Be prepared to combat pests, diseases: scientist

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Early preparation is the key to tackling future incursions of pests and diseases, according to Department of Agriculture and Food biotechnology manager Michael Francki.

He said Australia did not have the disease karnal bunt or the pests stem sawfly and hessian fly but one day they might be here which could cost the WA grains industry millions of dollars.

Karnal bunt is a fungal disease, stem sawfly attacks the wheat plant stem and hessian fly larvae feed on sap, weakening plants.

Dr Francki said if the worst happened and the pests and diseases entered Australia he wanted to be ready with resistant wheat varieties on hand.

The avid researcher returned recently from the US and Mexico where, as part of a Churchill Fellowship, Dr Francki met other researchers looking at these particular pests and diseases.

"If we get these pests and diseases in here - into Australia - it could potentially have pretty devastating effects on our crops," he said.

"Hessian fly, for example, is in New Zealand very close to our shores.

"Our breeding programs don't focus on developing resistance to these insects and pests because it's not a problem here.

"It's all about trying to be pre-emptive."

Previously breeding programs have not really considered future pests or diseases when developing varieties, forcing breeders to quickly change emphasis when a new disease was detected, as was the case with a new isolate of stripe rust found in WA in 2002-2003.

By the time a disease or pest is detected, breeders are already behind the game simply because of the amount of time it takes to develop resistant varieties.

Dr Francki hopes to reduce the lag time between incursion and a resistant variety to years rather than decades by developing links with international centres that have already done work on developing resistance.

The research facilities he visited included Purdue University, in Indiana, to examine research on hessian fly, the University of Nebraska, which is doing work on stem sawfly, and Mexico's CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, to investigate karnal bunt.

The University of Nebraska's wheat breeder, Steve Baenziger, has access to some Australian germplasm, which Dr Francki said was a start towards developing stem sawfly resistant wheat varieties for Australian conditions.

"That's really nice because then we can access that progeny with resistance to stem sawfly and bring it back to Australia," he said.

"At this stage, it still won't be a priority for breeding programs to introgress it but it's there ready to go.

"If there is a potential incursion, we've at least got relevant genes in our germplasm that we can then breed very quickly with it."

Keen to keep working on pre-emptive breeding, Dr Francki is about to return to the University of Nebraska to continue research.

"The follow-up work in Nebraska will be looking at deploying the genes, then identifying genes so we can actually track them using DNA molecular markers," he said.

"What we can do is we can track those genes in Australian germplasm in breeding and then we can make selections based on the presence or absence of genes for resistance at the gene level."

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