22 Jul 2021

The spectrum of research

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 22 July 2021

Using science to solve an urgent problem – like, say, developing a vaccine in the midst of a global pandemic – is pretty satisfying. But knowledge only moves forward because researchers build on what is already known, the idea of 'standing on the shoulders of giants' to see further. If no-one has done the basic research into how cells and immune systems work, you have nowhere to start.

So at one end of the science spectrum you have blue sky research, which asks basic questions about the world, without knowing what the application of the knowledge gained might be. At the other, is applied science, specific research aimed at fixing an immediate problem.

This week, two stories that span this spectrum.

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Blue sky thinking

Craig Cary in Antarctica

Craig Cary in Antarctica Photo: Supplied

Craig Cary from the University of Waikato has been to the most extreme environments around the world - from deep sea, super hot and toxic hydrothermal vents, to the ultimate in dry and cold on Mount Erebus in Antarctica. His quest? To discover new bacteria that live there. He is fascinated by the microbial life that calls these extreme places home and how have they adapted to survive and thrive in these hostile conditions.

But for his next project, to find the bacteria he needs, he won't be boarding a plane or boat, but instead, asking a supercomputer to find it for him from a vast array of genome databases.

Craig is part of an international group of researchers who have been awarded a Human Frontier Science Program grant to investigate the evolution of the flagellum of a group of bacteria. The flagellum is the tiny protein motor that allows bacteria to move and find the nutrients they need to multiply. It's a critical job. Craig and his colleagues will be investigating whether flagella evolution always involves small step-wise changes, or, whether sometimes large protein components are incorporated that allow leaps forward in flagellum evolution.

Its blue sky research - high risk, possible high reward, but with no idea right now of what the application of any knowledge to come out of the project might be.

Base isolation for homes

When earthquakes strike, we're often just relieved to have survived. But Canterbury's deadly quake sequence has shown damaged homes can also cause years of disruption, stress and expense.

On the applied end of the science research spectrum, engineers at the University of Canterbury are hoping to prevent future distress with a new safer, base isolation system for residential properties. The isolators would sit under the foundations of a house and include steel plates that would move around to absorb the shock.

Cost has previously limited the technology’s use to larger commercial buildings but the research team has now developed an affordable model that's getting good results.

Katy Gosset visited the university to watch the new system get tested. 

To learn more

  • Alison Ballance previously spoke to Craig Cary on Mount Erebus about finding new bacterial life there.
  • Our Changing World has a collection of episodes about earthquakes.
  • Ten years on from the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, Fragments is a podcast and video series about what happened on that day and in the decade since.
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