AgResearch, Invermay and Genetics

By Peter Dearden 26/11/2013

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 members across the University of Otago, AgResearch, AbacusBio, and others (both companies and individuals) across Otago. AgResearch is a small, but important, part of that collaboration. Indeed AgResearch members have always been members of our administrative group, and we greatly value that input. It is also worth pointing out that we are a very broad organisation. Genetics is a tool for understanding biology, and we have people who use genetics in a great number of fields (see our website), including members in Law and Bioethics who study the impact of genetic technology and findings on society. Genetics Otago is wholly funded by the University of Otago.

In recent weeks I have been disappointed by the way we, and the University of Otago, have been portrayed, in the continuing argument about AgResearch leaving.

There are three points that I think have been unfair.

1) Only Massey and Lincoln Universities have the capability of training new agricultural scientists.

This is more than a little unfair. We, in Genetics at least, have spent a great deal of time ensuring that Agricultural and Horticultural genetics is taught in all our lectures and labs, and indeed have invited members of CRIs to teach in our papers. Indeed one outstanding geneticist from AgResearch teaches a large block of lectures on quantitative genetics.We do this because a) the scientist involved is an outstanding world-leader in this field, b) we think that this is a key skill that our young geneticists must learn to fill gaps in NZ industry and c) it gives us the opportunity to introduce our students to AgResearch, a potential employer and key research agency in NZ. Alongside this, many of our lecturing staff have links into agricultural research, and, in the spirit of research-led teaching, ensure this aspect is taught in our programmes. Outside genetics, many of our teaching programmes encompass topics of importance to agriculture. Otago’s teaching aims to produce excellent, flexible and broadly capable members of the workforce. Many of our students go on in Agricultural sciences as a result of these traits.

2) AgResearch’s links to Genetics at Otago are only a ‘few people thick’.

This is not quite true. While there may be few funded grants with AgResearch currently, the relationship between Otago and Invermay is much deeper. Many of our members have funded or unfunded collaborations with AgResearch, some (including myself) use Agresearch’s facilities for their research. Even more importantly, through joint seminars and symposia, we discuss research and technology with our AgResearch colleagues, develop new ideas together, share equipment and chemicals, and generally act as a diverse, vibrant, sharing community. This community will continue without AgResearch, but AgResearch will lose those connections if they move.

3) The University of Otago is not collaborative.

I guess we have a bit of a reputation for being old fashioned, focusing on excellence, and perhaps not playing nicely with, or ignoring, more applied aspect of science. This reputation, in genetics at least, couldn’t be further from the truth. Our collaborations and connections with AgResearch, in particular, are old. The AgResearch Molecular Biology Unit, the forerunner of the excellent genetics research at the Invermay Campus, sprang out of, and was hosted for many years by, the University of Otago Biochemistry Department. Indeed the office where I write this too-long blog was their old meeting room. I turned down a job with AgResearch some years ago in this very room. In the lab next door the Inverdale and Boorula mutations, now used to manipulate sheep fertility nationwide, were isolated, and studied. Some years ago, the lab moved out to Invermay, with support from the University in the form of the Centre for Reproduction and Genomics, jointly funded by AgResearch and Otago, and Genetics Otago. Under that banner, the first draft of the sheep genome, the basis for AgResearch’s successful sheep genotyping technologies was sequenced. That sequencing was done on an Otago-bought machine, with support from Otago staff. The final version of the sheep genome is just about to be submitted for publication, and includes the names of a number of University of Otago researchers, as well as their AgResearch counterparts. The collaborative relationship between Otago and Agresearch has been a long and successful one. Collaborations will continue if AgResearch leaves, but they will change, and they will be less effective.

AgResearch has set forward clear reasons as to why they wish to move genetics/genomics out of Invermay. They have also been building up their capability in this area at their other sites. More geneticists are good, but they will, in my opinion, lose capacity and connectivity, by moving away from the genetics hub based here in Dunedin.

We will still be a collaborative group, and will welcome collaboration with AgResearch, or indeed, any partner. There is no need to denigrate what we do to support AgResearch’s business plans.

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