9 December 1998

The University of Queensland-based Co-operative Research Centre for Tropical Plant Pathology is Australia's leading plant pathology research centre, according to an independent review of its operations.

The review by eminent academic peers also says the CRC is a significant international centre researching plant diseases and their control.

CRC director Professor John Irwin said the review confirmed the Centre's world-class standing.

The Centre brings expert help to crop and pasture-based industries in their battle against plant diseases, with research leading to the development of better disease management strategies and new disease-resistant plant varieties.

Its researchers - drawn from the University of Queensland, CSIRO, Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations and the Department of Primary Industries - are improving methods for breeding for disease resistance including the identification of novel genes for disease resistance and detection of disease-causing agents using DNA-based technology.

'The CRC for Tropical Plant Pathology has moved very significantly towards achievement of the CRC mission of high quality co-operative research with commercial applications and a broader education base,' the reviewers said.

The review panel said the Centre's innovative technologies contributed to improved disease prevention, detection and management through the co-ordinated mechanisms of pathogen identification, resistance breeding and other management strategies.

The Centre's most commercially attractive project involves isolating anti-microbial proteins, particularly novel proteins from macadamia, to develop disease resistant sunflower, canola, banana and sugarcane crops.

Researchers, led by Centre deputy director Dr John Manners, have found that proteins from the Australian macadamia possess anti-fungal and antibacterial properties that are effective against plant tissue pathogens of sunflower and banana.

The research could also eventually lead to a breakthrough in the treatment of AIDS patients.

'There is a lot of interest in anti-fungal agents because up to 35 percent of AIDS victims die from fungal infections,' Dr Manners said.

The CRC is seeking a major private partner to assist in commercialising its research. It has entered discussions with major multinationals with interests in transgenic technology and plant breeding.

'Our researchers have a vision for technology transfer of research findings but Federal Government funding expires in two years. Without a commercial partner and without renewal of Commonwealth funding, we will not be able to develop these technologies,' Professor John Irwin said.

'The Centre provides expertise and makes a significant contribution to northern Australia's $5 billion a year agriculture industry, which incurs losses of up to $500 million a year from plant diseases.'

Panel members singled out Professor Irwin for creating much of the CRC's success, by providing 'vision and untiring leadership'.

A further strength was the CRC's ability attract a core of highly talented post-doctoral fellows of international standing.

'This has provided a string of significant achievements leading to an emerging national and international reputation that has provided a basis for strengthening the commitment of participants and a focus of attraction for present and future post-doctoral and student members,' the panel's report said.

The panel commended the Centre's 'highly successful education and training program'.

The Centre has 35 postgraduates enrolled including 24 PhD students - a higher number than many Australian university departments, the report said.

Since its inception, 11 PhDs and six masters degrees have been awarded.

The reviewers also commended the University's appointment of one of the world's most distinguished researchers in tropical plant pathology, Dr Luis Sequeira as honorary professor.

Panel members were Professor Bob McIntosh of the University of Sydney; official visitor to the Centre and former CSIRO chief executive Dr Keith Boardman; Professor Bill Fry of Cornell University, USA; Dr Barbara Howlett of the University of Melbourne; and Professor Allen Kerr, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Professor Kerr, Dr Boardman and Professor McIntosh are Fellows of the Australian Academy.

For more information, contact Professor Irwin from Monday, September 29-October 3 (telephone (08) 9245 1000) or afterwards (telephone (07) 3365 2790).