Plant & Food almond project expands to three states in Australia

Plant & Food Research Australia’s almond research has expanded to Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Once planting is completed this winter there will be 7,105 research trees and 12.3 hectares of trial sites across the three states.

The research, funded by Hort Innovation, aims to double almond yield without increasing costs by optimising almond tree architecture and understanding how different cultivars respond when planted at high density.

Since the research team has established similar trials in California, funded by the Almond Board of California, the projects are now relevant to the two largest almond producers in the world: California and Australia represent 88 per cent of the global supply of the high-value nut crop.

“Our approach is to work with the natural growth habit or tree architecture of specific cultivars and develop minimal ‘low input’ pruning methods to produce trees suitable for commercial high density planting,” says Dr Grant Thorp, Scientist at Plant & Food Research Australia.

‘We want to develop management strategies that are cost-effective, simple to implement and preferably ‘one-off’ at the time of orchard establishment instead of an annual requirement.”

Further benefits will include reduced time for new orchards to produce their first commercial crop, development of tree shapes suitable for ‘shake and catch’ harvesting, and smaller trees for more efficient water use and easier pest and disease management.

The funding statements can be accessed HERE.

Source: Plant and Food Research



NZ school children discover the power of mānuka in quest for weed killer


Schools and pupils from all over New Zealand are working with the University of Otago and Plant & Food Research to discover what secrets are locked within the wide variety of mānuka around the country.

They are exploring whether their local mānuka plants contain enough of a chemical  called grandiflorone to kill weeds, and whether the grandiflorone levels differ in mānuka growing in different parts of New Zealand.

This could result in the native plant’s leaf chemistry providing a natural weed killer.

The nectar from mānuka produces high-value mānuka honey, the basis of a boom in bee keeping around natural mānuka stands and extensive new plantings.

The leaf chemistry could provide an additional valuable product and may be important for the growth of this native plant.

Scientists Elaine Burgess, from Plant & Food Research, and Dr Dave Warren, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Otago, are leading the project which has been supported by the Government’s “Unlocking Curious Minds” fund.

“Pupils collect foliage from their local mānuka, they then prepare a sample voucher, and extracts are made to test for herbicidal (weed killer) activity in a lettuce seedling assay,” Elaine says.

“They then send us sample extracts to analyse in our Plant & Food Research labs in Dunedin.”

Results are being uploaded to the database NatureWatchNZ to enable schools to compare the variations within mānuka in their own region, plus the differences around wider New Zealand.

 The project is already providing new scientific knowledge.

“Students at Musselburgh School in Dunedin have helped us discover quite big chemical differences in varieties of mānuka in the local area, so it’s a surprise to learn mānuka from a particular region will not necessarily have the same levels of grandiflorone,” explains Dr Warren.

A crucial aspect of the research is testing whether extracts from various mānuka plants stop lettuce seeds from growing.  Initial results show New Zealand mānuka are generally less potent than a related Australian species.

The focus now is to spread the hands-on testing kits around New Zealand to see if there is a mānuka variation here equal to, if not better than, the Australian plant.

“We’ve been very excited by the research so far, and look forward to the kits being circulated to places like the East Cape where we know there are significant amounts of mānuka,” Elaine Burgess says.

So far around 30 schools have been sent the kits, which include all the equipment and instructions necessary for the students to conduct the scientific investigations themselves.

Testing is spread over approximately two weeks, including collecting local mānuka, drying and pressing botanical voucher specimens, and extracting and testing on lettuce seeds.

“This is citizen science in action. We want students to not only gain new skills from conducting the experiments themselves, but also to learn about the nature of science, of testing, of researching and of coming to robust scientific conclusions,” Dr Warren says.

Results from the first wave of testing are being collated at Plant & Food Research in Dunedin while the next bundle of kits are being distributed to more schools around New Zealand.

The project is expected to continue for several years, dependent on further funding for this community science initiative.

Source: University of Otago

Plants show an unexpected response to more carbon dioxide 

Plants are split into broad categories based on how they process carbon. The two main groups are C3 (eg rice, wheat, trees) and C4 (most grasses including corn and sugarcane).

It was thought C3 grasses are more sensitive to carbon dioxide levels and will grow more vigorously under higher CO2 levels. But a new, 20-year study suggests this is only in the short-term:  after 12 years the patterns reversed with C4 ramping up their growth.

