Our Changing World

Thursday 24 July 2014, with Alison Ballance, Ruth Beran & Veronika Meduna

Audio from Thursday 24 July 2014

Not all audio is available due to copyright restrictions.

  • Flora Finder App for Plant Identification ( 12′ 4″ )

    21:06 The Botany Department at the University of Otago has collaborated with MEA Mobile to make a smart phone app that uses the camera function to help identify native plants

  • Memory and Brain Plasticity ( 13′ 49″ )

    21:20 By understanding how the brain stores and updates information, researchers hope to one day help people with Alzheimer's disease

  • Web Only Special - Metaplasticity and New Neurons ( 25′ 50″ )

    21:25 Owen Jones is researching metaplasticity in the brain and Shane Ohline is studying the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus

  • Science Debate ( 26′ 26″ )

    21:34 NZAS president Nicola Gaston, CoRE director Shaun Hendy and University of Auckland bioinformatics professor Alexei Drummond discuss recent and proposed changes.

  • OCW Mystery Sound 4 ( 24″ )

    21:46 The fourth mystery sound from the 2014-15 Our Changing World opening theme

On This Programme

Flora Finder

So you’re out on a walk and want to find out what a plant is, but don’t have an identification guide to hand. Now, all you need to do is whip out your iPhone or iPad, take a photo and the Flora Finder app will help you find the best match.

The Flora Finder app is an electronic field guide, and it is the brainchild of University of Otago botanist Janice Lord.

‘It came out of conversations about how to bring plants to people who haven’t had any biological training’ says Janice. ‘But the other inspiration was that when I was an undergraduate student and I had to do vegetation surveys I fantasised about having a machine that you could point at a plant and you push a button and it’ll tell you what it is.’

Flora Finder app finding a match for a photo of a kowhai leafThe app was developed in association with Otago Innovation, the University of Otago Technology Transfer Team which looks for commercialisation opportunities for ideas coming out of University of Otago departments.

Graham Strong from Otago Innovation says ‘What we’ve done with Flora Finder is that we’ve taken unique content about native plants [from the Botany Department] and by adding this feature of being able to photograph a leaf to help you identify the plant it’s really added a whole new level of discovery for people when it comes to discovering New Zealand native plants.’

The technical side of creating the app fell to company MEA Mobile, a New Zealand company that specialises in app development. Director Rod Macfarlane explains that to get the app to find a match for a photo taken in the field ‘we had to use some recognition technology to try and identify a real world object against a database that the Botany Department provided to us.’

The Flora Finder app currently identifies 87 common New Zealand native trees and shrubs. ‘We’ve picked trees that occur up and down New Zealand’ says Janice. If you can’t find a match the app allows you to email your photo to the Department of Botany who will get back to you with an identification.

Alison Ballance saw the app being demonstrated at the Bioblitz held in the Dunedin Botanic Gardens during the International Science Festival, and it was generating lots of interest. One first-timer user commented ‘I could become addicted to this!’

Janice Lord believes the basic design of the app could be used to create Flora Finders for other countries.

‘I can see it used around the world, the same concept, simply because people are interested in plants but they don’t know where to start’ says Janice.

The Flora Finder app is available to buy in the iTunes store. Janice hopes to add about 20 more species to the app in the next month, and there are plans to expand the app to Android smart phones.

Memory and Brain Plasticity

The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped structure located deep in the brain which plays a major role in the formation of memories.

It’s a structure that Professor Cliff Abraham, is particularly interested in, partially because the neurons in the hippocampus appear to be especially vulnerable in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our brains are constantly learning new information and updating old information,” says Cliff, Director of the Brain Health Research Centre. “How it actually does that, and what happens when things go wrong such as in Alzheimer’s disease are of particular interest in my work.”

At the University of Otago, he’s working with fellow researcher Bruce Mockett to look at the hippocampus in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, and specifically to look at what happens during learning, right down to the level of the synapses -- the connections between the nerve cells. This process is called synaptic plasticity.

“When cells are active during an experience, the synaptic connections between those cells strengthen. We call this process long-term potentiation (LTP).” says Cliff. “If you disturb this long-term potentiation you can disturb memory and it is now understood that this happens in Alzheimer’s disease, for example.”

By electrically stimulating a particular pathway in slices of the hippocampus, and recording the responses of the receiving cells, this process of LTP can be studied.

