams at the university and Massey’s strong commitment to supporting world-class research in partnership with communities and research partners to produce ‘real world’ impact.
“Each one of these projects speaks to a key goal of He Rautaki Rangahau, our university research strategy; to deliver real and lasting benefits beyond the academy where the successful application of research is one of the characteristics of Massey’s research distinctiveness.”
Professor Byrnes also says that, “Partnering with others is an excellent way to contribute the best of our research skills and Massey is delighted with the breadth and depth of contributions that our talented staff are providing to advance high quality research.”
Massey staff are also contributing to cross-organisation research within a number of funded projects being led by other agencies:
- Professor Gert Lube, Dr Gabor Kereszturi and Dr Stuart Mead are contributing to GNS’s Research Programme ‘Beneath the Waves: Preparedness and resilience to New Zealand’s nearshore volcano hazards’.
- Professor David Johnston, Lucy Kaiser and Dr Emma Hudson-Doyle are involved in another GNS project – the Smart Idea ‘Agent models of tsunami evacuation behaviour to improve planning and preparedness’.
- Professor Benoit Guieysse and Dr Maxence Plouviez are contributing to the AgResearch Smart Idea ‘Novel infant formula emulsions’.
- Dr Pullanagari Reddy is contributing to the PlantTech Research Institute Limited Smart Idea 'A 3D model of radiation transport to enable high yield photosynthetic efficient crops'.
Further information about the successful Massey programmes and others nationwide can be found here.