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The SPPH is a joint conference of the Australasian Plant Pathology Society (APPS) and the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre (PBCRC). The partnership between these two organisations endeavours to deliver high-quality plant science meetings. This year, the SPPH hosted 500 delegates attending from all over the world, with the participation of more than 90 students with 74 presenting. The conference amalgamated disciplines of plant biosecurity, plant pathology, molecular diagnostics, entomology and plant-microbe interactions with national policy in a wide range of aspects. Five concurrent sessions in the morning and another five in the afternoon covered a broad spectrum of topics. Many pre and post-conference workshops and field trips were also run. One of the workshops, for example, focused on the use of small unmanned aircrafts in surveillance programmes for the detection of invasive species that threaten plant biosecurity, specifically yellow stripe rust in wheat, myrtle rust and phylloxera in vineyards. Another workshop, ‘Identifying future TPP (tomato potato psyllid) research and development needs’ organised by AUSVEG, Hort Innovation, PBCRC and run by Alan Nankivell – TPP National Program Coordinator/PBCRC and Jessica Lye AUSVEG – was a brainstorming session asking what research gaps and needs there were for Australia.
Each day, there were great plenaries covering a variety of topics. The 2017 Daniel McAlpine memorial lecture this year was delivered by Prof. Barbara Howlet from the School of Biosciences at Melbourne University in her plenary ‘A ‘genome to paddock’ approach to control plant disease’. This lecture is extended to an eminent scientist in recognition of their significant contribution to Australasian Plant Pathology. Prof. Howlet led a national project monitoring virulence of blackleg fungal populations across Australia and instructing canola farmers on the disease management. After sequencing the genome of blackleg fungi, one of the key findings was that the location of fungal avirulent genes (disease-related genes) were found in unstable repetitive DNA fragments where mutations and deletions readily occur, giving propensity for disease resistance breakdown in the field.
Recommendations in the use of fungicide, information on a resistance group of cultivars, blackleg ratings and encouraging farmers to survey their crops have had a significant economic impact to the Australian Canola industry.
Another interesting talk was the one presented by the president of the APPS, Dr Kim Plummer, who delivered a nice presentation on how to build a plant pathologist these days. She started by comparing the traditional with the 21st century plant pathology toolboxes based in a publication of Diane Saunders in 2015. She showed how key components of the traditional plant pathology toolbox such as biochemistry, structural biology, phenotyping, genetics, microscopy and marker assisted selection, for example, have been adapted to take advantage of emerging technologies. She also talked of how the new tools and means of communication from this century composed by systematics, open access to data repositories, sequence based taxonomy, mathematical modelling, outreach media, etc. today require a multidisciplinary approach by plant pathologists to answer key questions.
The challenge of training next generation plant pathologists is huge and this includes the basic biological science skills plus observation, experimentation, disease monitoring, field trips, the disease as ecosystem (a plant and its community – other plants, other organisms, abiotic environment), population biology, computational skills and omics data, always keeping sight of the biology and the disease triangle, getting the big picture but interrogating the details.
This conference helped me to discuss my work with peers who presented similar research using other plant pathogen systems and to establish collaboration with them, especially with a senior researcher from Murdoch University who gave advice on a couple of approaches to add to my work. My presentation (pictured below) ‘Defining threats of exotic bacteria to biosecurity using comparative genomics’ showed results from our Better Border Biosecurity diagnostics project running for the past 7 years. This project allowed us to compare genome sequences of more than 70 strains of pseudomonads including pathogenic and non-pathogenic variants. The study used the kiwifruit Pseudomonas pathosystem as a model to develop molecular diagnostics that might assist in rapidly defining risks of exotic bacteria at the border. In this work, bacterial strains isolated from kiwifruit and stone fruits were tested for virulence and loci that differentiated pathogenic from non-pathogenic strains. These loci were identified by comparative genomics. PCR was optimised to target these loci, providing a more generic risk assessment of unknown strains. Future work will examine whether pathogen-associated loci in other important genera may aid biosecurity decision-making, especially in post-entry quarantine, surveillance and incursion response.
I would like to thank the BSPP for the travel award and the opportunity given to me to attend this conference which has been a great experience. I look forward to attend the next SPPH conference to be held in Melbourne and encourage to other researchers in the world to do the same.
Sandra Visnovsky Plant & Food Research, New Zealand The conference included four one-hour plenary talks that gave the speakers the opportunity to present a broad topic in a way that would capture the interest of those in the audience who were peripheral to the topic as well as specialists in it. All of these talks were both lively and enlightening. Barbara Howlett gave the first plenary presentation on ‘A genome to paddock approach to control of plant diseases’.
This presentation set the scene for the meeting, using the blackleg disease of brassica crops (caused by the fungus Leptosphaeria maculans). Barbara demonstrated how a detailed knowledge of processes of invasion and defence can lead to better field deployment of cultivars with different disease resistance genes.
Each of the 30 concurrent sessions commenced with a 30 minute keynote presentation. Again, these extended talks provided the speakers with time to delve into a topic in some detail. Linda Kinkel gave the keynote presentation ‘Interaction networks shed light on the ecology and coevolution of soil microbiomes’. In this talk, she discussed how soil microbes exist in highly diverse communities. Using soil Streptomyces, she used interaction network analysis to examine factors that generate and maintain functional capacities in soil communities.
The concurrent session ‘Community and Industry Engagement’ resonated with me, as someone closely involved with the community of UK gardeners. The gardening community can play an important role in surveillance of new or yet-to-arrive pathogens as well as in decreasing or increasing the risk of entry of pathogens through choice of sources of planting material. Cooperation of gardeners in plant health efforts will be vital to restrict the flow of new pathogens into, or around, the country.
Talks on myrtle rust (AustroPuccinia psidii), first detected in Australia in 2010 and in New Zealand in 2017 provide a salutary lesson on the potential impact when native plant species are exposed to pathogens they have not evolved with. Myrtle rust is having devastating consequences on a wide range of Australian myrtaceae, including rapid changes in dominance of particular species in forests. The poster sessions included 359 posters, covering a wide range of topics. I presented a poster on utilising host and pathogen diversity to manage allium rust in gardens.
I also attended the two-day preconference workshop ‘Identifying Fusarium species’ at the University of Queensland’s Moreton Bay Field Station on North Stradbroke Island, off the coast from Brisbane. Fusarium species include some of the most important agricultural plant pathogens worldwide.
This workshop was very much a hands on one. Talks were given on Fusarium taxonomy, phylogeny, species concepts, vegetative compatibility and molecular diagnostics, as well as characteristics of important species complexes. The talks were backed up by laboratory sessions, where cultures of many of the important species were available for microscopic examination and comparison. While identification of species by molecular methods is increasingly important, the significance of morphological characteristics as part of the process of working with Fusarium was stressed. The workshop was led by Fusarium guru Brett Summerell, ably assisted by Edward Liew and Matthew Laurence (together, they form the plant pathology team at the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens).
I would like to thank the BSPP for their financial support which enabled me to attend this valuable conference and associated Fusarium workshop.
Matthew Cromey Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley