When Neil Wedlock was a boy growing up in Northern Ireland, his father converted a corner of their garden shed into his first ‘laboratory’, where a budding, curious mind, conducted ‘experiments’ using a home chemistry set.
Surrounded by garden tools and the like, Neil’s life-long love of science began.
“I was a curious child. I read a lot. Typically, in my pile of books from a visit to the local library, along with Enid Blyton novels, there would always be a few technical books and manuals because I was fascinated with how things worked.”
Neil is one of three freshly minted Principal Scientist (R9) at AgResearch, the promotion a high point in a 33-year career in research, which has gone from humble beginnings in Belfast, from garden shed to some of the most technically challenging research in New Zealand - the creation of a methane vaccine for ruminant livestock.
Neil says science still gives him the same excitement it did when he made his first scientific discoveries in his dad’s shed.
“Doing science doesn’t really feel like a job. This is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.”
Neil’s parents emigrated from Northern Ireland in 1972 a few weeks before their son was due to start his secondary education.
“My father saw first-hand where a bomb, planted by the IRA, had detonated and killed people, and dis-membered and severely injured others. So [The Troubles] were a big part of the reason we came to a live in a country that's a lot safer.”
Neil was enrolled at Palmerston North Boys’ High, did well in school, and went to Massey University, where he studied science. His early breakthrough, an epiphany of sorts, came one summer when still an undergraduate.
“I had holiday jobs where I worked in a bakery, and in a shop, but I didn’t find them inspiring. Then, I had a couple of summer holiday jobs at the then DSIR, based at Grasslands in Palmerston North. I remember working in the Rhizobium lab run by Drs Barry Scott and Clive Ronson. I worked on a project with Dr Jim Patel isolating phage from Rhizobium loti and at the time, I thought, this is fantastic. I remember the feeling of enjoying going to work. It was interesting and I enjoyed the challenge of the work. And I thought, I can do this. I was their technical help, but at the time I thought, I could do what they were doing, designing experiments, and conducting research. They inspired me to do science.”
He completed a MSc in Microbiology at Massey University and then a PhD, followed by work abroad. But that summer work experience at the DSIR stuck with him.
“It showed me that you can do something for a living that is interesting. That's almost like a hobby and you get paid for it. I like to find out new things and run experiments and I enjoy the excitement of seeing the results and getting work published. That's one of the things I really enjoy, getting our science published. I was excited when my very first paper was published and still get a buzz when seeing recent papers appear in print.”
After finishing up at Massey University, Neil headed abroad. He had a postdoctoral fellowship in the department of Biochemistry at Oxford University for 18 months. This was followed by a second post doc at the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Sheffield University when his wife, Juliana Mansvelt, enrolled there to start her PhD. He worked on identifying and characterising autoantigens involved with autoimmune Addison’s disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
The private sector then beckoned. Neil worked as a Senior Molecular Biologist for RSR Ltd, a major developer and manufacturer of medical diagnostics for autoimmune thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes mellitus and other autoimmune diseases. He was based in Cardiff. Neil and Juliana decided to move back to New Zealand to be closer to family and raise one of their own.
Neil's career at AgResearch
Neil joined the Infectious Diseases group at AgResearch as a molecular biologist/immunologist in 1994.
“When I joined, I worked in the bovine tuberculosis immunology team for Dr Bryce Buddle. His leadership had a huge impact on me, and I look back with many great memories of my time working with him. He was a wonderful leader who sought to bring out the best in people and encouraged people to work to their strengths while seeking to develop.”
Neil worked on the development of vaccines and diagnostics for the control of infectious diseases such as ovine pneumonia, mastitis, and mycobacterial diseases, bovine tuberculosis and Johne’s disease. He is currently the leader of the NZAGRC-RGP funded programme to develop a vaccine to reduce methane production in ruminants. The methane vaccine team’s work is acknowledged as some of the most technically challenging and vital to the future of New Zealand farming and is a truly interdisciplinary team with scientists and technicians from the Infectious Diseases, Rumen Microbiology, Animal Nutrition and Physiology teams, with complementary skills in immunology, vaccinology, microbiology, molecular biology, structural biology and bioinformatics. Neil’s particular interest is in understanding antibody/protein interactions and antibody binding to methanogen cells to aid design and optimise vaccine antigens.
