Curtin study on infrared light paves way to improved crop protection

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Curtin University-led research has discovered a way to assess plant disease development using infrared light, opening up new research avenues on the path to improving disease resistance in crops.

A research team from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences, Curtin’s Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM) and Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, (ANSTO), developed a new imaging approach that enables scientists to visualise the wax layer on the surface of plant leaves and monitor changes associated with the development of fungal disease.

Lead researcher and ARC-Future Fellow Dr Mark Hackett said the research revealed that wax on the surface of plant leaves reflected specific wavelengths of infrared light.

“As the wax layer on plant leaves is influenced by plant health, we can use infrared light to understand more about how plants respond to infection by pathogens,” Dr Hackett said.

Research co-author PhD student Karina Khambatta said the findings had tremendous future applications.

“We expect this discovery to reveal new information on the effect of disease on living plants, and the timeline through which diseases affect plant physiology, with implications not just for agriculture, but also to monitor environmental impacts such as pollution or climate change,” Ms Khambatta said.

Co-author and CCDM Director Professor Mark Gibberd said that the findings demonstrate the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to research and the role of national research infrastructure such as the Australian Synchrotron. CCDM scientists will be applying the new findings to help develop methods to advance crop protection research and breeding.

“This is exciting for CCDM research, as genetic gain for disease resistance through plant breeding is critical for the future of the Australian grains industry. We are actively seeking new methods to enable us to rapidly screen large breeding populations of plants for disease resistance – this finding could really help to deliver improved germplasm to grain growers in the future,” Professor Gibberd said.

“Furthermore, researchers can also use these findings to develop new methods to assess the health of crops, the early detection of disease allows for much more judicious use of fungicides or other decisions relating to the costs and benefits of disease control.”

Components of this research were undertaken at the Infrared Microspectroscopy beamline at the Australian Synchrotron, part of ANSTO. ANSTO research was supported by travel funding, AINSE-PGRA, and AINSE-ECR awards. Lead author Dr Mark Hackett is supported by an ARC-Future Fellowship.

Ms Khambatta is supervised by co-authors Dr Hackett, Dr Fatima Naim and Dr Alan Payne from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences.

CCDM is a national centre co-supported by Curtin University and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

The paper, “Wax On, Wax Off”: In Vivo Imaging of Plant Physiology and Disease with FTIR Reflectance Microspectroscopy, was published in journal Advanced Science and can be found online here.