There are many areas of research that the Native Australian Animals Trust supports, and many ways in which we fund this research.
What you could support
- Fundamental biology and ecology of Australian animals
Fundamental biology and ecology of Australian animals
Australia’s animals have evolved in relative isolation for millions of years. As such, they have valuable lessons to teach the world about the possibilities and limits of life: Australian species often do things differently. Researchers at the University of Melbourne are deeply engaged in unearthing and understanding Australia’s fascinating fauna. From the behaviour of fairy wrens and insects, to the genetic underpinnings of foetal development, or assembling the genome of the Thylacine, our researchers are at the forefront of fundamental biological research.
As well as its own intrinsic value, the breadth of capacity at University of Melbourne means that such research often leads to new applications. Fundamental work on the genomics of marsupial development, for example, led to the identification of novel milk proteins and anti-microbial peptides with clear promise as unique therapeutics in human health. Indeed it is this core of fundamental biological research that underpins much of the innovation in the School of BioSciences. Fundamental biological research is, however, difficult to fund. While our researchers are incredibly successful at securing funding that is available, a dedicated research fund to support fundamental biological research would secure this innovation base, and support the training of many students in fundamental, curiosity-driven science.
Uncovering hidden biodiversity
Australia has a unique and charismatic animal fauna, with many animals known only from small pats of Australia. Good old fashioned detective work in the field wedded to new highly sensitive genetic techniques enable us to detect previously unknown species and properly document the true biodiversity of Australian ecosystems. This kind of research is rapidly fading in popularity, as public funds for this field of work diminish. Moreover, most scientists who have led this work for decades across all animal groups are reaching retirement age, and public institutions, such as museums, rarely replace them. Targeted philanthropic investment in this space is likely to have rapid impact in uncovering hidden biodiversity, with conservation benefits.
As a case in point, a recent project funded solely by philanthropy, allowed University of Melbourne researchers to traverse the remote rivers of the Kimberley region in Australia’s north from 2012-2014. This effort resulted in discovery of a treasure trove of 20 new freshwater fish species. The discovery increased the biodiversity estimate of Australia’s freshwater fish by 10% and is the greatest single addition to Australia’s freshwater fish fauna since the first Australian fish species was described more than 187 years ago. Now that we know these species exist, we can mount arguments for their protection.
Evolutionary approaches to rescuing populations
Species don’t go extinct overnight. First they go through a period of decline, and this is our chance to save them. By paying careful attention to the genetic variation within the species we can bring this genetic variation to bear on recovering populations. By introducing particular genes to a population we can make that population robust to the threats they face (e.g., introducing toad-smart genes into populations impacted by cane toads; or warm-adapted genes and zooxanthellae to coral populations threatened with bleaching). The great advantage of this approach is that it makes use of natural variation and produces a lasting solution to a conservation problem without the need for management in perpetuity. It is effective, and it is great value for money.
The School of BioSciences is a world leader in this field, applying these approaches to the impacts of climate change on reef-building corals, the impact of toads on native predators, and to the recovery of the mountain pygmy possum. The work has only just begun, however. There is a huge list of species around the world that can benefit from this approach. Additional research funds would allow this urgent research to be upscaled, and the implementation stage to be reached much more quickly.
Saving species in rapidly changing landscapes
Nearly 20,000 species are currently threatened by extinction, and habitat loss has been identified as the single biggest driver. In the face of human land use pressure, how do we identify which regions and habitats should be preserved to protect a large and diverse number of species. Researchers in the School of Biosciences are world leaders in solving precisely this kind of problem. Not only do they develop the fundamental tools, they also reach across disciplines—into mathematics, statistics, computation, and operations research—to do so. They also engage strongly with land managers and governments to see these results realized in the real world. Their work, for example, has identified which habitats around Perth can best protect nearly 200 threatened species. The outcome has been a regional plan setting aside 170,000ha for new natural reserves, optimally arrayed so as to protect biodiversity.
As species extinction rates increase, and the human population grows, there is a growing need to develop and implement such projects. A research centre dedicated to this work would not only establish the University as the place to come to have these planning problems solved, but would also act as a valuable training ground to grow the global expertise at the rate that is needed to keep pace with the scale of the problem.
