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Saving kauri with a human drug discovery approach

Professor Michelle Glass (Photo: provided)

Professor Michelle Glass from the University of Otago will use a human drug discovery approach to help fight dieback disease in kauri, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most iconic taonga species.

Published 8 November 2018

Kauri (Agathis australis) is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most iconic taonga species. However, populations are currently under threat from kauri dieback, an incurable disease caused by the fungus-like kauri dieback pathogen Phytophthora agathidicida. Current efforts to halt the spread of this fatal disease through New Zealand forests are failing. Kauri dieback-causingspores, often introduced by human activity, swim through waterlogged soil towards the roots of host kauri and initiate infection. The molecular mechanisms controlling this movement and infection involve a specific class of receptor proteins on the surface of spores. This class of proteins are present within almost all non-bacterial species, from the kauri dieback pathogen to humans, and mediate virtually every important physiological process in cells. They are also the target of approximately 30% of all current human medicines.

Professor Michelle Glass from the University of Otago and her multidisciplinary international team have been awarded a Marsden Fund grant to tackle the problem of kauri dieback using an innovative approach modelled on human drug discovery. Professor Glass will study the role of these specific receptor proteins in the migration of, and infection by, kauri dieback-causingspores. She will identify compounds that can interact with these proteins and inhibit their activity. She will then build atomic models to study the interaction between these compounds and receptor proteins.

This project will enable the development of novel treatments that could help in the fight against this devastating dieback disease and protect Aotearoa New Zealand’s kauri.