While some still need convincing that a vaccine to reduce methane can be developed, Neil says the science has come along a long way since the first trials of a vaccine were conducted by CSIRO in Australia.
“The science has kind of snowballed. We now have a team of people covering a broad spectrum of expertise working on the vaccine, covering both fundamental and applied aspects of the programme.”
With Dr Peter Janssen, and former AgResearch colleague Dr Art Subharat, they conducted studies demonstrating, that in theory, you can generate enough antibodies in saliva via vaccination to coat all the methanogens in the sheep rumen many times over.
“From our studies, we have not seen any biological barriers that would prevent a vaccine working. New Zealand has been a leader in the agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation research. For a while we may have been the only scientists worldwide working on a vaccine but recently, we have become aware of a start-up company in the United States with the goal of producing a vaccine to reduce methane emissions in cattle.
“While in a sense they are our competitors, it is heartening to know they, too, believe a vaccine is possible and recognise the impact it would have on greenhouse gas emissions globally.
“Since we have worked on a vaccine for many years, often people will say, ‘why haven't you got a vaccine now? Our understanding has come a long way. We are discovering how to make a vaccine that targets methanogens in the rumen, and by building up the vaccinology knowledge and putting together all the components, we will be able to develop a functional vaccine.”
The team’s work is being closely followed both here in New Zealand and by international collaborators.
“There's been considerable interest in investing more money and accelerating the programme and in pursuing international partnerships. You've got to have science credibility to attract good collaborations and international scientists to work with you. Getting papers published (despite commercial restrictions) has been great for our team as it builds morale and is especially important for the early career scientists. To that end, we have recently published some of the more fundamental aspects of our work, sharing methodologies to capture methanogens from the rumen using antibody coated magnetic beads and gaining an insight into antibody interactions with specific parts (epitopes) of methanogen proteins.”
Neil says new technology is also helping to speed up the pace of their research, an example being the use of AlphaFold, an AI system that predicts a protein's 3-dimensional structure from its amino acid sequence.
“We are using a Cytek Aurora flow cytometer utilising spectral flow cytometry to quantify rumen methanogens. This work, led by Dr Sofia Khanum has the potential to greatly enhance the speed and accuracy of measuring methanogens in the rumen and could be used as a surrogate to evaluate methane emissions in livestock and the impact of various mitigation strategies. Currently, we are preparing a manuscript on this work for publication.”
In a related MBIE Smart Idea funded project, Dr Sandeep Gupta, a member of the methane vaccine team, is using machine learning and CRISPR technology to look at interactions between methanogens and other microbes in the rumen. This may reveal new targets for a vaccine.
Along with Bryce, and Dr Natalie Parlane, for many years Neil has also been involved in bovine tuberculosis (bTB) research. This has included working on developing new vaccines and diagnostics such as a skin test reagent that can differentiate vaccinated from infected animals. Such tools are needed by countries with a bTB problem.
“It has taken many years, but OSPRI’s TBfree programme is getting close to the goal of reaching freedom from bTB in our farmed cattle and deer and while a vaccine is no longer required here, better skin test reagents would enhance future surveillance strategies.”
“Reducing the incidence of bTB in our national herds has taken a lot of investment and commitment, with vigorous testing and slaughter of infected animals often with huge impact on farmers.”
The TB diagnostics team at AgResearch has played a major role, for example, conducting the Bovigam test on blood samples collected from cattle under surveillance. This assay detects release of gamma interferon in response to stimulation of blood with specific bTB antigens and has enabled the identification of infection in cattle herds.
“The use of such diagnostic tests, together with culturing and typing Mycobacterium bovis strains and more recently whole genome sequencing, has been hugely important for understanding the source of outbreaks in New Zealand and informing strategies to tackle them.”
In his new role, Neil hopes to pass on more of his experience to the next generation of researchers. In his spare time, he devotes time to his rural property just south of Shannon. Neil is a keen gardener, and when time allows, indulges in a bit of surf casting, and going on bike trips such as the Otago Central Rail Trail.
Family is important, too. “We are a tight knit family. It’s nice to see our girls embark on their adult lives, enjoying their studies and making their own career decisions. I hope they enjoy their careers as much as my wife and I have enjoyed ours.”