New test to protect apple & pear industries goes global

Posted on April 10, 2013

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La Trobe PhD researcher,  Rachel Manne, now working  at Victoria's  new AgriBio centre

La Trobe PhD researcher, Rachel Manne, now working at Victoria’s new AgriBio centre

An award-winning La Trobe University scientist has developed a new world-class test for the major horticultural disease fire blight.

The work, undertaken by Rachel Mann, has been adopted across the world and is set to revolutionise global screening procedures in the war against this devastating disease that threatens apple and pear industries in Australia.

Ms Mann says the test will help protect Australia’s $450 million apple and pear industry. ‘Fire blight is a disease endemic in many parts of the world, but very little is known about its genetic makeup,’ she said.

‘We decided to sequence the DNA of the fire blight bacterium Erwinia amylovora and from that data we have been able to design the most accurate diagnostic test yet.

‘This is a vital step for Australian growers, industry and consumers, who will now be better equipped to keep this country fire blight-free.

‘It also has international impact, meaning other countries can better protect their crops from the risk of infection.’

Ms Mann is one of about 90 La Trobe University postgraduate and other researchers working in the new $288 million Centre for Agribioscience, AgriBio which was officially opened in April on the University’s Melbourne campus at Bundoora.

Her PhD research into the genomics of the fire blight bacterium was jointly supervised by La Trobe specialist in plant pathogens and fungal disease Dr Kim Plummer and by Dr Brendan Rodoni who works jointly for La Trobe and the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI).

The work was also supported by the Co-operative Research Centre for National Plant Biosecurity of which La Trobe and DPI are members.

Rachel Mann with PhD supervisors Dr Plummer, left, and Dr Rodoni

Rachel Mann with PhD supervisors Dr Plummer, left, and Dr Rodoni

Towards a reliable test for other diseases

‘From this technique we have the basis to design simple, accurate and reliable tests for a number of diseases threatening farmers here and overseas,’ Ms Mann said.

Ms Mann and Dr Rodoni are now developing diagnostic tools for the detection of other diseases threatening the horticultural sector, funded by the new Plant Biosecurity CRC.

This work promises to set new international standards for diagnosis of diseases including zebra chip disease in potatoes which, if allowed to spread, could cause great damage to local potato crops, making them unsuitable for the lucrative chip industry.

Ms Mann’s studies have already resulted in five major international scientific papers and won this year’s prestigious Nancy Millis Postgraduate Thesis Award from DPI Victoria.

She received her research award from the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, Peter Walsh, at a ceremony at Parliament House in March 2013.

High-impact meaningful research

La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar congratulated Ms Mann on the quality of her prize-winning research.

‘La Trobe University is committed to developing high-impact meaningful research in the key areas of food, water and the environment,’ Professor Dewar said.

‘This work is a wonderful example of high-level of scientific achievement and success in the agri-bio sector.’

Professor Dewar said the new AgriBio centre – built with funds from the State Government and the University – was one of the most modern, state-of-the-art facilities of its kind in the world and a corner stone of the University’s Future Ready strategy.

‘The facility is also a key pillar of scientific infrastructure in Melbourne’s north, carrying out vital work to boost Australia’s agricultural industries and exporting our know-how to the world,’ he said.

High-impact meaningful research 

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh and Ms Mann at the Parliament House award ceremony

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh and Ms Mann at the Parliament House award ceremony

Ms Mann explains that apple and pear trees have no natural resistance to fire blight, and growers can’t use antibiotic sprays because this would contaminate fruit.

Australia does not want this disease to become established in this country and continuous rigorous testing is critical for disease prevention and containment.

Fire blight, originally from North America, is now found in nearly every country, except Australia and Japan. It permanently shrivels and blackens leaves and fruit.

Ms Mann says existing tests used internationally aren’t accurate for detecting the disease as they can give false positive or negative results.

In Europe and the US, testing is carried out not only on exported planting material, but also locally to support disease monitoring and implementation of control strategies.

Ms Mann concludes: ‘I’m excited about my work helping to protect the apple and pear industry in Australia, and improving our quarantine services at the border.’ – Ernest Raetz

Listen to Rachel Mann talk about her work with Desley Blanch on Radio  Australia’s Innovations program