Nik Palevich lab 2

Nik
Palevich

Support from the NZAGRC's Innovation Fund has opened the door for early career scientist Dr Nik Palevich to tackle what he describes as "the two biggest challenges of my generation - climate change and feeding the growing global population of 8 billion people".

The NZAGRC created the Innovation Fund in 2020 with the intention of promoting new thinking in the search for agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation solutions. The Fund’s worth is being shown in Nik’s work as the leader of a project titled ‘Targeting Methanol Formation for Methane’.

Not only has this work launched Nik on innovative research at AgResearch, but it also made a significant contribution to his being awarded the 2020 Science NZ Early Career Researcher Award. This recognises a researcher whose work “demonstrated benefit to New Zealand's economic, environmental, social and/or environment wealth or well-being”.

Born in Podgorica in the former Yugoslavia (now Montenegro) and schooled in Whanganui, Nik says his passion for science has deep roots in microbiology and biomedical research, but it was not until his postgraduate studies with the Rumen Microbiology Team at AgResearch and Massey University that he realised his climate change calling.

“The main threads of my research are aimed at understanding diverse microbial ecosystems to identify strategies and applications to enhance plant, soil and animal productivity, coupled with a reduced environmental footprint,” says Nik.

“My expertise lies in combining classical microbiology with sequence-based and functional approaches to empower the study of complex microbiomes.

“With the help of the NZAGRC’s Innovation Fund, I am leading research investigating the processes that underpin microbial fibre degradation in the rumen and using that to develop next-generation methane inhibitor strategies. The project is aimed at reducing the methanol-forming activities of pectin-degrading rumen bacteria, butyrivibrio, to reduce methane formation by methylotrophic methanogens.”

Pectin is a complex polysaccharide that forms a substantial proportion of the forages ingested by grazing ruminants. In the rumen, pectins are broken down by bacterial enzymes releasing methanol.

Butyrivibrio are key pectin-degrading rumen bacteria and contribute to methanol formation via their enzymes, pectin methylesterases. The study is investigating these enzymatic activities in butyrivibrio and aims to find ways to inhibit these to reduce methanol release from pectin.

This will reduce the supply of methanol, and thereby limit methane formation in the rumen. This represents an alternative approach to methane inhibitors which currently use compounds to inhibit methanogens directly.

Nik says the Innovation Fund project is tracking very well.

“We have identified candidate genes responsible for pectin degradation and methanol release in the rumen and our preliminary microbiological culturing experiments are uncovering some very exciting findings on how these microbes interact and coexist in the complex rumen environment.”

Nik’s research is progressing under the mentorship of Dr Graeme Attwood, Dr Bill Kelly and Dr Ron Ronimus, to whom he is indebted.

“They are all highly-skilled scientists with wide-ranging expertise in the functional characterisation of rumen microbiome communities and metabolism of carbohydrate-fermenting rumen bacteria. Graeme, Bill and Ron are internationally-recognised as world-leading rumen microbiologists.”

He is also indebted to the support of the NZAGRC.

“As an early career researcher, NZAGRC’s support with the Innovation Fund has been an amazing career-launching platform for me to lead a substantial piece of research with potential for methane mitigation.”  

Beyond his research, he is heavily involved with Diversity and Inclusion initiatives at AgResearch as an ambassador and committee member of the Early Career Group (ECG), various community outreach programmes, and mentors several students and postdocs in New Zealand and overseas.