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Thursday, October 12, 2000

University of Hawaii

UH scientist gets
grant to fight
avian malaria

UH in pact to study extremophiles

By Helen Altonn

Scientists at four institutions are combining expertise in a sweeping study to try to understand avian malaria and prevent it from wiping out Hawaii's native bird populations.

The disease is present on all islands, said David Duffy, University of Hawaii-Manoa botany professor, leader of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit and principal investigator for the avian malaria project. "We don't have many native birds left."

Malaria has contributed to extinction of at least 10 species and is threatening another 22, he said. Most survivors are at high elevations where it's too cold for mosquitoes or malaria.

But Duffy warns: "If the current warming trend continues, there may not be any malaria-free areas except at the highest, tree-less elevations hostile to most Hawaiian native land birds, so more such species will soon become extinct." The UH scientist has received a $4.1 million National Science Foundation grant for a five-year investigation with colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, Smithsonian Institution and Princeton.

"The exciting thing to me is the chance to have a whole bunch of partners to do what they do best, instead of just have one poor biologist try to figure it out on their own," Duffy said, "Some of the best people in the business are teaming up to tackle the problem."

They include molecular geneticists, field biologists and computer modelers in diverse fields, such as emerging diseases, conservation biology and invasive alien species. The project was one of 15 funded by the National Science Foundation out of 300 applicants competing for grants in a special program using the "complexity, or chaos, theory" to try to understand complex systems.

"In a way it's misnamed," Duffy said. "Basically, things look chaotic or random, but they aren't. ... Something like genetics of malaria might be what's causing population fluctuations in our birds, but if you look just at the bird populations, it looks chaotic and you can't understand it." Many factors may be involved, he said, "and like the blind man and the elephant, we can't just look at one part. We have to look at the whole."

By combining skills to look at avian malaria, he said, "We could go from genetics of the birds to malaria and how they affect things all the way to climate and landscape and how they affect things."

In recent years, the mosquito and malaria zone has moved higher for reasons that have not been explained by traditional methods, Duffy said. Native birds have disappeared from areas where they were once abundant.

However, he noted some "strange cases" of endemic birds at lower elevations where they should have been destroyed by malaria. "There may not be enough water in pools for mosquitoes, or maybe some birds are resistant -- have evolved protection against malaria -- or there may also be more benign forms of malaria around."

Duffy and other scientists will use different modeling approaches to try understand how the disease is affected by landscape.

Researchers will examine how human activities, the mosquito's biology and the disease interact with the ecology and evolution of endemic birds that survived in Hawaii before humans and pests arrived.

Non-native birds tend to be immune to malaria because they evolved with it, Duffy said. Two groups will do field work -- one looking at birds, their survival and distribution, and another looking at mosquitoes, malaria, the birds and how many are affected.

The scientists hope to find one or two weak spots in the malaria cycle. "There may be a couple places where malaria has trouble finding a new host or victim," Duffy said.

"It may turn out that we could vaccinate native birds," he speculated. "It may be cheaper than wait until they go extinct and try to do something heroic at the last second. Or it may turn out through genetics that we will find a weak form of malaria that some of these birds are surviving."

Reducing the mosquito's breeding habitat may be one solution, the biologist said. "There is relatively little open water in native forests, relatively few dirty pools that mosquitoes like, so one thing that may help is to keep out animals (like pigs) that create pools.

"The other thing is to get humans to be cleaner," he said, pointing out that East Coast residents have been urged to get rid of little pools because of West Nile fever, a disease spread from birds to people by mosquitoes.

UH, N.Z. firm
to study sea

By Helen Altonn

The University of Hawaii has signed an agreement for a research partnership with a New Zealand company that provides for collaboration in discovery, analysis and commercialization of products developed from microorganisms known as extremophiles.

The organisms are found in extreme environments, such as geo- thermal and hydrothermal areas of New Zealand and hydrothermal vents of the underwater volcano Loihi off the Big Island.

UH President Kenneth Mortimer said yesterday the agreement "opens the doors to new research and business opportunities for the study of microorganisms from extreme environments, as well as the commercialization of products derived from such organisms."

The UH's Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center will work with the government-owned Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd. in New Zealand.

The UH and the University of California-Berkeley are partners in the engineering research center supported by the National Science Foundation.

Their goal is to develop products from marine and extreme microorganisms for commercial use -- for food, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, advanced materials, energy, environment and national defense.

Engineering center faculty will train New Zealand students and New Zealand institute employees, who will collect and process microorganisms with Hort + Research, also a government-owned research company in New Zealand. The center will help them establish an extremophile collection and laboratory.

Engineering center researchers on the UH-Manoa campus will receive genetic material from new microorganisms and screen it for high-value compounds from algae and bacteria.

The New Zealand companies and the UH will share commercial revenues and behalf of people of New Zealand and the United States.

The agreement extends UH researchers' access to one of the most extensive active geothermal and volcanic regions in the world in New Zealand -- a zone spanning an area 20 times larger than Yellowstone National Park.

Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center and New Zealand researchers recently discovered a new microorganism living in an acidic lake in New Zealand.

Center director Alexander Malahoff said it's believed extreme thermal characteristics and chemistries in extreme environments "promote development of novel microorganisms and this in turn produces compounds of industrial and biotechnological importance."

Center students, engineers and scientists are looking for new sources of enzymes, UV-absorbing compounds and other proteins used in industries, as well as other commercial products.

New Zealand firms will be able to participate with American firms to exploit any commercial projects that might materialize from New Zealand's extremophiles.

The researchers also are interested in the role of microbial life in the planet's processes.

University of Hawaii

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