New NZ genetics centre launched

Professor Dorian Garrick, chief scientist at the AL Rae Centre.

Massey University’s new genetics centre was officially launched last week, bringing home world-leading New Zealand scientist Professor Dorian Garrick to lead it.

The AL Rae Centre for Genetics will build world leading expertise in the field of quantitative breeding, genetics and genomics to benefit New Zealand’s agricultural sector. Postgraduate courses will focus on creating the next generation of scientists with quantitative breeding and genetics skills in both plant and animal breeding.

Pictured at the launch of the AL Rae Centre are (left to right): Sir Peter Gluckman (Prime Minister’s chief science advisor), Rt Hon Bill English (Prime Minister), Professor Dorian Garrick, Professor Jan Thomas (vice-chancellor of Massey University), John Smith (chairman Norman F.B. Barry Foundation)

The Centre named in memorial to one of the founders of modern animal breeding, Massey Emeritus Professor AL Rae, required a substantial investment to fund its proposed activities in addition to a pre-eminent scientist, on which to build its reputation.

The funding came in the form of a $250,000 gift from The Norman FB Barry Foundation, which enabled the funding of four PhD scholarships, one postdoctoral fellow, two eminent visiting scientists and funds for workshops.

Co-director (operations) Massey’s Professor Hugh Blair has been key in driving the project. He points to a lack of resources and competitive salaries, along with a short-term focus “driven by an industry keen on solving the issues at hand”, leading to an underachievement in discovery science for a number of years, especially a lack of research in quantitative genetics, in favour of molecular genetics.

The Centre will take up residence in AgResearch’s Ruakura Research Centre, away from the University’s three campuses, but closer to the industries it seeks to collaborate with.

Professor Blair says that the money alone is not enough to draw in students and industry alike and that the Centre’s “true drawcard” is Professor Dorian Garrick as the chief scientist.

“The opportunities for young scientists with novel and exciting ideas to develop these through thought-leadership by AL Rae Centre staff like Professor Garrick is immense. I’ve been trying to get Dorian to return to New Zealand for a number of years. He is one of the world’s top animal breeders and he has worked on a variety of genetic improvement programmes around the world, including beef cattle, dairy cattle, dual-purpose sheep, fine-woolled sheep, pigs, elk, chickens, salmon and tree breeding.”

Professor Garrick has been integrally involved in the development and implementation of national animal evaluation programmes, performance recording databases and breeding schemes around the world.

“With Dorian at the helm and the considerable expertise at Massey to support him, we hope that the missing years of research can be bridged by the research that results,” says Professor Blair.

Professor Garrick says, “New Zealand has numerous opportunities to improve the returns from its primary industries through selection based on more accurate predictions of performance using genomic data.”

This will be the scientific focus of projects at the AL Rae Centre. Work will be applicable to a wide range of traits and species and may comprise large pedigrees of millions of animals. It will leverage influential ancestors having next-generation sequence data to make inference using state-of-the-art Bayesian statistical methods such as Markov chain Monte Carlo sampling.

Norman FB Barry Foundation chair John Smith says, “One of our goals at the Foundation is to invest in areas that will have a long-term impact for the benefit of New Zealand.  We’re supporting this long-term discovery science in genetics to help boost agriculture productivity and profitability and to position New Zealand as a leader in the area.”

The launch was held at the Quality Hotel Parnell, owned by the Norman F.B. Barry Foundation, a charitable trust set up after the passing of the Hotel’s Founder and Owner, Norman F B Barry in 2007.

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