2011 Churchill Fellowship recipient Michael Francki has just returned from the United States and Mexico armed with greater knowledge and access to wheat germplasm that may help protect future Australian wheat varieties from exotic pest threats.
Dr Francki, senior researcher with the Department of Agriculture and Food and Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University, is interested in pre-emptive wheat breeding – including genes that provide tolerance to potential pests and diseases such as stem sawfly, hessian fly and Karnal bunt.
He visited the University of Nebraska, which is doing work on stem sawfly, a pest that reduces wheat yields in North American crops by damaging wheat stems but does not occur in Australia.
“They’re developing resistance by including a trait for thicker or solid stems to prevent the pest from eating into the stems but it comes with a yield penalty of 10 to 20 per cent in some lines,” Dr Francki said.
“There is still more research that needs to be done and the challenge is to develop good resistance to stem sawfly without a yield penalty.”
The University of Nebraska now has some Australian wheat germplasm and is working on crossing the solid stem genes into it.
Dr Francki also spent time at Purdue University in Indiana, examining research on hessian fly. Hessian fly occurs in a range of wheat growing countries, including NZ, but has not spread to Australia. Dr Francki discussed breeding strategies and resistance sources currently in use in North America for this pest of wheat.
The Ron Badman sponsored Churchill Fellowship bursary also included a trip to Mexico to visit CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.
CIMMYT has done work on Karnal Bunt and has the capability to screen for wheat genes that are resistant to it.
“These traits are now being integrated into their breeding germplasm,” Dr Francki said.
While Australia is currently free from these pests and diseases, Dr Francki said it was important to understand the requirement for breeding against these threats and to gain access to germplasm w can help breed new varieties that include specific resistances.
“We can then be one step ahead of the game in developing resistant varieties if we ever get an incursion of these foreign pests and diseases in Australia,” he said.
“By being able to tap into the germplasm and expertise of researchers overseas and developing these relationships, the Australian wheat industry will be able to develop improved breeding lines more capable of handling potential future pest threats.”
Dr Francki will soon head back to Nebraska to learn more about other measures to improve disease resistance in wheat plants.