By Rosemary Rangitauira 11/08/2021

Dr Amanda Black of Tūhoe, Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-a-Āpanui is a researcher of environmental soil chemistry, biochemistry, and soil ecosystem health and has set her sights on finding a solution to tackle Kauri dieback.

The disease starves the native tree of nutrients and water and is caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism called Phytophthora agathidicida. The organism lives in the soil and infects the kauri roots, damaging the tree’s tissues, nourishing the native species.

“I want to nail this Kauri dieback disease on the head. It’s a problem that will require 20 solutions to address it. I’d like to provide one of those solutions and work out how we can manage our whenua (land) better so we’re more resilient to climate change, pests, diseases and weed invasion,” says Amanda.

She’s been involved in numerous environmental studies including:

Amanda is a co-director of the country’s centre of research excellence, Bioprotection Aotearoa, which provides research solutions to New Zealand’s environmental challenges, as well as educates and mentors emerging scientists who are undertaking undergraduate and post-graduate studies.

Based in Christchurch, she is also an associate professor at Lincoln University’s Bio-Protection Research Centre, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Canterbury’s School of Earth and Environment, and is a founding member of the national organisation, Te Tira Whakamātaki – the Māori Biosecurity Network.

Amanda is driven to uncover a way to slow Kauri dieback.

“I don’t believe in quitting something I’ve started. If we don’t address the disease it’s a slippery slope. Kauri represents a species from the ancient world and, although it may be beyond my control, I want to contribute to halting its decline.”

Amanda, who grew up in Whakatāne, has a deep respect for the environment. She says her science background has been inspired by curiosity.

“I’ve always had a sense of adventure. I wanted to see what the rest of the world had to offer. I’ve always felt like I was a gipsy and just wanted to travel around and look at things because I’m really curious. I have this very innate sense of curiosity and adventure. You know, I like routine and I find comfort in that, but after a while, I feel like I get stuck in a rut and I want to move on and challenge myself.”

“Science became a practical manifestation of my curiosity. I very much like the environment and everything in it. It continues to hold my attention. The time I get bored and can’t contribute any more to my science field will be the time I will move on and hand over the mantle to someone who continues to be inquisitive about how the environment works and finds ways to tackle diseases, pests and weeds that damage our environment.”

Amanda is also looking into how invasive soil pathogens and land use contributes to climate change.

“One thing we noticed in our kauri dieback research is that the disease is contributing to climate change. Soil has fungi and bacteria that store carbon as well as degrade carbon, and when a tree dies, these micro-organisms break down and the carbon and some of it is stored in the soil and land. In our research, we discovered that there’s a reduction in the genes involved in the storage process in the diseased forest areas. This means that less carbon is being stored in the forest floor, resulting in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Amanda says there will be a two-pronged approach to the next stage of this research, which will seek to:

  • Understand the impact of how invasive soil pathogens and land use is contributing to climate change; and
  • Engage with iwi and hapū to help manage the impacts of the unwanted organisms, and have already surveyed about 1000 Māori participants.

Bonus read

You can read more about the research Dr Amanda Black has been involved in below:

In 2018, Amanda was awarded the Ministry of Primary Industries NZ Biosecurity Award (AsureQuality – Emerging Leader) and the Te Tupu-ā-Rangi accolade for Health and Science at Māori Television’s Matariki Awards in 2019 for her research contribution.