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Preserving taonga: Do some kuku (green-lipped mussels) hold the key to climate change survival?

Dr Nathan Kenny, University of Otago. Image: supplied.

Dr Nathan Kenny (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ātiawa), from the University of Otago, will explore the resilience of kuku (also known as kūtai or green-lipped mussel) to climate change to assist conservation and aquaculture efforts


Published on 3 Whiringa-ā-rangi November 2021 


Kuku are found around the coasts of Aotearoa. As kaimoana, this native species is of great cultural value and supports a $500-million-dollar industry employing over 3,000 people in Aotearoa. Kuku also play a fundamental role in the food webs of their aquatic ecosystems.  Unfortunately, they are under threat from the temperature extremes and ocean acidification associated with climate change. Heat waves have been known to kill large numbers of adult kuku and environmental stressors also have detrimental effects on the development of juvenile kuku. Since kuku farming relies almost entirely on wild-caught seed stock, climate change could lead to both economic and ecological disaster.

Some individual kuku are more resilient to environmental stresses than others, but it is unknown exactly why this is. Dr Nathan Kenny has received a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant to investigate the gene expression patterns that drive climate change resilience in kuku. This study will employ cutting-edge ‘single cell transcriptomic sequencing’, which is able to measure gene expression at the single-cell level, allowing for greater ability to study cellular differences. This mahi will enable Dr Kenny to discover the exact differences in early development between resilient and more vulnerable wild kuku. The results of this study will guide best practice in the management of this economically, environmentally, and culturally taonga species and will yield insights into how shellfish respond to global climate change.