Getting to the root of tree blight

Microbiologist Monica Gerth leads a multi-institutional team tackling the disease that threatens kauri with extinction.

Tree Blight

Dr Monica Gerth took a less than traditional path to academia.

“I went to high school on an army base in the US, and I was a bit of a handful at the time. I ended up dropping out of classes and school, and eventually worked my way into a job in IT,” says Dr Gerth. “After a few years, I started taking night classes at a local university. I was completely unprepared for study, but I fell in love with science.”

Dr Gerth completed her undergraduate studies in Physical and Analytical Chemistry and a PhD in Biomolecular Chemistry before making her way to New Zealand. She spent time as a postdoctoral fellow, and is now head of a collaborative, multi-institutional grant-funded research group investigating kauri dieback disease. She is also President of the New Zealand Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Dr Gerth recently joined the School of Biological Sciences in the new Te Toki a Rata Building as a Senior Lecturer in Microbiology.

“I visited Victoria University of Wellington in 2017 for the Biodiscovery forum and was blown away by the quality and breadth of the research and the enthusiasm of the people I met,” she says. “I got the impression that the School of Biological Sciences is truly interdisciplinary and people are working together to tackle the big problems and questions. I wanted to be a part of that.”

One of her projects that benefits from an interdisciplinary approach is her research on the microbe that causes kauri dieback disease, which is threatening kauri trees with extinction. This work started with a study trying to understand the molecular basis of how microbes ‘see’ or ‘smell’ what’s around them, which led to an exploration of how Phytophthora agathidicida (the microbe that causes kauri dieback disease) senses kauri roots and navigates through the soil.

“My research group is trying to identify the chemical signals from native plants that attract or repel the spores,” says Dr Gerth. “We’re also focussing on the lifecycle of the spore to discover its weaknesses. This is a fascinating project that combines mātauranga Māori with cutting-edge biochemistry and microbiology techniques.”

Her work on kauri dieback has seen some ups and downs, mainly around securing funding. However, it has also led to one of her biggest career highlights.

“I gave a public talk on kauri dieback disease in Omapere in the far North. The audience was a mix of researchers and the public, and everyone was so passionate about saving the kauri trees,” she says. “It took me nearly two years to get that research funded, but the emails I received from the public that attended that lecture kept me going.”

Dr Gerth’s research group recently received funding from the National Science Challenge for New Zealand’s Biological Heritage and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Smart Ideas programme, and they are hoping to announce results soon.

Another career highlight was seeing the first paper published from her research group. The work was completed by her Master’s student Jordan Minnell and technician James McKellar.

“I’m still ridiculously proud of them both,” says Dr Gerth. “And the paper has been very popular —I still get asked about it all the time.”

Mentoring and supporting her research group to achieve career success is important to Dr Gerth.

“I enjoy teaching via research and mentoring my research group. I try to teach my students to be world-class researchers, but I also try to create a supportive environment where everyone feels able to put themselves out there and be comfortable with failure. I particularly love mentoring students from non-traditional backgrounds. It’s important to encourage diversity in all areas—academia is not diverse enough, not by a long shot.”

Dr Gerth and her research group have also worked on engineering enzymes that can be used to prevent unwanted biofilms (a layer of bacteria that can form on an organism) developing in a variety of health contexts. So far their work has produced a more active form of a naturally occurring enzyme that reduces or eliminates biofilm formation. They are hoping to develop this into a therapeutic form, but this research is in its early stages.

Dr Gerth’s commitment to science goes beyond her own research. Although she sees science and technology as vital to “help us save the world”, she says scientists also have an obligation to engage with their communities and with important issues such as housing and healthcare.

“If someone is struggling to get by, they won’t have enough energy left over for engaging with science,” she says. “It wasn’t until I achieved a certain level of security in my life that I had the luxury of caring about science and research. In addition to doing the best research we can, scientists need to support our communities too. By engaging with our communities, we can get everyone working on the big questions of science.”