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By  Keirissa Lawson Ian Dewar 8 May 2024 4 min read

Key points

  • Gavin Hunter and Melania Figueroa use advancements in molecular biology and genomics to develop better diagnostic tools and crop management strategies.
  • Their research explores new molecular and genomic techniques to control invasive weeds, plant pathogens and pests.
  • By focusing on greener, safer disease management approaches, their work supports global food security and the environmental health of agricultural communities.

It's no secret we’re frond of our plant doctors. They're hard at work getting to the root of the problem and identifying pathogens (organisms that cause disease) and pests. They battle weeds and disease daily to enable future food security, agricultural sustainability, and healthy natural environments.

Introducing Gavin Hunter and Melania Figuroa, two of our plant pathologists.

They’re using advances in molecular biology, plant physiology, genomics, and digital technologies to better understand plant-pathogen interactions. They are also developing novel diagnostic technologies and supporting better crop management options.

Gavin Hunter undertaking biocontrol research on Puccinia rapipes rust fungus for African boxthorn weed ©  CSIRO

Gavin Hunter: fascinated by fungi

Gavin is molecular plant pathologist and mycologist. He studies microbial pathogens which pose a biosecurity risk to both our crops and environment.

He also looks at how certain fungi can specifically target and affect invasive weeds. He wants to better understand rust fungi, a key group of plant pathogens that can be used for classical biocontrol of invasive plants.

“I've always been fascinated by pathogens,” Gavin says.

“Rust fungi can have up to five different spore types in their life cycle. They may require two plant hosts to complete their life cycle, and, at a cellular level, some of them have two nuclei in a single cell,” Gavin says.

“These biological attributes make it challenging to understand their genomes and their lifecycle.”

Close up of spores of the fungus Venturia paralias biocontrol agent for sea spurge coastal weed ©  CSIRO

Biosecurity and beyond

Recently, Gavin and his team have turned their attention to developing diagnostic tools that can be used in the field to detect biosecurity threats. 

Exotic plant pathogens pose a significant threat to Australia’s multi-billion dollar plant-based industries. These pathogens can quickly spread and cause extensive damage to crops, landscapes, and native plant species, posing a significant risk to Australia's agriculture and horticulture industries.

“This affects not only specific plant industries but also the livelihood of people and communities involved in the sector,” Gavin says.

“We're really interested in developing in-field diagnostic tests using new genomic technologies to identify plant pathogens of concern. With advances in genomics, it’s easier than ever to obtain important genome-level data that allows us to ask different types of questions and to think bigger," he says.

“We’re trying to really understand these organisms not only at an individual level but also at the population level.”

Melania Figueroa (right) leads a team tackling rust fungi in cereal crops at the genetic and molecular level.

Melania Figueroa: fighting fungal foes

Melania Figueroa is a molecular plant pathologist and geneticist. Melania Figueroa's career began with a magical childhood fascination with how plants grow, fruit, and feed a family. This interest evolved into a career driven by her humanitarian aspirations to enhance global food security. Her aim is to minimise chemical warfare in favour of a greener, safer approach.

Melania leads a team of researchers on a quest for genetic solutions to diseases affecting major Australian grain crops, like wheat, barley and oats. Like Gavin, one area of interest is rust fungi in cereals. Specifically in wheat and oats.

Professor Melania Figueroa
Professor Melania Figueroa

“One of the projects I lead is focusing on identifying genes that could protect oats from a rust pathogen that hinders oat production," Melania says.

"Producing good yields of oats is important to support our export industry.”

Her approach identifies the underlying genetics of how plants naturally fight off fungal infection. Improving our understanding of these genes will help plant breeders create more pathogen-resistant crops.

And it is not just crop genes under the microscope.

“We are also investigating fungal genomes to understand what makes an organism a pathogen,” Melania says.

“We can then use this knowledge to develop better ways to monitor disease outbreaks and protect vital crops.”

Taking a different angle, Melania is also developing technology to survey rust fungi and other pathogens that remain as a biosecurity threat to Australia.

"We are currently seeking domestic samples of oat crown rust to support our research," Melania says.

"If you can help, please see our collection guidelines."

Wheat steams showing orange powdery spots of rust fungus
Sick wheat: rust fungi can have a devastating impact on plant health.

Plant villains beware

Exchanging capes for lab coats, these crusaders are leading the charge in plant protection. 

For both Gavin and Melania, advances in genomic technologies and molecular developments are allowing them to better understand the plant-pathogen interaction at a molecular level. 

“We are using our understanding of that interaction to develop better management to protect our crops and valuable plant industries,” Melania says.

So, plant pests and pathogen, beware!

Tips for a tree-mendous career

Fancy a flourishing career as a plant pathologist? Gavin says it helps being inquisitive and questioning everything. A love of biology, natural curiosity and a dose of imagination are a good starting point.

“I studied microbiology at university and was fascinated by the microbial world and seeing all that life under the microscope. Especially fungi. I think they're amazing organisms and so beautiful,” Gavin says.

"I wish more people knew how beautiful some plant pathogens are under the microscope. It's like seeing a coral reef up close with all the different colours, forms and shapes.”

Plant pathology is a large discipline and there are different areas of expertise within this field. Melania recommends the new generation of plant pathologists gain exposure to diverse disciplines.

“The more skills and diverse thinking we bring to tackling plant disease, the more ability we have to innovate and do some good problem solving,” Melania says.

"Food crops are facing more pressure from pathogens across the globe so there's an ongoing need for innovative plant pathologists," Gavin says.

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