Professor Richard Newcomb

Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour

See also

Professor of Evolutionary Genetics
School of Biological Sciences
University of Auckland

Chief Scientist and Senior Research Scientist

The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research
Private Bag 92169 (mail)
120 Mt Albert Road, Mt Albert (courier) Auckland, New Zealand

phone: +64-9-9257127
fax: +64-9-9257001


Richard is employed for 80% by The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Limited (Plant &Food Research) and 20% by the University of Auckland within the School of Biological Sciences.

Principal Investigator

The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution

Associate Investigator

The Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery

Research Interests

My interests are in the use of molecular approaches to understanding chemical sensing evolution. Animals possess a large family of odorant receptors that they use to detect a multitude of odours. By understanding the mechanisms and evolution of this biological chemical sensing system, we aim to develop solutions for the food, insect pest control and biosensing industries. We are also interested in using molecular techniques to address issues of the ecology and evolution of New Zealand’s unique biota.

Applications to conduct Honours, Masters and PhDs in the group are welcome.

Human olfaction

The gastronomics programme applies knowledge of human genomic variation underpinning chemosensory ability to the food and beverage industry. We are using SNP array technology to identify genetic variation associated with differences in the ability to smell and taste various food-related compounds. Different variants of odorant receptors are subsequently tested using cell assays for their ability to detect different compounds. Whether such differences in sensory acuity explain food preference and consumption differences within and between different demographic groupings remains the big question for this research field. For this work we collaborate with members of Plant & Food Research’s Sensory and Consumer Science Team and the Centre for Genomics and Proteomics within the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.


McRae, J.F., Jaeger, A.R., Bava, C.M., Beresford, M.K., Hunter, D., Jia, Y., Chheang, S.L., Jin, D., Peng, M., Gamble, J.C., Atkinson, K.R., Axten, L.G., Paisley, A.G., Williams, L., Tooman, L., Pineau, B., Rouse, S.A., Newcomb, R.D. (2013) Identification of regions associated with variation in sensitivity to food-related odors in the human genome. Current Biology 23: 1596-1600.

Jaeger, A.R., McRae, J.F., Bava, C.M., Beresford, M.K., Hunter, D., Jia, Y., Chheang, S.L., Jin, D., Peng, M., Gamble, J.C., Atkinson, K.R., Axten, L.G., Paisley, A.G., Tooman, L., Pineau, B., Rouse, S.A., Newcomb, R.D. (2013) A Mendelian trait for olfactory sensitivity affects odor experience and food selection. Current Biology 23: 1601-1605

Insect chemosensory reception

Insects have an incredibly sensitive and, for some compounds, a highly selective sense of smell. The recent sequencing of many insect genomes has revealed large families of chemosensory receptors, while biochemical and functional assays in surrogate cell systems have revealed that, distinct from other animal groups, insect chemosensory receptors function as ion channels.

We are developing technologies to enable the exploitation of these receptors in a biosensing device or cybernose. Further application of our knowledge of insect chemosensory receptors involves the development of new insect control and behaviour-modifying compounds through screening candidates in cell assays against recombinant protein targets.


Carraher, C., Nazmi, A.R., Newcomb, R.D., Kralicek, A.V. (2013) Recombinant expression, detergent solubilisation and purification of insect odorant receptor subunits. Protein Expression and Purification 90: 160-169.

German, P.F., van der Poel, S., Carraher, C., Kralicek, A.V., Newcomb, R.D. (2013) Insights into the structure of the insect olfactory receptor complex using FRET. Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 43: 138-145.

Molecular evolution

We are interested in the molecular bases of biological innovation and speciation, predominantly using insects as models. Of particular focus is the conundrum of how mating systems diverge, when this requires both male and female parts of the mating system to co-evolve. For this question we use a group of New Zealand endemic leafroller moths. We also contribute to developing molecular methods for estimating and comparing levels of biodiversity in different ecosystems. This work is conducted in collaboration with members of the Allan Wilson Centre.


Albre, J., Steinwender B., Newcomb, R.D. (2013) The evolution of desaturase gene regulation in leafroller moths of the genus Planotortrix. Journal of Heredity 104: 627-638.

Albre, J., Liénard, M., Sirey, T.M., Schmidt, S., Tooman, L., Carraher, C., Greenwood, D.R., Löfstedt, C., Newcomb, R.D. (2012) Sex pheromone evolution in leafroller moths by differential regulation of a desaturase gene. PLoS Genetics 8: e1002489