Peter Dearden

Associate Professor Peter Dearden leads Southern Genes. He is the director of Genetics Otago. Peter was trained at Victoria University, PhD at Imperial College, University of London. He then worked in the Wellcome (now Gurdon) institute and the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge; the Zoology department, University of Western Ontario; and returned to New Zealand and the University of Otago in 2002. Peter is a researcher in the Laboratory for Evolution and Development, and Otago site leader for the National Research Centre for Growth and Development. Peter's research is centered in Evolution and Development, Epigenetics and Developmental plasticity. Peter is on Twitter @peterkdearden

Cheesecake makes you fat, but correlation is not causation - Genomics Aotearoa

Mar 26, 2014

Julia Horsfield I was one of the happy people rejoicing in new gastronomic possibilities after hearing that eating saturated fats may not cause heart disease after all. Yay! I never could bring myself to opt for that trim latte. Maybe I can even ditch the Olivani in favour of butter. But, as my nutritional friends point out, it’s all how you look at the data. Unfortunately, we mustn’t get too excited, and the best dietary advice is still to stick with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats as part of a balanced diet. Fair enough, it’s hard not to agree. But I’m an experimental biologist, inordinately interested in the nuts and bolts of how things work. I like cause-and-effect, or as my sons would tell you, ‘consequences’. Stuff you can measure and be unequivocally convinced by. I’ve always been faintly uncomfortable … Read More

Meeting your heroes. - Genomics Aotearoa

Mar 12, 2014

They* say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet one of mine, Professor Lord Robert Winston, as he came to visit Genetics Otago for the day. Prof. Winston, as well as being a pioneer in science communication, is also a key figure in genetics, being part of the team that invented the technique of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Prof Winston came to talk to school kids, and he gave an inspiring address at Otago Boys’ to an audience of senior students from around Dunedin and Otago. He talked about the promise and dangers of science, and emphasised that scientific literacy is key to us extracting the good from science while avoiding the bad. Prof Winston also talked to our postgraduate (and a few undergraduate students), about his career and his thoughts on current issues … Read More

Why you should care about plasticity. - Genomics Aotearoa

Feb 26, 2014

Peter K. Dearden In my last post I mentioned I was interested in how you get changes in the shape of an animal without a change in genetics. This process is, of course, important for animals like bees, but it is also important in our own biology. In recent years evidence has been building that suggests that our early life environment, pre-natally and perhaps even around conception, has a huge influence on our later life and health. This idea mirrors the biology I study in bees, environmental influences affect the way genes work, leading to alternative forms, shaped or biology later in life. The field gives this phenomenon a name; developmental plasticity. During the early life of an animal, it is thought that environmental influences, the maternal environment even post natal care, all can set biological parameters that can then … Read More

Why I study Bees. - Genomics Aotearoa

Jan 13, 2014

Peter K. Dearden I was recently asked why I work on honeybees, especially given my growing intolerance to bee stings. There are lots of easy answers to this questions, including how cool they are, how important they are, how remarkable their biology is etc etc, but when it comes down to it, there is a real answer. So just to see how strange scientist’s career pathways can be, I want to tell you how I came to be a bee biologist. To find out, we have to go back 540 million years… If you are not a biologist, or even if you are, you might not have heard of the Cambrian explosion. This is a tragedy, because something remarkable happened, which echoes through evolutionary history. Geologists often divide up periods of geological history using key fossils as signatures of particular … Read More

Is your educational achievement determined by your genes? - Genomics Aotearoa

Jan 01, 2014

Peter K. Dearden I am loath to write this post, not only because it is New Year’s Day and I am in Melbourne, but also because the subject matter touches some raw nerves. The problem is I have been increasingly angry at the way genetics is beginning to be used to inform policy in education. Not so much here in New Zealand, but in the UK there are worrying signs that genetics is being used as an argument to de-invest in education. Given that NZ often follows the UK, I wanted to point out a few problems with what has been reported (for example here, here and here). The facts are that measures of ‘intelligence’ have been shown to be highly heritable. This is a difficult statement to make because it sums up a great deal of research … Read More