A scimex post (HERE) reports that Australian and New Zealand experts say this long-term information is essential to understanding future distribution of plants with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

A media statement from The American Association for the Advancement
of Science
 tells us more:

Past research has clearly established that two groups of plants respond differently to elevated carbon dioxide levels, with one group gaining substantially more biomass when carbon dioxide is more abundant; however, a new study monitoring plots over a 20-year period reveals that this well-established pattern is in fact reversed over long time scales.

Scientists categorise plants based on the way in which they process carbon, the two most common classes being C3 (eg, rice, wheat, trees) and C4 (eg, corn, sugarcane, most other grasses). Theory and experimental evidence have suggested that C3 grasses are more sensitive to carbon dioxide levels than C4 species and thus will grow and gain more biomass in response to rising carbon dioxide levels – a pattern that is critical to understand to accurately model future climate.

But, past experiments have only looked at C3 and C4 responses over relatively short periods.

Peter B. Reich et al. now report results from a 20-year study monitoring 88 plots in Minnesota, U.S., which are part of the BioCON project.

They found that, during the first 12 years of the study, C3 plots averaged a 20% increase in total biomass in response to elevated carbon dioxide levels, compared to ambient conditions, while C4 plots averaged a 1% increase, changes that were in line with expectations.

However, during the subsequent eight years, the pattern reversed: C3 plots averaged 2% less than their ambient counterparts, and C4 plots averaged 24% more biomass. The researchers found that variables such as rainfall and net photosynthesis of the plants had little correlation with this reversal, while, mysteriously, the mineralisation of nitrogen did.

Mark Hovenden and Paul Newton provide more context in a related Perspective, illustrating the value of longer-term research in revealing the complexities of ecological patterns. They note that because C4 plant species contribute 25% of land biomass globally, provide an important forage source for grazing animals, and are over-represented among weeds, it is especially important to correctly estimate the future distribution of these plants.

  • The research can be found HERE on the AAAS web page.
  • Editorial/opinion from the AAAS is HERE. 

Study of sweet potato raises questions about early contact between Polynesia and the Americas

New research challenges the citing of sweet potatoes in Polynesia as evidence of pre-European contact between South America and Polynesia, according to a scimex report (HERE).

Genetic evidence indicates the plant species is at least 800,000 years old — far older than even early humans – and the researchers suggest the sweet potato was dispersed naturally around the Pacific. Hence it was already there when humans arrived.

But New Zealand experts approached by the Science Media Centre question the conclusions of the study and call for more robust evidence.

Scimex quotes from a media release from Cell Press, which draws attention to a paper published in Current Biology (see HERE).

 The evidence in the paper suggests sweet potatoes were growing long before there were any humans around to eat them, Cell Press says.

It also suggests the sweet potato crossed the ocean from America to Polynesia without any help from people.

“Apart from identifying its progenitor, we also discovered that sweet potato originated well before humans, at least 800,000 years ago,” says Robert Scotland from the University of Oxford.

“Therefore, it is likely that the edible root already existed when humans first found this plant.”

Scotland and colleagues set out to clarify the origin and evolution of the sweet potato, which is one of the most widely consumed crops in the world and an important source of vitamin A precursors.

They also aimed to explore a question that has been of interest for centuries: how did the sweet potato, a crop of American origin, come to be widespread in Polynesia by the time Europeans first arrived?

Continue reading

New research findings to feature at Ecotain industry event

Scientists and industry experts this week will discuss the latest research findings about Ecotain, a plantain cultivar that research has found acts environmentally to significantly reduce nitrogen leaching.

The event takes place at Marshdale Farm in Oxford, Canterbury on Thursday.

Representatives from Agricom, Lincoln and Massey universities, and Plant & Food Research will discuss new research findings and practical applications of Ecotain on farm.

The event is a forum for rural consultants, retailers and industry to discuss the complexities of nitrate leaching and the solutions available to farmers.

In September this year, proprietary seed company Agricom announced research findings that showed Ecotain can significantly reduce nitrogen leaching from urine patches on livestock farms. Most nitrogen leaching from livestock farms comes from the urine patch, an area containing high concentrations of nitrogen from cows’ urine.

Agricom has been working with researchers at Lincoln and Massey universities and Plant & Food Research to discover how Ecotain can function in pasture systems to reduce nitrogen leaching.