Linking with Indigenous communities for conservation
The coming decades are going to see Australia’s indigenous owners having much greater control over what happens on their country. Indigenous protected areas, for example, place land management firmly into the hands of the indigenous owners, creating stronger links to country and generating meaningful employment in remote areas. Indigenous protected areas are expanding rapidly. There are currently 72 of them across Australia representing 65 million hectares, 9% of the mainland Australia and 45% of the national reserve system. They still represent a small proportion of Australia’s vast indigenous estate. While Aboriginal people have been managing country for millennia, they are now being asked to do so with the additional complexity of having to balance socio-economic needs in a global economy. These are complex decisions.
The School of BioSciences contains some of the world leaders in conservation planning and decision theory. We have a proven track record of finding out what land managers want, and helping them work out how best to get there. This approach and track record can bring immense benefits when brought to bear on land-use planning such as is required for Indigenous Protected Areas. We have begun collaborations with indigenous communities (for example, on the Tiwi Islands) to integrate indigenous knowledge with scientific methods, by combining predictive modelling with monitoring programs led by indigenous rangers. This work can facilitate social, economic and environmental benefits for indigenous people, and also build their capacity for natural resource planning. This is great work that could be rapidly expanded with an increased funding base.
Photo credit: Anja Skroblin
Dealing with disease
Many of the devastating human diseases either evolved first in other animals (e.g. HIV, Ebola, and SARS) or non-human animals also act as their hosts (e.g. malaria, dengue fever, and Ross river virus). Diseases such as these affect tens of millions of humans around the world annually and contribute substantially to human mortality. Ultimately human disease is both a biological and medical problem but almost everything we know about how diseases evolve comes from biological research. Thus a biological perspective on disease, and disease-causing agents can provide powerful insights into how diseases arise and more critically how they might be managed or eradicated.
For example, researchers in the School of BioSciences, have discovered that female mosquitos infected with a type of bacteria called Wolbachia do not pass on the Dengue virus and when they mate with males not infected with Wolbachia they produce no offspring. This has led to a successful Wolbachia biological control program in several countries (including Australia) and has resulted in suppression of mosquito populations and the effective immunization of mosquitos (and thus humans) against Dengue. Other researchers in BioSciences have tackled the potentially catastrophic issue of drug resistance in malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. By looking carefully at the evolution and physiology of malaria they have developed new tools that reduces the issue of drug resistance and might allow us to combat malaria in perpetuity. Clearly, the economic and health benefits of targeted biological research into human disease are vast.
The School of BioSciences has a proven track record of applying biological research to solving problems of human disease. The School has the breadth of expertise and the collaborative atmosphere in which novel approaches are bound to emerge. Funding for blue sky research in this area would enable new avenues to be rapidly explored and, if successful, built to the proof of concept stage (at which point other funding could be sought to translate the work into real-world outcomes).
Turning back the tide of invasive species
Invasive species are a huge problem, particularly in Australia which (biologically speaking) has been isolated from the rest of the world for millennia. Foxes, cats, invasive plants, invasive diseases, and even invasive toads have had a huge impact on Australia’s biodiversity since European arrival. Researchers at the School of BioSciences have developed innovative strategies for dealing with invasive species, at all levels. We have developed sophisticated models for optimizing biosecurity investment (to prevent new invaders arriving); we have developed new strategies for containment (e.g., developing waterless barriers to prevent the further spread of cane toads); we have developed new strategies for mitigation (e.g., evolving native species that can survive in the presence of the invader); and we are on the forefront of new genetic techniques (such as CRISPR, and Gene Drives) that may soon revolutionize our capacity to control and eradicate invasive species. Our work on evolution in invasive species is even being applied to an invader of personal concern to most people: cancer cells.
Management of invasive species requires an integrated approach, spanning expertise ranging from economic modeling through to rapid evolution, and molecular biology. Astonishingly enough, the School of BioSciences has this breadth of expertise, but it is yet to be harnessed in an integrated manner. The establishment of a Chair in Invasive Species would generate a powerful focal point to leverage the School’s formidable expertise toward this problem.
How you could support
Scholarships, prizes and grants for travel or research make a real difference to the lives and work of our students, allowing them to achieve their potential.
Fellowships support early career researchers. People who are fully qualified and are at their most research active. Research fellows are incredibly productive, and fellowships give people important career opportunities.
Major gifts can support endowed Professorial chairs. These create continuing positions for the most outstanding researchers, at the peak of their career. These people support large lab groups and generate substantial research programmes running over decades. Their ultimate contribution to research, and research training, is inestimable.
These can be either towards the general purposes of the Trust, or to specific projects or research areas.