Students in war on disease

Lauren CelenzaCountryman

Hundreds of school students from across the WA have been enlisted in the fight against powdery mildew — the State’s most damaging barley disease.

More than 1700 students, from 123 primary and secondary schools, are part of the Mildew Mania project, proving information about the fungal disease which causes annual losses of about $30 million to WA’s barley crops.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) funded research under the Mildew Mania project has been organised through Curtin University’s Science Outreach program.

The risk of crop losses caused by powdery mildew has increased after confirmation last year of resistance in some strains to the triazole group of fungicides, used in several products including Tilt and Folicur.

Australian Centre for Necrotrophic Fungal Pathogens (ACNFP) director Richard Oliver said students were monitoring the crops for signs of the disease and reported that information to the ACNFP.

Feedback from schools was used to inform researchers about areas in the Wheatbelt where powdery mildew was or was not present.

“We can also test the samples to see whether they are resistant to fungicides and which ‘races’ they belong to, ” Professor Oliver said.

“This will help us in advising growers where different fungicides can be used and which cultivars — which have varying levels of susceptibility to powdery mildew — should or should not be grown.”

Photographs and samples of powdery mildew submitted by schools would also aid GRDC funded research aiming to identify different virulence genes expressed by the powdery mildew pathogen.

Curtin Science Outreach co-ordinator Emma Donnelly said it was rare to find a science experiment that everyone could do and that could generate real data.

“Usually we do science projects just for the sake of teaching science but the reason for this experiment is for the scientists to use the data, ” she said.

WA College of Agriculture Cunderdin head of curriculum Jane Beatty is conducting the project with her Year 12 Plant Production Systems class.

“It fits in well with our plant protection syllabus, looking at plant pests and diseases, and it’s a practical activity that appeals to ag school kids, ” she said.

“The plants are about 20 to 30cm high and we have found some mildew so we are about to sample some of leaves to send to Curtin.”

Year 12 student Tim Woodfield, from Bencubbin, said he was happy to contribute to research that could one day help him as a farmer.

Fellow student Brady Jasper said his family’s farm in Cunderdin was sometimes prone to the fungal disease. “It’s becoming more common in the area, so the research will hopefully help us one day, ” he said.

Mr Oliver said 2011 was shaping up to be a high-risk year for powdery mildew because of quite humid conditions and regular rainfall.

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