Science to protect Queensland’s banana industry

In March 2015, a banana farm in Tully in Far North Queensland went into lockdown. Harvesting of fruit was stopped and movement of plant material, soil, equipment, vehicles and people on and off the farm were restricted. More than 16,000 banana plants were destroyed. This sudden rush of activity was in response to the detection of a fungus called fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), which triggered state and national emergency plant pest response arrangements.

Fusarium wilt may be caused by several different strains of the fungal organism, and is commonly known as Panama disease.  The most serious of which is tropical race 4 which has had a devastating impact on commercial Cavendish plantations internationally.

Some of the scientific information that underpins Biosecurity Queensland’s emergency plan, which was developed by DAF in consultation with the Australian Banana Growers’ Council, has come from the Banana Plant Protection Program, including work in developing disease diagnostics. 

Developed and run by QAAFI and DAF, with funding from Horticulture Innovation Australia, the Banana Plant Protection Program has assisted the Australian banana industry to prepare for potential banana disease incursions into Australia.  

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World leading expertise in starch chemistry of grains

Global engagement World leading expertise in starch chemistry of grains QAAFI’s largest collaboration in China is focused starch chemistry of grains and is led by Professor Robert (Bob) Gilbert.

Professor Gilbert runs a large well-equipped starch chemistry research centre in Wuhan province and a lab at UQ. His staff and students regularly travel between the two labs. Professor Gilbert works in Wuhan, China, under the highly prestigious 1000-Talents Program of the Chinese Foreign Experts Bureau. His Chinese research centre is based in the Wuhan Biolake Hi-Tech Development Zone.

Food with certain digestibility characteristics (including a low glycemic index and an appropriate amount of resistant starch) has major health benefits. Starch is the main component of food, and has a very complex structure over scales from nanometres to millimetres. Professor Gilbert’s research program at QAAFI uses a battery of new experimental and theoretical techniques to identify and understand the structural characteristics of starches that influence beneficial digestibility. The research will enable meaningful information to be deduced about the structure of starch from previously uninterpretable data. This will lead to new tools for food and agricultural scientists to devise novel plant varieties and food processing procedures.

Intensified agricultural systems

There are also many opportunities to improve our systems, says QAAFI’s Associate Professor Daniel Rodriguez, who leads research into the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture, or “how to do more with less.” The focus of his work is on: › pathways to achieve food security and reduced poverty in Africa › identifying pathways to intensify the production of summer rainfall dominated – rainfed and irrigated, cropping and mixed grain-cropping systems › quantifying impacts and adaptation to climate variability, and change. In Australia he collaborates with CSIRO and state/territory departments, and internationally with CIMMMT, ILRI, ICRISAT, ICRAF and the National Agricultural Research Systems of eastern and southern African countries. His present international work focuses on reducing the poverty and food insecurity of maizelegume based farming systems across eastern and southern Africa.

Boosting global sorghum yields

Sorghum is an ancient cereal grain that is gaining momentum in new and emerging markets, and feeds 500 million people in Asia and Africa each day.

A $4 million international collaboration to improve sorghum productivity under drought conditions commenced in 2013 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – one of the biggest international drought-tolerant sorghum research programs ever undertaken. Improved drought resistance is vital to global food security. Like Queensland, Africa needs improved droughtresistant sorghum varieties. The Gates Foundation funding will help secure food supply in Africa while at the same time benefiting Queensland’s $429 million sorghum crop (farm gate value) and the valuable livestock industries it supports.

In 2016, the foundation awarded the team a further US$3.8 million (A$5.3 million) to assess plant-breeding programs in developing countries and identify the best avenues to improve them.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program officer Dr Jeff Ehlers said the foundation chose UQ because of its worldwide reputation for excellence in plant breeding, particularly in tropical crops such as sorghum: “Very few organisations have the range of technical expertise and history of success in delivery of improved varieties to farmers as UQ and its partner the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries,” he said.

A tail of two industries: outcomes from Australian and Philippines pig industries

Pork is an important meat in the Philippines, with an estimated 98 million Filipinos relying on the meat as their main source of dietary protein. Around 60% of all meat consumed and produced in the country is pork. In Australia the pig industry has an annual production value of $1.24 billion, with around 17% of total production exported.

A major constraint common to pig industries in both countries is respiratory disease. In the Philippines an estimated 50% of all pig mortalities are caused by respiratory disease, while in Australia estimates provided to Australian Pork Limited are that these diseases cost between $30 to $100 per sow annually.

Although the underlying disease agents differ, the scientific skills and technologies to diagnose, control and protect pigs are the same.  QAAFI’s Associate Professor Pat Blackall’s ACIAR project ‘Improved investigation, diagnosis and technical support for the control of respiratory diseases of pigs in the Philippines and Australia’ has developed new rapid and specific molecular assays for the identification of Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae and Haemophilus parasuis have been established and validated. The project also involved on-farm training activities, and field investigation, surveillance and diagnostic systems.

Pioneering crops for drought adaptation

QAAFI’s Professor Graeme Hammer has undertaken a 10-year collaboration with Pioneer which produces, markets and sells hybrid seed corn in nearly 70 countries.  

The team modelled the breeding and prediction of performance of sorghum and maize, in the context of rapid advances in molecular technologies.

The project used enhanced genome-to-phenome modelling to deliver improved plant varieties for drought adaptation. The project also developed understanding of the genetics and physiology of drought adaptation traits in sorghum and maize by incorporating them into an existing crop modelling platform, that can be used internationally and in Australia.

Rice one, Australia

The genetics of this ancient pure breed of rice may hold crucial secrets for helping prevent disease in the heavily cultivated rice species of Asia, in a time when rice production is declining.

As featured in ‘New Scientist’ on October 24, 2015, a science team, led by Professor Robert Henry, Director of QAAFI, has discovered a wild rice growing in the tropical north of Australia that appears to be the ancestor of the main rice species grown throughout Asia.

Beef Genomics: QAAFI in Brazil

It has traditionally been the case that Latin America leads the world in Advanced Breeding Technologies and Australia leads the world in managing in very harsh environments – but Professor Stephen Moore, Director of QAAFI’s Centre for Animal Science leads a team that brings together world experts in both fields.

Brazil is a market leader in beef production and the Queensland and Brazilian beef industries share many common issues, such as similar cattle (Bos indicus and their crosses), land pressures and environmental impact, product quality, parasite resistance, heat tolerance and market leadership – with both ranked as top exporters.

Professor Moore has a Visiting International Fellowships with Vicosa University, Brazil. He contributes to a collaborative project between QAAFI and the Universidade Federal de Viçosa (UFV) Minas Gerais (Brazil), studying the genetics of fertility in Bos indicus cattle and leads delegations – Sao Paulo State University (UNESP) and University of Viçosa, Brazil.

QAAFI Professor’s new role at Lawrence Berkley Laboratory

QAAFI Adjunct Professor Blake Simmons has taken up the role of Division Director for Biological Systems and Engineering (BSE) at Berkeley Laboratory Biosciences.  Professor Simmons will retain his positions as Chief Scientific and Technology Officer and as the Vice President of the Deconstruction Division at the Joint BioEnergy Institute.

After earning his BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Washington, Professor Simmons completed his PhD in Chemical Sciences at Tulane University. For the past 15 years, Professor Simmons has been part of the Senior Management team at Sandia National Laboratory, most recently serving as the Biomass Program Manager, as well as Adjunct Professor at QAAFI and the University of Queensland.  His expertise includes chemical engineering, biomass pretreatment, enzyme engineering, biofuel cells, nanomaterials, microfluidics, desalination, and silica biomineralization.