Bruce Mockett explains to Ruth Beran that many experiments can be compared over time to determine whether or not plasticity has increased or decreased.

The Health Research Council funded research is trying to find molecules to rescue LTP, and is looking at a protein called secreted amyloid precursor protein-alpha (sAPPa).

“We have found that at the right concentrations it can bring the long-term potentiation effect back to normal levels. So we’re quite excited by this, although this is all of course somewhat artificial environments,” says Cliff.

The next step is to find ways of delivering the protein when the animals are actually learning.

While the work is currently in animal models, Cliff believes it may inspire others to find the effective components of sAPPa protein, and discover safe delivery methods, to help people recover from memory deficits in the future.


Cliff Abraham, Owen Jones, Shane Ohline and Bruce Mockett

From left to right: Cliff Abraham, Owen Jones, Shane Ohline and Bruce Mockett

Other research being undertaken in Cliff’s laboratory includes work by Owen Jones who is funded by the Neurological Foundation to look at brain cells, called astrocytes, and their role in regulating synaptic plasticity.

Another area of research is being conducted by Shane Ohline, who is looking at an unusual feature of the hippocampus. Contrary to popular belief, the brain can produce new cells, although only a few areas can do this, and the hippocampus is one of them. Why this neurogenesis occurs is very poorly understood, and Shane’s Marsden funded research revolves around dating cells in the brain and asking what the new neurons are good for.

Science Debate

New Zealand’s science system has undergone many changes in the last few years, including the introduction of core funding for Crown Research Institutes, the creation of Callaghan Innovation, changes to the Performance-based Research Fund and the introduction of National Science Challenges.

This debate features Nicola Gaston (president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists) Alexei Drummond (professor in computational biology at the University of Auckland and founder and director of Biomatters Ltd), and Shaun Hendy (director of a new Centre of Research Excellence on complex systems, Te Pūnaha Matatini).

Ten National Science Challenges were announced last year, with the plan that three or four would start work in 2013. However, as of this week, only one challenge on high-value nutrition has been announced, while some have stalled.

Discussing the challenges, Nicola Gaston says that they were meant to encourage collaboration, but instead might have achieved the opposite.

The big criticism of the National Science Challenges you can make is that it has been not at all transparent.'

She says scientists don’t struggle to collaborate internationally because “we leave it up to the individuals to go out to find a person with the appropriate expertise for a particular project. The real issue with the National Science Challenges is this expectation that only one proposal is going to come forward from the community. That’s just not realistic.”

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment recently released the National Statement of Science Investment, which outlines how much money should be spend on science and where the priorities should be. The draft document describes the goal of the government’s science investment to support a system that meets “New Zealand’s economic, social, environmental and cultural needs”.  Underpinning this are seven proposed objectives:

  • producing excellent science of the highest quality;
  • ensuring value by focusing on relevant science with the highest potential for impact for the benefit of New Zealand;
  • committing to continue increasing investment over time;
  • increasing focus on sectors of future need or growth;
  • increasing the scale of industry-led research;
  • continue to implement Vision Matauranga;
  • strengthening and building international relationships to strengthen the capacity of our science system to benefit New Zealanders.

The government is now seeking feedback on the draft statement, and in this discussion the panellists explain where they think the future direction and priorities should be.

All agree that a lack of postdoctoral funding is limiting not just individual early-career scientists' options, but affects the entire science system. Shaun Hendy says New Zealand needs to urgently address this issue and also significantly increase the amount of money going into contestable funds. Apart from those priorities, he would like to see a move towards more evidence-based policy. “We need to have patience when we create a new funding mechanism, make sure that we monitor what’s going on with that funding mechanism and make small changes as we go rather than every couple of years completely reinventing the science system.”

"The most urgent matter is just funding science and research in New Zealand at a much larger fraction of GDP than we currently are," says Alexei Drummond, "if we want to be anything like an advanced economy and want to escape from this reliance on the primary industry and low-value exports."

Submissions to the National Statement of Science Investment close on 22 August 2014.

OCW Opening Theme - Mystery Sound 4

The fourth sound used in our opening theme is a grey-faced petrel chick, from a story about islands, rodents and seabirds, with James Russell, winner of 2012 Prime Minister’s Award for Emerging Scientist.

Coming Up – Thursday 31 July 2014

Childhood obesity, fermented food and drink, colliding ultracold atom clouds and a shark dissection.