Their research found that Ecotain reduces nitrogen leaching from the urine patch in four ways: it increases the volume of cows’ urine which dilutes the concentration of nitrogen; it reduces the total amount of nitrogen in animals’ urine; it delays the process of turning ammonium into nitrate in the urine patch; and it restricts the accumulation of nitrate in soils growing Ecotain.

In Agricom’s nitrogen management system NSentinel 4, these four mechanisms of activity are referred to as dilute, reduce, delay, restrict.

New research findings from Massey University now put a minimum reduction rate of nitrate leaching from the urine patch at 30 per cent from pastures containing Ecotain.

Massey University’s Professor Peter Kemp will present his team’s preliminary research findings on the farm-scale impact of Ecotain. He says their findings so far show a reduction in nitrogen “hitting the ground” of at least 30 per cent.

Professor Kemp and a team of researchers are in the middle of a two-year trial measuring the nitrate reducing capabilities of Ecotain on dairy cows at the No 4 dairy farm in Palmerston North. Cows are grazing three paddock types: ryegrass/clover, Ecotain/clover, and Ecotain. The paddocks are hydrologically isolated, where drainage from each paddock is collected and analysed for its reduction in nitrate levels.

“The 30 per cent figure is a minimum reduction achieved from the dilution of nitrogen in the urine, where the bioactive compounds in Ecotain are such that they create a diuretic effect in livestock,” says Professor Kemp.

“If you were to add to that scenario the additional nitrogen-reducing capabilities of Ecotain, you would likely get an increased reduction in nitrate leaching. Some of the lysimeter studies from Lincoln University have shown a reduction in leaching from the urine patch by as much as 89 per cent.

“For now, I’m very comfortable saying that Ecotain facilitates a reduction of nitrate leaching from the urine patch of at least 30 per cent.”

Agricom science lead Dr Glenn Judson says collaboration has been an important aspect of the development of Ecotain, and the event on 30 November will allow members of industry to hear about the collaborative research behind Ecotain, see its practical applications at work, and ask questions.

The event will also include presentations on the historical use of plantain in New Zealand, the botanical influences on pasture ecosystems, a practical demonstration of harvesting Ecotain and its establishment methods on farm.

In the weeks following the event, farmers will be able to discuss Ecotain with industry and retailers and find out how they can incorporate it on farm. Ecotain is available in February 2018.

Scientists gauge risk of protein deficiency caused by carbon dioxide emissions

Human-caused carbon dioxide emissions lower the nutritional value of staple crops, increasing the risk for dietary deficiencies among the world’s most vulnerable people.

A just-published American study provides further evidence for the need to curb human-caused CO2 emissions.

According to new findings from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, if CO2 levels continue to rise as projected, the populations of 18 countries may lose more than 5% of their dietary protein by 2050 due to a decline in the nutritional value of rice, wheat, and other staple crops.

The researchers estimate that roughly an additional 150 million people may be placed at risk of protein deficiency because of elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is the first study to quantify this risk.

“This study highlights the need for countries that are most at risk to actively monitor their populations’ nutritional sufficiency, and, more fundamentally, the need for countries to curb human-caused CO2 emissions,” said Samuel Myers, senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health.

The study will be published online today in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Globally, 76% of the population derives most of their daily protein from plants. To estimate their current and future risk of protein deficiency, the researchers combined data from experiments in which crops were exposed to high concentrations of CO2 with global dietary information from the United Nations and measures of income inequality and demographics.

They found that under elevated CO2 concentrations, the protein contents of rice, wheat, barley, and potatoes decreased by 7.6%, 7.8%, 14.1%, and 6.4%, respectively. The results suggested continuing challenges for Sub Saharan Africa, where millions already experience protein deficiency, and growing challenges for South Asian countries, including India, where rice and wheat supply a large portion of daily protein. The researchers found that India may lose 5.3% of protein from a standard diet, putting a predicted 53 million people at new risk of protein deficiency.

A companion paper co-authored by Myers, which will be published as an Early View article August 2, 2017 in GeoHealth, found that CO2-related reductions in iron content in staple food crops are likely to also exacerbate the already significant problem of iron deficiency worldwide. Those most at risk include 354 million children under 5 and 1.06 billion women of childbearing age–predominantly in South Asia and North Africa–who live in countries already experiencing high rates of anemia and who are expected to lose more than 3.8% of dietary iron as a result of this CO2 effect.

These two studies, taken alongside a 2015 study co-authored by Myers showing that elevated CO2 emissions are also likely to drive roughly 200 million people into zinc deficiency, quantify the significant nutritional toll expected to arise from human-caused CO2 emissions.

