5 March 2015

A root-rot fungus that costs the avocado industry more than $10 million a year is facing a dubious future thanks to a genome sequencing project at The University of Queensland.

The project could lead to emerging technologies not only to tackle disease in avocados, such as Phytophthora cinnamomi, but for research towards crop improvement in general.

UQ researcher Dr Alice Hayward, from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), will use next generation technologies to sequence the genome of the avocado.

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce this week presented Dr Hayward with the 2015 Minister’s Award at the Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Canberra. She also received a Science and Innovation Award from Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited.

Dr Hayward said phytophthora was a huge problem in Australia and a major issue for avocado growers.

“A genome sequence offers the ability to assess, preserve and exploit genetic diversity, which is vital to future crop improvement and the continued growth and sustainability of the industry,” Dr Hayward said.

“Without a genome, it is difficult to do important downstream research, for example looking at the activity of genes and associating them with important plant characteristics.

“Even having the sequence in fragmented stages is going to be ground-breaking for molecular avocado work, so I’m really excited.”

Dr Hayward is based in Associate Professor Neena Mitter’s laboratory and along with other researchers, has been working on various aspects of avocado improvement for more than 10 years, including clonal propagation, cryopreservation and disease management.

Minister Joyce said the awards recognised the cream of Australia’s home-grown scientific talent and awarded them up to $22,000 in grant funding.

“Dr Hayward’s research project is to develop the world's only publicly available draft genome for avocados – research that will open the door for the next generation of crop improvement,” Minister Joyce said.

"The depth of scientific research underway in our research institutions has a very practical application in addressing long-term challenges to increasing productivity for our primary industries – it's inspiring."

The Science and Innovation Awards are funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture.

Media: Dr Alice Hayward, 07 3346 6519 or a.hayward@uq.edu.au or QAAFI Communications; Ron Hohenhaus, 07 3346 0553 or 0417 425 510 or r.hohen@uq.edu.au.

Image caption (L to R): Minister Barnaby Joyce, Dr Alice Hayward, Chief Scientist of the Department of Agriculture Dr Kim Ritman.