Kurt Villsen

Giving orchards the CSI treatment

An apple or kiwifruit orchard is perhaps not the usual CSI setting, but, in the spirit of the show’s investigative techniques, science student Kurt Villsen spent his summer exploring genetic ‘footprints’ in the soil around them.

Kurt was a participant of Plant & Food Research’s Summer Studentship programme, working with scientists at the company’s Palmerston North site developing a metabarcoding method to determine the presence or absence of key insect species in orchards.

Metabarcoding is a method of detecting and assessing DNA from organisms in a sample of the natural environment, which is useful for measuring biodiversity.

The project at Plant & Food Research involves extracting environmental DNA (eDNA) from soil in orchards and, in a kind of genetic ‘fingerprinting’, the application of molecular detection methods to identify eDNA of specific insects.

“The insects we’re particularly interested in are those that provide ecosystem services such as decomposition, the predation of pests and the removal of unwanted fungi,” says Kurt.

“Designing a metabarcoding method like this will provide an alternative to current methods of monitoring insect populations, which can be expensive and labour-intensive.

“It will also help with estimating the extent of the ecosystem services these insects are providing.”

Kurt’s role in the project included retrieving units of DNA from insects of interest, from where he then developed metabarcoding primers to be used for monitoring.

“I’m also trialling a range of kits and methods for extracting eDNA from soil samples,” says Kurt.

“Optimising the extraction of eDNA will ensure greater efficiency and the capacity for more frequent monitoring in the future.”

Plant & Food Research’s Summer Studentship programme is designed to give industry experience to high-calibre tertiary students who may be considering a career as a scientist or industry professional. It allows them to work on real research projects alongside world-recognised scientists.

Kurt heard about the programme through an information evening hosted at Victoria University, where he is studying toward a Bachelor of Science with Honours degree, majoring in marine biology.

“The programme has helped me develop new skills in the lab and it has been incredibly valuable to see how scientific research takes place in a research institute,” says Kurt.

“After my experiences in the Summer Studentship programme, I believe I would like to pursue a career as an agricultural scientist, exploring how molecular biology can be applied to improve agricultural practices.”

Copyright © 2018 The New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Limited