Department of Biological Sciences
Research programmes exist across a wide range of disciplines, supported by the primary research interests of staff. Our research projects are supported by multi-million dollar investments from national and local government, many of which have significant iwi and other community involvement. See below for more information about the Department's research areas, centres and units.
Animal Behaviour is the study of patterns of behaviour in animals, including humans, and of how the behaviour of individuals helps to determine the density and distribution of populations.
Animal physiology looks at the principles behind how animals function. How does a muscle contract? How does a bat fly? How does a butterfly smell its mate? How does a cow turn grass into milk? And why does your blood pressure rise, your hands become sweaty and your pupils dilate under certain circumstances?
Physiologists record electrical activity in nerves and muscles and the eye, measure digestive secretions and movements, determine blood pressure and respiratory rates, and assess endocrine function. These studies help our understanding of how the body regulates and co-ordinates its activities, responds to stress, and adjusts to varying environments.
Biochemistry is the explanation of life in molecular terms. Life can be considered to be a range of complex interactions between molecules. Biochemistry is the study of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids which are the fundamental molecules of life. Biochemists try to understand the characteristics of these molecules and how they interact in living organisms. Such studies are fundamental to all of biology.
Botany is the study of all aspects of plants. Botany encompasses the structure of plants from simple mosses to trees, the evolution of plants, how they are organised into communities and how they function and reproduce. It includes ecosystem level functioning, and both conservation and exploitation management. Plants are important because they effectively provide the energy supply for all communities on Earth.
Cell and Molecular Biology is the study of the machinery by which cells and whole organisms function. It involves combining Genetics, Biochemistry and Cell Biology in order to elucidate how the information in genes can result in the production of proteins that can control the metabolic reactions in cells and the growth and development of all living organisms. As well as revolutionising fundamental biology, many findings in cell and molecular biology have important applications in medicine, biotechnology, conservation biology and forensics.
There are two major ecosystems in Antarctica. Perhaps the best known, and perhaps the most extreme in the world, is the extreme terrestrial system with the extensive snow and glaciers and a very small amount of bare land. The land is permanently inhabited only by mosses, lichens, algae and microscopic animals with the largest being insects, - springtails. The largest ice-free area in Antarctica is the Dry Valley's near Ross Island, possibly the driest place in the world.
The second major ecosystem is the sea, one of the more productive seas in the world because of the algae that lie under the extensive sea ice and provide food for the krill, fish, seals and whales. The sea ice grows by 18000000 square kilometres each winter, twice the area of the United States. The environment under the ice is one of the most stable in the world and changes in temperature by only a few tenths of a degree throughout the year. Linking these two environments are the seals and penguins that breed on ice-free coastal sites in the summer months and transfer nutrients from the sea to the land.
Freshwater ecosystems are the inland waters of the world, including lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. The study of freshwater ecosystems includes investigations of their physical and chemical structure, the plant, animal and microbial populations that comprise them, and the interactions among these components. Freshwater ecosystem studies include the conservation and management of freshwater resources, as well as the structure and function of the communities.
Marine Ecosystems examines the distribution and abundance of marine organisms, and how these organisms carry out basic functions such as feeding, metabolism, and reproduction in the marine environment. This knowledge leads to understanding of the processes and factors controlling populations, which is critical to their conservation and sustainable management.
Terrestrial ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms and their environment. For example, ecologists may document environmental changes, such as deforestation, and observe the consequences for animals that are adapted to forest life and can live no-where else, such as the native long-tailed bat. Where communities have been damaged, applied ecologists study ways to restore what was lost, such as transferring birds to new, predator-free homes.
Genetics is literally, "the study of heredity". In the past, geneticists studied mutation, selection and evolution in microbes, plants and animals. These days they also indulge in "genomics" which makes use of computers and large databases of DNA and protein information to research both genes and gene function. Genetic variation can be applied to the study of populations, for conservation, and to reconstructing evolutionary relationships.
Honey is the focus of the Bees n Trees project, a large collaborative group which includes representatives of industry, horticulturalists and collaborators in Australia and Thailand. The focus of this research is mānuka honey in particular the specific properties of mānuka and other Leptospermum trees, which give rise to the chemical precursor of the bioactivity in honey. Other aspects of research include a study of the kinetics of conversion of the precursor in maturing honey.
Microbiology is the study of micro-organisms; how we can identify and culture them, how they live, how some infect and cause disease in plants and animals and how we can make use of their activities. Micro-organisms are crucial to ecosystem functioning. Microbiologists work typically with bacteria and fungi. Microbiology is an important component in Biotechnology.
The Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory is a national radiocarbon facility undertaking both Standard Radiometric Dating and Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Dating (AMS). We are a part of the Faculty of Science & Engineering at the University of Waikato.
For more than 30 years we have been providing radiocarbon assays for scientists and researchers from around the world and have been at the forefront of ground-breaking research into the technique and its application.
The Waikato laboratory has a commitment to customer service, innovation, and continual improvement.
Science Education research involves the study of the teach and learning of science. Members of the department are currently researching in the areas of biology education and environmental education, at tertiary, secondary and primary education levels. They are also studying student understanding of the nature of science, particularly with reference to evolution and cell biology.
Historically, the Thermophile Research Unit was set up to study the micro-organisms that lived in hot pools and other thermal environments. It now encompasses organisms living in all environmental extremes (heat, cold, low and high pH, high salt etc). The aims are to study the diversity of organisms in these environments and their molecular adaptations to the environmental extreme. Underlying features of protein stability, enzyme activity membrane function for example are more easily understood by studying examples covering a broad spectrum of environmental range. Our collections of organisms, genes and enzymes from extreme environments is also an attractive resource to screen for activities of use in biotechnology.
Centre for Biodiversity and Ecology Research (CBER)
The Centre for Biodiversity and Ecology Research (CBER) aims to promote sustainable management and habitat restoration through integrated research into biodiversity and ecology.
Waikato Stable Isotope Unit (WSIU)
The Waikato Stable Isotope Unit (WSIU) is primarily a research unit, and has the objective of promoting the use of stable isotopes in all branches of scientific research. The staff of the unit are highly experienced in the use of stable isotopes as tracers, particularly in biological and environmental research.
The facilities of the WSIU are also available for external contract work. Please see our Specialist Facilities page for this and other services available and associated costs.
The Department has collaborated with a number of external institutions in advancing research both nationally and internationally. Some of these include: