New Zealand’s forests are not only important to the environment but are also a part of the country’s heritage. The mighty Kauri tree is one of the most iconic and oldest tree species in the world and enjoys strong support from the New Zealand public. At the time of writing, there is currently widespread backing throughout the country for a protest effort to save a 500 year old Kauri tree from being removed by a property developer. Although resource consent has been granted and the owner is well within his rights to do so, nearly the whole country is talking about the potential felling of this tree.
While this has been grabbing local media headlines, a greater danger is threatening these ancient stalwarts. Kauri dieback due to phytophthora taxon agathis (PTA) is beginning to take hold and spread throughout the kauri population. PTA causes yellowing leaves, dead branches, lesions on the trunk, and eventually kills the tree.
New Zealand’s crown research institute, Scion, are developing a breeding program to protect the Kauri tree and ensure the longevity of the species. Senior scientists Emily Telfer and Rebecca McDougal are heading the breeding program and working with fellow scientists to track and analyse PTA through New Zealand’s forests in Northland and the Coromandel.
For the breeding program, Emily and Rebecca must identify PTA resistant trees by mapping where PTA exists, the perimeter of disease spread and determine which individual trees have not been affected. These resistant trees are then used in the breeding program so that new areas of Kauri can be developed that are genetically less likely to contract PTA.
PTA is spread usually by people or wild pigs disturbing contaminated soil. The soil around infected trees is where PTA resides and the tracking of this soil on the soles of shoes or hoofs is the main way the disease is spread. Even the process of mapping infected areas can spread PTA as researchers track the disease in and out of the forest when collecting samples. Currently, samples are collected, taken back to the lab and tested by PCR to determine if the disease is present. The collection site is then given a disease status accordingly. This process must be repeated until a complete picture of the area is achieved.
Emily and Rebecca recognise the need for on-site PCR screening to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the mapping process. This would also minimize the tracking of soil in and out of the forests limiting the opportunity for PTA to spread. Researchers on the ground would be able to test trees and know in near real-time if the disease is present. They can then use an overhead drone to accurately map the disease status of trees around the test location.
Mobile molecular testing would increase the chances of success for the breeding programme, ensuring that the New Zealand Kauri tree continues to live on for many generations to come. Success of this breeding programme would also provide a model for other forestry conservation efforts around the world, aiding in the protection of many different species globally.
Ubiquitome is running a grants program for research groups who would benefit from a mobile qPCR device. Emily Telfer has been chosen as one of the finalists. To find out more about the program and view the other finalists, visit the website here.