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USQ boosting global food security by getting back to the root of a problem

University of Southern Queensland scientists are developing a multi-pronged approach to reduce the impact of immensely damaging root-lesion nematodes. Through collaboration with plant breeding companies to produce tolerant and resistant varieties, the development of effective on-farm management strategies and the extension of this knowledge, we have helped to save Australian farmers $780M over the last decade.

Dr Rebecca Zwart explains root-lesion nematodes are microscopic worm-like pathogens that live in the soil and are difficult to diagnose because of the subtle symptoms they cause in otherwise healthy-looking plants. "It's not like a fungus that you can see on the leaf, when root-lesion nematodes are present grain growers may notice poorer yields and perhaps plants with yellow lower leaves or plants more prone to wilting."

"Often the problem is attributed to insufficient fertiliser or due to a dry season."
Dr Rebecca Zwart
Senior Research Fellow (Crop Nematology)
Growers inspecting the crop at the Nematology Field Day

The pests are found all over the world, and as Dr Kirsty Owen explains are very difficult to manage even when farmers know they are in the soil. They can be found throughout the full soil profile so chemical controls are not highly effective and there are no registered chemicals in Australia for nematode control in broadacre crops.

“Because the nematodes infest a broad number of crops there are only limited options for using crop rotation to minimise the damage they cause”
Dr Kirsty Owen
Research Fellow (Crop Nematology)

Research conducted by the Crop Nematology team in collaboration with national and international partners, have discovered improved sources of resistance in wild relatives of wheat and chickpea. Through genetic studies, USQ researchers have been the first to deliver advanced breeding lines to Australian plant breeders that are resistant and tolerant to root-lesion nematodes, and therefore yield better when nematodes are present in the soil.

Recent research applying high-throughput "omics" technologies has revealed insights into how resistant wheat and chickpea stop root-lesion nematodes from reproducing and how crops interact with other soilborne diseases and beneficial organisms. This research has the potential to revolutionise the development of novel control strategies.

Root-lesion nematode research is focused on the northern grains region with support from Grains Research and Development Corporation, and the Broadacre Cropping Initiative, a partnership between USQ and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. The research also has global significance because of the wide-spread impact of these nematodes in farming systems around the world.

GRDC National Variety Trials

The Centre for Crop Health is involved with the GRDC National Variety Trials program. Mr Jason Sheedy, Research Fellow, leads nematology component that provides Australia's grain growers with information about the response of varieties of wheat, chickpea, barley, oats, field pea and faba bean to root-lesion nematodes so that growers can choose the best variety to maximise crop yields and to reduce populations of root-lesion nematodes in the soil.

The approach and breakthroughs of the team are substantially contributing to generating higher yields for cereal and pulse crops, which will significantly improve global food security.

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Phone +61 7 4631 1392 
Email  CentreforCropHealth@usq.edu.au