A NZ scientist wins the race to solve a central riddle about evolution

Without Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand research on evolution hailed as a breakthrough by the world’s leading news media would never have happened. LIKE MANY A scientific race, it came down to the wire. When Dr Shane Wright, at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, published new findings on the speed of evolution in top scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a rival team from Florida followed home just three weeks behind. For more then a generation scientists have known life proliferates more rapidly near the equator than in colder climates. But nobody actually knew why this was so. For scientists it was a central riddle. And in solving it, Shane, who is of Te Ati Hau, Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent, was hailed by the United Kingdom’s Guardian as having cracked “one of the most enduring mysteries since Charles Darwin returned from the Galapagos Islands.” Other reports ran in the Economist and The Age. A hectare in the tropics can support 200 times the number of plant species alone than the same area close to the poles. And while some ideas had been advanced, Shane’s work was the first to actually show some remarkable processes in just how nature works to produce this result. Comparing 45 common tropical plants with closely related species from more temperate areas he found some, such as the Borneo Kauri, evolving 13 times faster than counterparts like the New Zealand kauri. The research showed how creatures close to the equator benefit from a double whammy: not only do they have a higher rate of metabolism, leading to more genetic variations, but they also pass on genetic changes through generations much more quickly. Shane says he is really pleased that New Zealand was first with the findings – something that would not have happened without Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga. Indeed, although he took his proposal to many potential funders in the end the Centre backed nearly all the research. Next steps for Shane on this research include applying these findings to the effect of population size on rates of evolution. More broadly, he is also involved in promoting wider Māori and Pacific Island participation in the sciences. “A lot of what Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga does is about directly targeting gains for Māori communities, and I really support that. But what I think this sort of success does also is help spread awareness of how Māori are contributing in all sorts of areas, and I’m really thrilled to be in some way part of that, helping fly the flag for Māori and science.”