Plant expert to develop tests for pests in Japan

April 10, 2012

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A Murdoch University PhD candidate has won a $4500 scholarship to develop diagnostic tests for a pine tree pest.

Matthew Tan from the School of Biology and Biotechnology will travel to the city of Tsukuba, near Tokyo, for a week to learn how to collect field samples and undertake molecular identification of the pest, which is known as a pine wood nematode (PWN).

PWNs are a major problem for trees in Japan and China, and have recently been found in Portugal and Spain. But they have not yet made their way to Australia.

“We believe it could only be a matter of time before they arrive on these shores, so we need to learn as much as we can about them,” said Mr Tan, who has won the scholarship from the Australasian Plant Pathology Society, the Phytopathological Society of Japan and the Australia-Japan Foundation.

“The samples I will be collecting will help to address a real biosecurity issue. The Australian pine sawlog production industry is worth about $800m per annum so PWN is classed as an emergency plant pest that would have a serious economic impact if introduced into Australia.”

Mr Tan, who lives in Riverton, WA, said the PWN has a fascinating life cycle, which involves the nematodes highjacking a ride on pine beetles newly emerged from their pupae, which then transport them to the tops of new pine trees. This enables the nematodes to cross distances to other trees and infect them. The nematodes multiply rapidly in the host tree’s vascular tissue, and infested pine trees can die in a matter of weeks from water stress.

“The visit will also provide me with a new perspective and ideas that I can apply to my own PhD studies into nematode diagnosis and identification,” added Mr Tan, whose PhD is being fully supported by the Cooperative Research Centre for National Plant Biosecurity.

Mr Tan will be working with leading researchers in Japan, including Dr Natsumi Kanzaki, one of the experts on PWN at the Forest Pathology Laboratory, Forest and Forest Products Research Institute.

He will be leaving for Japan on April 12.

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