Michelle Hulin won the Best Biology Student category of the SET Awards 2013 for her final year project “Preventing Global Disease Spread of a Major Commodity Crop” whilst studying at the University of Bath. Here she blogs about her project and her experience of winning the Award which was judged by the Society of Biology.
With the human population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, food production must double which will inevitably put our agricultural system under great stress. Plants play an essential role in our day to day lives, providing us food, fibre and other commodities. However, plant pests and pathogens are a major threat to our crops, with fungal pathogens alone causing losses of 10-16% of global food production. Whilst studying Biology (BSc) at the University of Bath, I realised that as the next generation of scientists our research may contribute towards resolving these issues.
Symptoms of Fusarium wilt of oil palm. The fungus colonises the plant’s water transportation system (xylem vessels) causing severe water stress which leads to the characteristic wilt. Symptoms can be divided into chronic (survival for years but progressive stunting seen) and acute forms (death within three months) (Images from Ghana: Cooper, 2011).
During my degree I became interested in plant pathology as it allowed me to combine my interests in disease, microbiology and plants. My final year project (supervised by Dr Richard Cooper) focused on Fusarium wilt of oil palm – a disease caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. This disease is endemic to Africa but has never been reported in S.E. Asia where 86% of the world’s palm oil is produced.
Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a globally important commodity crop which contributes 45% of the world’s edible oils and is found in many household items. Countries such as Malaysia import oil palm seeds from Africa to improve the genetic diversity of their own crop. However, Fusarium oxysporum readily colonises seed, meaning that continental spread of the disease via seed importation constitutes a major threat to the industry.
For my project I developed a rapid DNA-based detection method to be used in quarantine to detect the F. oxysporum f. sp elaeidis pathotype – a group of strains that are pathogenic to oil palm. By improving quarantine efficacy this method will help promote the continued absence of Fusarium wilt in S.E. Asia. Disease prevention is not only important for protecting crop yields. If Fusarium wilt were to become widespread, the fungus’ soil-borne nature would mean that plantations would have to be expanded into uncontaminated areas. This would lead to further destruction of rainforest (for which the industry has been heavily criticised). Preventing this disease is therefore vital to ensure aims for sustainability are met.
For the SET awards I wrote a 2000 word synopsis on my project and then presented my findings to three judges. It was a rewarding experience and allowed me to promote the importance of plant pathology as a crucial and stimulating area of research.
I am now starting my PhD which is jointly hosted by East Malling Research and the University of Reading. I will be looking at how a bacterial plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae has evolved the capability to infect many distantly related plant species, exploring the genetic basis of such ‘host-jump’ events. It is a privilege to be entering such an exciting area of research which may help us progress towards the current aims for world food security.
Michelle would like to thank Dr Richard Cooper for his guidance during the project and the SET award process, Dr Hefni Rusli for initial work on the project and MPOB/University of Bath for funding.
• Cooper, R.M., 2011. Fusarium wilt of oil palm: A continuing threat to South East Asian plantations. The Planter, Kuala Lumpur. 87, pp.409-418
• Fisher, M.C., et al., 2012. Emerging fungal threats to animal, plant and ecosystem health. Nature. 484, pp.186–194
• Flood, J., et al., 1990. Contamination of oil palm pollen and seeds by Fusarium spp. Mycological Research. 94, pp.708-709
• Foley, J.A., et al., 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature. 478, pp.337–342
• Rusli, M.H., 2012. Detection, control and resistance expression in oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) caused by Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. elaeidis. PhD thesis, University of Bath