Marilyn Anderson elected to Academy Fellowship

Posted on June 8, 2011

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Professor Marilyn Anderson, whose research is helping develop new varieties of disease resistant crops for the global agricultural industry, has been elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

One of 17 Australian scientists elected this year, the award recognises her research successes and strong standing in the scientific community. The Fellowship of the Academy is made up of more than 400 of Australia’s top scientists, distinguished in the physical and biological sciences and their applications.

An academic with the University’s Department of Biochemistry, part of the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science (LIMS), Professor Anderson’s work has led to a greatly improved understanding of how plants protect themselves from damage by insects and disease.

Her initial work was focused on the sexual reproduction, or pollination, of flowering plants.

Her discovery that the female reproductive organs of flowering plants are rarely damaged by microorganisms or insects has paved the way for world-wide research into creating new and improved crops.

Today Professor Anderson continues her work into learning more about the structure and function of these molecules as well as developing crop plants, such as cotton, corn and canola with desirable new genes that improve the performance of the plants in the field.

Working with proteinase inhibitor and defensin genes, she is helping to create plants that are less susceptible to attack by major insect pests and the fungal disease Helicoverpa armigera. Fungal disease causes crop losses exceeding US$8billion in corn in North and South America.

High-ranking research

According to La Trobe Dean of Science, Technology and Engineering, Professor Brian McGaw, it is this type of strong research that demonstrates why La Trobe University ranked so highly in the 2010 Excellence in Research for Australia ratings. In Biochemistry and Cell Biology, it was the only university whose research output was rated well above world standard, scoring the maximum rating of 5.

The practical application of Professor Anderson’s work is being developed by the Australian agribusiness company Hexima Limited of which she is a founding scientist and Chief Science Officer.

In 2008, Hexima signed a deal with US agricultural giant, DuPont, whereby the companies agreed to exclusively co-develop their transgenic anti-fungal protein disease programs. Pioneer, DuPont’s fully owned seed subsidiary, will commercialise the technology in corn and soybeans while Hexima retains the rights to commercialise the technology in other crops.

Last year Hexima built a major new glasshouse at La Trobe – complete with tissue culture facilities – to produce transgenic crops with increased tolerance against fungal disease.