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Race to investigate damaging spread of barley fungal diseases

Media release

Curtin University is inviting Western Australian schools to take part in a citizen-science research project, Mildew Mania, aimed at protecting the State’s barley crops from the damaging effect of powdery mildew disease.

The State-wide ongoing science experiment is part of an initiative by researchers at Curtin’s Department of Environment and Agriculture to collect the required data to give plant breeders and growers the tools it requires to control this disease, and therefore reduce losses.

Curtin scientist and research leader, Professor Richard Oliver, said powdery mildew disease, caused by the fungus Blumeria graminis f. sp. hordei (Bgh), was a major disease of barley in WA, particularly in wetter areas, causing about $30 million in losses each year.

“Barley mildew is currently controlled in two ways, through genetics and through fungicides, but these are both presently compromised,” Professor Oliver said.

“Genetic resistance to the disease is no longer effective, as the pathogen population has rapidly evolved to overcome the resistance genes that are present in current cultivars. To solve this problem, researchers need to explore which ‘races’ of the pathogen are present in different parts of WA.”

In terms of fungicides, Professor Oliver said researchers had observed that much of the population was becoming resistant to the most commonly used fungicides.

“To combat this we need to identify which WA mildew populations are fungicide resistant and which are not,” he said.

Professor Oliver said his research so far had included an examination of the DNA sequence of a target gene within Barley, Cyp51, to identify mutations making it susceptible to the disease.

“In 2009, we found one isolate with the mutation, but in 2010 all 60 isolates screened had the mutation,” he said.

“So in 2011, we need schools to collect as many Bgh isolates from as many different locations in WA as they can. We’re asking students to plant and care for a small number of Baudin plants, a common highly susceptible cultivar of barley, to try and bait any mildew in their area.

“Planting and caring for the plants is quite easy, although they must be monitored very closely to watch for signs of Bgh infection.

“If mildew is found, we’re asking schools to send a photograph and sample through to Curtin and we can look at its DNA sequence.”

Curtin science outreach coordinator, Emma Donnelly, said the project was part of an overall drive to spread the message about science to school students with the aim of offering opportunities to participate and learn more about the diversity of science.

“By offering opportunities through Curtin’s Science Outreach program, we aim to be able to show students and the community how exciting and diverse science is with the hope that more people choose careers in science related sectors,” Ms Donnelly said.

Barley is Australia’s second largest grain crop, grown for animal feed, human consumption and malting. The quality of grain at harvest determines whether it will be used for malting which returns larger profits, or for feed. Baudin is a common cultivar of barley with a reputation as a high quality malting barley; however it is highly susceptible to a number of diseases.

Registrations to take part in the project close 18 April, 2011. For further information, please visit: http://curtinmildewmania2011.eventbrite.com

Contacts:

Professor Richard Oliver, Department of Environmental Biology and Agriculture, Curtin University
Email: richard.oliver@curtin.edu.au

Emma Donnelly, Science Outreach Coordinator, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 1021, Email: e.donnelly@curtin.edu.au

Andrea Barnard, Public Relations, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 4241, Mobile: 0401 103 755, Email: andrea.barnard@curtin.edu.au