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Monitoring microbes in the Omaru awa


Map/Photo: Auckland Council/Watercare   


Monitoring microbes in one of Auckland’s most polluted streams using cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology is our first SouthSci project funded in 2019.

Students and teachers from schools in the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki ward will work with scientists from Auckland and Massey universities to assess how metal pollution affects microbial populations in Omaru Creek.

The creek was found to have the highest levels of copper and zinc pollution in a recent council survey of Auckland rivers. Metal concentrations are equal to or greater than those of the river Seine after it passes through Paris, with a population of more than 12 million.

 Photo: University of Auckland   


Auckland University professor of molecular medicine, Cris Print, says monitoring microbes in the awa will provide a “valuable baseline for monitoring the creek’s health” and for measuring efforts to improve water quality.

Students and teachers at Tāmaki College will work with Year 7 and 8 students at Glen Innes Primary, Glenbrae and Point England schools to collect samples, purify DNA, and obtain and analyse genomic DNA sequence data. 

The microbial populations will be grown on thin plastic sheets suspended in the creek at three locations. The cutting-edge minION DNA sequencing will be done at Tāmaki College. 

Cris Print says it’s an opportunity to study longitudinally, in a creek with a small catchment area, microbial biofilm responses to fluctuating levels of metal contamination. 

“As biofilms may play an important role in remediating contaminated water supplies, understanding their structure and response to environmental conditions may become an increasingly important topic, especially given mounting population pressures on diminishing resources that supply freshwater to hundreds of millions of people.”

The project aims to “establish Tāmaki College as a hub for molecular biology and genomics” in the wider Manaiakalani Community of Learning. The goal is to encourage more local Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā students to choose the college for their secondary schooling and to go on to develop careers in STEM areas.

“We hope to encourage Māori and Pasifika students into STEM careers that will give them a voice in decision-making on the role of genomics in Aotearoa New Zealand's environmental conservation, law, agriculture and healthcare.”

Cris Print says more than 200 students are expected to be involved, with a wider impact on their families, whānau and aiga, and participating community groups.

“On a local scale, the data gathered by students at Tāmaki College and the three contributing primary schools will raise community awareness about aquatic environments in the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki ward.” 

Omaru Creek runs through Maungakiekie-Tāmaki and past several schools before emptying into Wai o Taiki Bay in the Tāmaki Estuary, which gets run-off from one of the densely urban and industrial areas in the country. 

As well as scientists from the two universities, the project will involve the Auckland Council’s research and evaluation unit, Manaiakalani Education Trust, Mad Ave Community Trust, OMGTech! and Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust. 

SouthSci manager Dr Sarah Morgan says it’s a “cool project”.

“It is our first water-quality/awa mauri restoration type project that looks at the microscopic living ecosystem of waterways, rather than at invertebrates and fish species.  

“From my own genetics research background, I’m really excited to see kids digging deeper into the possibilities gene sequencing offers for environmental monitoring and diversity studies, and learning about the power modern genetics analysis tools can have for community research, not just for apple flavour development or medical applications.”