Health & Wellbeing

The science that’s mushrooming


Published May 1, 2018

It’s no secret that chemical pesticides can set damage in motion that reverberates through the environment for years. Now, scientists at Ferrier Research Institute are unlocking the bioactive properties of a fungus to manufacture a potent but natural insecticide that could revolutionise the way we kill insects—without collateral damage.

Helping the Ferrier team bring that technology out of the lab and into the market, where it can have the most impact on the world, is Viclink’s newest Commercialisation Manager, Matt Nicholson. 

“When nature creates something, it also creates a way for it to degrade,” says Matt. “The problem with chemical pesticides is that many don’t easily degrade—instead, they remain in the environment where they can upset the natural order of delicately balanced ecosystems. An insecticide that’s synthesised from nature simply won’t cause that problem.”

Matt, who joined the Viclink team specifically to work on the project with Ferrier’s Professor Emily Parker, is a molecular biologist with a particular interest in fungi and other eukaryotic micro-organisms (organisms with a nucleus). 

He says that Emily and her ‘fungal factories’ team have discovered how to biologically synthesise a variety of natural compounds found in plants, fungi and other micro-organisms. While these compounds have the potential to form the basis of a range of bioactive natural products with anti-cancer, anti-microbial and pesticidal properties, their natural insecticide represents the first commercial application of a compound manufactured this way. 

“We are close to having a product ready for market,” says Matt. “My job is to liaise with industry, prepare to sell the product and attract further investment in its development.” He says Viclink has already put two provisional patents in place—one relating to the compound manufacturing process, and the other involving a molecular biology technique first developed by Craig van Dolleweerd from Callaghan Innovation. 

“That technique gave us the tools to reassemble the genetic machinery we needed to make useful compounds with huge commercial potential,” says Matt. “It was a game-changer.”

Born in Manchester, England, Matt gained a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Molecular Biology, followed by a PhD in Molecular Genetics, from the University of Manchester. A chance meeting at a conference in Scotland saw him relocate to New Zealand. “I got offered a postdoctoral research position with AgResearch,” says Matt, “so I leapt at the opportunity.”

Based in Palmerston North for six years, the first of Matt’s two postdoc positions focused on the microbiology behind methane abatement strategies, looking at how fungi and other microbes could be used to stop methane being produced by livestock and to increase animal productivity. 

During his second postdoc position, Matt worked with Professor Barry Scott at Massey University, well known for his work on preventing rye grass staggers—a condition affecting ruminant animals that graze on fungal-infected ryegrass. 

He then took a nine year break from the lab to work in sales roles for Synthes (since acquired by Johnson & Johnson), and NuVasive, both global manufacturers of orthopaedic devices. But he was, he says, “always itching to get back to science.” 

“I’m excited to be working in a role that enables me to combine my business skills with my science background,” says Matt. “I really believe that what we’re doing with synthetic biology and the fungal factories is going to have enormous benefit out there in the world.”