New ARC Centre to future-proof Australia’s fresh food supply

Supporting an industry that is being increasingly innovated by scientific advancements, The University of Sydney has launched a specialist training hub which will conduct research into food safety and develop methods to safeguard Australia’s fresh food and agricultural industries.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) Training Centre for Food Safety in the Fresh Produce Industry has been funded by the Australian Research Council, the NSW Food Authority and eighteen industry partners from agricultural and retail sectors, that have aligned to promote food safety practices across all levels of food production and supply chains.

The centre is administered by the University of Sydney and consists of a multi-disciplinary team of academics with research areas spanning genome editing, water management, horticulture, pathogen detection and food safety.

Officially opening the training centre was centre director and Professor of Horticulture, Robyn McConchie, who highlighted the University’s role in driving high-level research and researcher training that will be used to improve industry practices and standards.

“Working with a multidisciplinary team and a range of industry partners, the centre will be working towards improving commercial food safety practices, whilst minimising and preventing food safety risks such as human pathogen outbreaks,” she said.

“As our population grows and our country’s role as a global food producer increases, future-proofing our food supply and competitiveness through scientific and engineering advancement’s is a welcome move.”

Speaking at the launch, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence drew on the vital role that researchers play in developing safety practices and maintaining integrity within Australia’s agricultural and food-production industry.

“Maintaining food safety in our supply chains is crucial for the future of Australia and our region. The new Training Centre is a tremendous opportunity for the University and our researchers to work and learn from real-world professionals who are already grappling with these issues,’ he said.

“A big thank you to the Minister and the Federal Government for their support on this important project,” he said.

Internationally recognised food scientist, CSIRO Agriculture and Food deputy director Professor Martin Cole welcomed the new centre, drawing on the importance of bolstering Australia’s food production capacity at a time increasingly impacted by environmental shifts and globalisation.

“There are several key trends impacting the way food is consumed both in Australia and our major export markets. Climate change and shifts in dietary behaviour are two major drivers impacting the way food is cultivated and distributed,” he said.

“To build resilience it’s essential we invest in the technology, science and practices which allow us to innovate all levels of supply chains, to decrease risks of food-borne diseases, strengthen our future food supply and promote Australia’s economic growth within this industry,” he concluded.

Planning starts for global agricultural science hub in Sydney

The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and the University of Sydney are building a new alliance to create a global hub for veterinary science, agriculture and soil research, agribusiness and training at the historic Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute in south-west Sydney.

A formal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two organisations will be signed to guide discussions around options to relocate the University of Sydney’s current facilities at Cobbitty onto land at DPI’s Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, near Menangle.

DPI’s Director General, Scott Hansen said talks will begin early next year about the prospective alliance that would supercharge the state’s ability to manage agricultural pests and diseases, train students and deepen our world-class understanding of veterinary and agricutlural science.

“The two organisations have an opportunity to cement a research and teaching partnership that would bring together some of the world’s best researchers in plant and animal science,” Mr Hansen said.

“DPI’s Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute is a world-renowned plant and animal biosecurity facility, serviced by internationally recognised scientists,” Hansen said.

“The University of Sydney’s educational excellence combined with research from the School of Veterinary Science, its animal breeding program and its cereal rust laboratory, are globally renowned.

“An alliance that leverages the combined strengths of these two world-leading organisations has the potential to deliver outcomes with impacts felt not just here in NSW but right around the world.”

The Dean of Science at the University of Sydney, Professor Iain Young, said the partnership would lead to new and sustainable capabilities in animal, soil and plant science, supporting innovative academic activity, enhanced public service delivery and deeper industry links.

“Our agricultural and veterinary scientists are already among the best in the world. Working together with DPI at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute can only help improve and amplify the world-class research we are doing at Camden,” Professor Young said.

“We expect this alliance will allow us to take our science to even higher levels, combining our strengths in agricultural science with the University’s engineering, artificial intelligence and robotics expertise to develop globally significant research to support agribusiness, human health and welfare.”

The relocation would provide enhanced laboratory facilities, improve infrastructure, expand education facilities, provide improved access to public transport and increase availability of experienced staff required to respond to any emergency disease events.

Carp-culling project will be a one-hit wonder, experts warn

The Australian government plans to slash carp fish numbers in Australia’s waterways by infecting the pest-species with a herpes virus.

But, University of Sydney experts are warning that it will be a one-hit wonder.

The warning comes as the Fisheries Research and Development corporation investigates whether to go ahead with a planned release of the virus in an effort to help rebuild native fish numbers in Australia’s waterways.

University of Sydney associate professor and National Carp Control Program Scientific Advisory Group member, Joy Becker, said the release of the virus in waterways will undoubtedly cause a single epidemic of herpesvirus disease resulting in massive deaths among carp.

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“However, there’s little evidence to suggest that we will see repeated outbreaks of a magnitude to counter the reproductive potential of the surviving carp,” she said.

This conclusion is based on a review of evidence from around the world examining the impact of the koi herpesvirus on common carp in natural and farmed environments.

Becker and her author-colleagues, Michael Ward and Paul Hick from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science explain that the likelihood of the carp population being controlled by releasing the virus is significantly reduced due to herd immunity and the carp’s “remarkable fecundity”.

They warn this means the government’s $15 million culling program, which was announced in parliament by former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, could be successful just once.

The research team said their great concern is how quickly the virus reaches balance in host populations, which occurred within two years in a study in Japan.

In some areas of Australia’s largest river catchment – the Murray-Darling Basin – carp are reported to dominate fish communities, comprising 80 to 90 per cent of the biomass.

Common carp are an introduced species in Australia.

New research helps progress development of vaccine for ovine footrot

Researchers have made important progress towards developing a new vaccine for ovine footrot, a serious disease in sheep that causes severe economic loss, suffering due to lameness and disruption to normal farm operations.

Footrot is an infectious and contagious disease caused by the bacteria, Dichelobacter nodosus, which are divided into a number of strains.

An outbreak of footrot may involve one or several strains.

In a Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) funded collaborative research project between Monash University and the University of Sydney, reverse vaccinology, an approach successfully applied in human medicine, was employed to identify five potential footrot vaccine antigen candidates.

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MLA health welfare and biosecurity program manager Dr Johann Schröder said one of the problems with conventional footrot vaccines is that there are 10 variants of the major protective antigen.

“That means if you vaccinate against one strain of the bacterium that causes footrot, it doesn’t protect the sheep against the other nine. What we’re trying to develop is a vaccine that is cross-protective – one that will work against all of the causative bacteria,” said Schröder.

Professor Julian Rood from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute said the concept was based on sequencing the complete genome of the causative organism and using that sequence to identify its proteins.

“From 1,300 potential proteins, we narrowed the list down to about 90 with potential as vaccine antigens,” said Rood.

Proteins were purified using high-throughput technology and tested in pen-and-field vaccination trials for their ability to protect sheep against footrot.

The collaboration included Monash BDI’s Dr Ruth Kennan and University of Sydney’s Dr Om Dhungyel and Professor Richard Whittington.

“Monash BDI has done the genomic and protein work, while the University of Sydney has done the vaccine work, and the collaboration has been very productive,” said Rood.

“In the process of finding potential vaccine candidates, our colleagues at the University of Sydney have refined a field-based testing system.

“An important development was a reproducible, irrigated, pasture-based, natural infection model. It’s been used to test the effectiveness of vaccines in the field,” said Rood.

Having identified five potential vaccine antigen candidates, the research team hopes to move on to the next step shortly, which involves further testing and refinement of vaccine formulations.