Microscopic focus on saving forest giants earns prestigious fellowship

11 November 2021 | News

Lincoln University Associate Professor Dr Amanda Black’s work to save threatened kauri forests by understanding important soil microbes is being recognised by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Associate Professor Black (Ngāi Tuhoe and Whakatōhea), is Co-Director at the Lincoln-based Bioprotection Aotearoa, a Centre of Research Excellence, and one of 11 researchers awarded Rutherford Discovery Fellowships that will support them to accelerate their research careers.

Her research entitled ‘Genomes to giants: Restoring resilient soil ecosystems in kauri forests’ was cited by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

“The kauri forests of Aotearoa are some of the most ancient and unique in the world, with deep cultural connection to Indigenous Māori,” Associate Professor Black said.

Microbes in soil – tiny living forms that are found all around us, too small to be seen by the naked eye – have a big role to play in making kauri trees dominant in our forests.

She said since European settlement, kauri forests have been significantly reduced, covering less than 4% of their original pre-1800s land-range.

“Kauri are now threatened with extinction through the loss of vital elements in soil such as nitrogen and phosphorus with the extinction of seabird populations, forest fragmentation, and invasive plant pathogens such as Phytophthora agathidicida, the causative agent of kauri dieback.”

However, it is the impact of these ecological disturbances on the soil microbial community which is still unknown.

Using soil surveys from selected field sites to understand the structure of the soil microbial ecosystem, cutting-edge technologies like stable isotope probing and next-generation sequencing, and integrating matauranga Māori of the ngāhere forest, she will reconstruct the kauri soil ecosystem and reconnect soil whakapapa.

This will allow her to study how human-influenced events have affected the microbial community in the soil over time.

Associate Professor Black will also demonstrate how ecosystem restoration underpins the wellbeing of Māori communities who whakapapa to these forest areas.

“This combined approach will pave the way to understanding the impacts of disturbances on kauri soil microbial communities and will articulate crucial knowledge which can guide us in the protection of these forest giants for the future.”

Associate Professor Black studied soil chemistry at Lincoln University, gaining her PhD in 2010. This was followed by a three-year Postdoctoral Fellowship at Lincoln and appointment in 2013 as a lecturer within Bio-Protection Research Centre.

Dr Black’s research expertise is in environmental soil and water chemistry, with a special focus on ecosystem resilience in soils in managed and natural ecosystems. In particular, she investigates disease resistant traits in kauri forests.

She also has a strong background in incorporating mātauranga Māori within her research and facilitating interactions and collaborations with iwi and has been recognised for her outstanding achievements and contributions in Aotearoa.

Her numerous awards include the Māori Television Matariki Award, Te Tupu-ā-Rangi for Health and Science (2019), and awards from the Ministry for Primary Industries as an Emerging Leader (2018).