“Strategies to maintain adequate diets need to focus on the most vulnerable countries and populations, and thought must be given to reducing vulnerability to nutrient deficiencies through supporting more diverse and nutritious diets, enriching the nutritional content of staple crops, and breeding crops less sensitive to these CO2 effects. And, of course, we need to dramatically reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible,” Myers said.

Funding for the study was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by the Winslow Foundation.


“Estimated Effects of Future Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Protein Intake and the Risk of Protein Deficiency by Country and Region,” Danielle E. Medek, Joel Schwartz, and Samuel S. Myers, Environmental Health Perspectives, online August 2, 2017, doi: 10.1289/EHP41

“Potential rise in iron deficiency due to future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions,” M. R. Smith, C. D. Golden, and S. S. Myers, GeoHealth, Early View article, August 2, 2017, doi: 10.1002/2016GH000018


Wounded plants send out alarms to warn their neighbors

Uh, oh. How sensitive will you be to the feelings of the grass when you next mow the lawn – and how will vegans respond to the news?

University of Delaware studies of Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mustard weed, have found that when a leaf was nicked, the injured plant sent out an emergency alert to neighboring plants which began beefing up their defenses.

A wounded plant will warn its neighbors of danger, says Harsh Bais, an associate professor of plant and soil sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“It doesn’t shout or text, but it gets the message across. The communication signals are in the form of airborne chemicals released mainly from the leaves.”

Connor Sweeney, a high school student, delved into work in Bais’s lab at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute after school, on weekends and during summer breaks, culturing an estimated thousand Arabidopsis plants for experiments. Seeds were placed in Petri plates and test tubes containing agar, a gelatinous growing medium.

Each batch of seeds would germinate after about six days, transforming into delicate-stemmed three-inch plants with bright-green leaves.

One day in the lab, Sweeney put two plants a few centimeters apart on the same Petri plate and made two small cuts on the leaf of one to simulate an insect’s attack.

What happened next, as Sweeney says, was “an unexpected surprise.”

The next day, the roots on the uninjured neighbour plant had grown noticeably longer and more robust–with more lateral roots poking out from the primary root.

“It was crazy–I didn’t believe it at first,” Bais says. “I would have expected the injured plant to put more resources into growing roots. But we didn’t see that.”

Bais asked Sweeney to repeat the experiment multiple times, partitioning the plants to rule out any communication between the root systems. In previous research, Bais had shown how soil bacteria living among the roots can signal leaf pores, called stomata, to close up to keep invasive pathogens out.

“The reason why the uninjured plant is putting out more roots is to forage and acquire more nutrients to strengthen its defenses,” Bais says. “So we began looking for compounds that trigger root growth.”

Sweeney measured auxin, a key plant growth hormone, and found more of this gene expressed in neighboring plants when an injured plant was around. He also confirmed that neighbour plants of injured plants express a gene that corresponds to a malate transporter (ALMT-1). Malate attracts beneficial soil microbes, including Bacillus subtilis, which Bais and his colleagues discovered several years ago.

Apparently, uninjured plants that are in close proximity to injured ones and that have increased malate transporter associate more with these microbes. These beneficials bond with the roots of the uninjured plants to boost their defenses.

“So the injured plant is sending signals through the air. It’s not releasing these chemicals to help itself, but to alert its plant neighbors,” Bais said.

What are these mysterious concoctions, known scientifically as volatile organic compounds, and how long do they persist in the atmosphere or in soil for that matter–is it like a spritz of perfume or the lingering aroma of fresh-cooked popcorn?

“We don’t know yet,” says Bais, who has already started this next leg of the research. “But if you go through a field of grass after it’s been mowed or a crop field after harvesting, you’ll smell these compounds.”

Sweeney first visited the Delaware Biotechnology Institute as an eighth grader, for a boot camp on basic laboratory procedures, which sparked his interest in research. He has since won the 2016 Delaware BioGENEius Challenge, was a 2016 international BioGENEius Challenge finalist and was named a semifinalist in the 2017 Regeneron Science Talent Search. Later this year he will head off to MIT, double-majoring in economics and biological engineering.

He is interested in looking at the agricultural side of science, saying it may not sound sexy, but everybody needs to eat. So if you can use cutting-edge technologies in genomics that feed more people while lessening the environmental footprint, “that’s where I want to be”.