Working out what makes us human. - Genomics Aotearoa

Dec 20, 2013

Peter K. Dearden. One key question in biology is what makes us different as a species. Humans have a remarkable set of adaptations that distinguish us from even our closest living relatives. We walk upright, we have larger brains, we use language, and we are consummate tool-makers and users. From the point of view of an alien, perhaps, these differences may be subtle, but they are key to our spread around this planet, and the ability, for better or worse, to modify our environment. These differences must be encoded somewhere in our genes. Something about the way our DNA works, or is organised, must underpin these differences in our biology. Such differences are key targets for scientists seeking to understand the biology of our species. Before we sequenced the human genome, we thought that we probably had hundreds of thousands … Read More

AgResearch, Invermay and Genetics - Genomics Aotearoa

Nov 26, 2013

Peter K. Dearden The opinions below are my own, and not necessarily those of the University of Otago, my employer. You may be aware that AgResearch has decided to move its genetics/genomics team from Invermay near Dunedin, to Lincoln. This move has excited a great deal of attention in the Otago press, and some consternation around here. Genetics Otago  has been drawn into this as a centre of research excellence and hub for genetics and genomics that AgResearch is linked into, that they will lose the benefit of if they move. This has led to some unfortunate exchanges in the media, so I thought I would write something from my point of view. AgResearch has had a long-term and excellent genetic/ genomics group at Invermay. Many of that group are members of Genetics Otago. Genetics Otago has over 200 … Read More

Finding future treatments for Cancer - Genomics Aotearoa

Sep 25, 2013

Dr Elizabeth Duncan Cancer.  It is a small word, but one that has a big meaning for a lot of people.  Most of us know someone who has had cancer, or are cancer survivors. As a geneticist I can sometimes have a dispassionate view of the world around me, but last night as Jessica Wapner read an excerpt from her book “The Philadelphia Chromosome” I almost cried.  Jessica began her talk with a poignant tale of a man named Gary Eichner.  Gary was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) at the age of 43.  CML causes the bone marrow to make too many white blood cells.  If Gary had been diagnosed 20 years ago he would have had a poor prognosis, almost no chance of surviving 5 years.  Now, thanks to a drug called Gleevec (and its derivatives), … Read More

Fork Futures - Genomics Aotearoa

Aug 06, 2013

Peter K. Dearden It is hard to avoid the news that last night, a beef burger grown in the lab was consumed by a number of people. The idea was that meat, grown in dishes in the lab, could replace meat grown in animals; last night was a demonstration of the principle. The beef burger in question was grown from muscle stem cells in plastic dishes, the cells collected and squished together to make a meat-like substance. Consumers of the burger made statements such as “lacked flavor” and “needed some fat”, not exactly a glowing endorsement, but perhaps no worse than most folk’s opinion of the ‘mechanically recovered meat’ often lurking in such burgers. The cost of this burger has been reported as 250,000 Euros ($425,000 NZ dollars), proving conclusively that growing meat in animals is still cheaper and more … Read More

Lethal doses and Bees - Genomics Aotearoa

Jul 30, 2013

Peter K. Dearden More bad news for bees this week. Honeybees around the world are struggling in the face of disease and insecticide threats. In New Zealand we have Varroa mite, that increases costs for beekeepers, destroys unmanaged beehives and vectors viruses, making them more virulent. Overseas, Colony Collapse Disorder and pesticide-threats are adding to the woes Varroa brings, meaning bee numbers appear to be declining. The loss of pollination capacity due to the loss of bees should be a big issue for all of us. In New Zealand, honeybees are estimated to support 35% of our primary sector, contributing $5.1 billion in export revenues (Laas, F., Foster, B. & Newstrom-Lloyd, L. Report to the Select Committee on Pollinator Security in New Zealand. (2011)).  Beyond this, the pollination of the beans and fruit trees in your garden and parks, is … Read More