A many trick pony
Dr Zamira Gibb is a postdoctoral researcher in the field of equine fertility enhancement who works closely with industry to improve reproductive outcomes.
A request by a horse breeder has resulted in Dr Zamira Gibb and a team of researchers at the University of Newcastle working at the cutting edge of applied reproductive technology for livestock and, more recently, aquaculture.
Producing around half of all horses born in Australia and employing hundreds of thousands of people, the Hunter Valley's equine breeding industry is a valuable, sustainable, and culturally significant contributor to the Australian economy.
A combination of external factors such as pollutants, stress and land degradation, plus thousands of years of artificial selection in human sanctioned breeding processes, has seen the fertility of horses decrease over time.
Zamira works with the Thoroughbred racehorse industry - using natural methods only - and the Standardbred racehorse industry - using artificial reproductive technology - to improve fertility and improve reproductive outcomes, with a focus on stallions.
Working closely with several prominent industry groups including Harness Racing Australia, the Hunter Valley Equine Research Centre and equine reproductive specialists in both Australia and New Zealand, Zamira is a talented speaker renowned for her ability to present appropriately pitched information to both industry and scientific audiences alike.
Her understanding of the science down to the molecular level, plus depth of knowledge of both the veterinary and breeding industries, uniquely positions Zamira as a powerful conduit for the expedition of improvements in industry practice, as well as a scout for the identification of areas of industry need.
Zamira wasn't born into horses. As a pre-teen living in suburban Sydney, her love of horses was ignited when her parents sent her to a school holiday riding camp. When her interest failed to wane, they brokered a deal with a nearby riding school to exchange her labour for a weekly riding lesson.
"I spent every weekend there, cleaning stables and brushing horses, which was fine because I was happy just to pick up horse manure, and my parents were happy for me to be out of the house," she laughs.
"When I was 11 going on 12, my parents promised that if I worked at the riding school every weekend for twelve months, they would buy me a pony, thinking I would never follow through."
"But I did it for a year and they bought me a pony!"
"Mum always laments, 'Why didn't I buy you a tennis racket?'"
With her interest in horses continuing to grow, a degree in Animal and Veterinary Bioscience from the University of Sydney was the only choice for tertiary study.
Horses weren't available for Zamira's Honours project so she stepped out of her chosen species comfort zone and worked with alpacas. During her PhD studies, Zamira set to creating a commercially viable technology for cryopreserving and sex sorting of horse sperm. This project had mixed results, with its success being limited by accessibility and cost issues.
After presenting her PhD work at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Society for Reproductive Biology, Zamira was approached by Laureate Professor John Aitken, the Director of the University of Newcastle's Priority Research Centre for Reproductive Science, who asked her to head up a new team in horse fertility.
Laureate Professor Aitken was the researcher originally approached by the Hunter Valley horse breeder who wondered if the expertise garnered from John's research involving human fertility could translate to horses.
Zamira jumped at the chance to become what she describes as "the person on the ground who deals with the horse farms. It's my job to work out what we need to achieve and what is important for industry."
"One of the beautiful things about working here is that my supervisor is John Aitken, unarguably one of the world's leaders in human sperm research," Zamira confirms.
Although not translating directly due to differences in metabolic processes between horse and human sperm, working alongside a world leader in human fertility is a great advantage for the horse fertility team, as is having access to the relevant research facilities at the University of Newcastle. The availability of the mass spectrometers and flow cytometers for Zamira and her team's work elevates them above many researchers and most practitioners in their field.
Zamira explains: "Most people undertaking horse research are at veterinary schools with limited access to this kind of equipment because they don't have the funding. If they do have access to it, it might be the apex of five years' worth of work, and cost tens of thousands of dollars for them to utilise."
"Molecular biology is not something they taught us in vet school. Having molecular capabilities make us really quite unique."
Students working with Zamira are undertaking several fascinating projects, focused on fertilisation or reproduction processes.
One group of students is working with the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, based at the University of Canberra, on a project developing a method of controlling feral horses. Ideally, a single dose sterilisation injection would render the majority of wild brumby herds infertile.
This strategy addresses damage to native plants, animals and ecosystems without necessitating cruel culling regimes which merely leave the newly corrected environments open to repopulation.
The team is also under-taking longitudinal data collection supporting what appears to be a correlation between inhalation of coal dust and damage to the germ line which may manifest as orthopedic disease in the offspring.
A REAL PEARLER
Recently decimated by disease, the oyster industry in Australia is looking for a new and hardy disease-resistant strain. The usefulness of explorative selective crosses is hampered by the amount of time needed for the new breeds to be tested for resilience. Waiting usually means the corresponding gametes have become non-viable.
A student in the team is looking at the storage of oyster eggs, so original eggs are still viable after testing of the selective crosses. This would create the ability to re-cross, strip and send the eggs of the robust cross to oyster farms around the country, remaining viable for weeks at a time, and allowing for repopulation.
RIDING OFF INTO THE SUNSET
Looking to the future, the team is working towards several research goals as well as continuing to advise breeders and government departments on the practical applications of their work in the lab.
The promulgation of strategies that naturally enhance fertility, including nutritional supplementation and management controls, will continue through the team's work with the Throroughbred breeding industry. Immunocontraceptive research will one day ensure the natural mating cycles of feral brumbies are permanently interrupted.
In the Standardbred industry, increasing the efficiency of embryo surrogacy processes is one goal. Another project being undertaken by the team is related to transporting sperm for artificial insemination and has the potential to overhaul assisted reproductive technology practice.
With Zamira at the reins, working as a valuable two-way interface between science and industry, plus shepherding a talented herd of researchers, this team have the winning post well in their sights.