Smashing disease threats to Australia's avocado industry

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

As a plant pathologist, I develop molecular diagnostic tests to quickly and accurately detect plant pathogens to help protect Australia’s billion-dollar avocado industry from pest & disease threats. I identify unique gene sequences in the pathogen, to incorporate into the design of precise and sensitive tests for detection in plant tissue. I work with growers across Queensland to investigate branch disease caused by fungal pathogens carried by tree-boring beetles in avocado trees, and other tree crops, to identify threats to industry. My work also involves international monitoring of key avocado pests and pathogens, to determine pathways of introduction and prepare contingency plans in the event of an incursion in Australia. My research has led to the discovery of three new species of fungi and fungal pathogens that cause disease in avocados. Diagnostic testing, researching plant disease, and monitoring threats contributes to protecting Australia’s rural industry in producing premium quality crops.

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

Australian avocado production has a commercial retail value worth $958 million per annum. Consumption of avocados has doubled in the last decade, with every adult and child averaging 3.5 kg of fruit per annum. Nearly two-thirds of the Australian avocado crop originates from Queensland, and the industry is vital for many rural communities on the Atherton Tableland, Bundaberg/Childers, the Sunshine Coast, and Tamborine Mountain.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates a global loss of 20 to 40% in agricultural production due to plant pests and diseases. In Australia, the avocado industry is faced with a number quarantine pests and disease threats including avocado sunblotch viroid (a virus-like organism), complexes of exotic tree canker-causing bacteria, the avocado fruit scab fungus Elsinoë perseae, and tree-boring ambrosia beetles and associated fungal symbionts that cause branch death. Our industry is already challenged by endemic pests and diseases such as black root rot fungi, which cause rapid death of nursery trees, and Phytophthora root rot, which is prevalent in almost every orchard. It is important to have diagnostic capacity for identifying current and emerging pest and disease threats. As part of my research for the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) institute at the University of Queensland (UQ), I work with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) research stations across the state and some major avocado growing orchards in Queensland, providing diagnostic support with molecular methods for pathogen identification from symptomatic plant samples.

In my career, I have classified and named new fungal species associated with avocado, and I have identified the fungal pathogens which cause black root rot disease of young avocado trees in Australia. These pathogens include Calonectria ilicicola, Dactylonectria macrodidyma and various other Dactylonectria species. I developed a rapid molecular test which can target and detect these pathogens in avocado roots in under 30 minutes. The target pathogens are also important pathogens of other crops such as peanut, papaya, soybean and grapevine, and the molecular test is applicable to multiple agricultural industries in Queensland, not limited to avocados. This research was part of my PhD and I was awarded the UQ 2017 Dean’s Award for Outstanding Higher Degree by Research Theses for a substantial contribution to the field of research. It is awarded to less than 10% of PhD and MPhil graduates.

I have also worked on developing real-time detection tests for quarantine threats such as avocado sunblotch viroid and the avocado fruit scab fungus. Quick identification with molecular tests is essential for a rapid response to incursions, maximising chances for eradicating or containing the pathogen. I am on the front line of protecting Queensland’s rural industries, which remain significant contributors to the Queensland economy and major employers of people. One of the major limiting factors to growth of the avocado industry is ensuring a reliable supply of high quality fruit to retail outlets, and plant pathology research is essential to meet this need.

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I am enthusiastic about advancing women in STEM subjects, and lead by example. I also value professional networks, and strive to build my research discipline. I am an active member of the Australasian Plant Pathology Society (APPS) and coordinate the APPS Queensland Plant Pathology Seminar Series. I helped organize the Science Protecting Plant Health 2017 Conference in Brisbane, which attracted 518 delegates from 28 countries. I have presented my research at various scientific and avocado industry conferences including the International Congress of Plant Pathology 2018 (Boston, USA), Science Protecting Plant Health Conference 2017 (Brisbane, Australia), the 8th World Avocado Congress (2015, Lima, Peru), the Australasian Plant Pathology Conference 2015 (Fremantle, Australia), Tropical Agriculture Conference 2015 (Brisbane, Australia) and the 8th Australasian Soilborne Diseases Symposium (2014, Hobart, Australia).  

In my highest profile activity, I was the face of the UQ Create Change brand in multimedia and billboard advertisements in 2015 to 2017. I volunteer to present at the UQ Careers that Shape the World event, for promoting careers in plant science to high school students. In 2018, I attended a meeting with the Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Mr Mark Furner, as part of the International Women’s Day celebration featuring female agricultural researchers. I was the winner of the 2015 QAAFI Three Minute Thesis (3MT) and was awarded runner-up in the UQ 3MT All-Institutes Final. In 2016 I was a face of science at the World Science Festival, Brisbane, through billboard advertisements; my research was featured at the Southbank Busway with the headline, “I want to improve food security through plant research.” My research on diseases of avocado has been featured in Australian news media, including articles in the Daily Mail Australia, Sydney Morning Herald, Southern Star and the Courier Mail; local radio interviews with SBS News and ABC Rural; and internet news sources including Express Digest, US Femail, Women Life and Get STEM. My research was mentioned in Richard Glover’s recently published novel, “The Land Before Avocado” (Harper Collins Publishers Australia, 2018) and in the Conversations ABC podcast (October, 2018).

I regularly engage with avocado industry members and have presented seminars at industry workshops, field days and conferences such as the Qualicado avocado grower workshop and the Avocados Australia R&D Planning Forum. I have written articles about avocado disease research for the Australian avocado industry magazine, Talking Avocados, which is nationally distributed to growers and industry members. Part of my current research project involves promoting pest and disease awareness to growers through the use of a smartphone tool, Checkpoint, which enables growers or agronomists to photograph and record symptoms on farm and have fast, direct contact with a plant pathologist for diagnosis or advice. 

I am also passionate about promoting a safe and inclusive workplace for women and other minority groups in science. I am a member of the QAAFI Diversity & Inclusion Committee and I am a volunteer Discrimination & Harassment Contact Officer (DHCO) at UQ.

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Post-Doctoral Research Officer working in Plant Pathology & Crop Protection for the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) institute at the University of Queensland (UQ). I...

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