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Harnessing cutting-edge genetic technologies for the benefit of the macadamia and mango industries

Publication date: 9 March 2022

Hort Innovation is a proud supporter of the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment’s Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

The Science and Innovation Awards encourage young scientists, researchers and innovators with original projects that aim to keep Australia’s rural industries sustainable and profitable. The Science and Innovation Awards have already helped 284 young Australians make their ideas a reality and showcase their talent to the world.

Meet Dr Stephanie Kerr

One of these young Australians is Dr Stephanie Kerr who was the recipient of the Hort Innovation supported 2022 Science and Innovation Award, as well as the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia’s Award for her project.

Dr Stephanie Kerr is an early career researcher who completed her PhD less than four years ago. She’s currently employed as a Research Fellow by the Queensland University of Technology on the Hort Frontiers investment National tree genomics program (AS17000). This program is about harnessing cutting-edge genetic technologies for the benefit of Australian horticultural tree crop industries.

We spoke to Stephanie about her research into creating new methods of genetically manipulating macadamia and mango trees to quickly develop elite cultivars.

What challenges are you trying to address through your research?

Tree crops, such as mango and macadamia, are highly valuable to Australia, accounting for half of the horticulture industry value. However, unlike other commercial crops, such as rice and wheat, tree crops have not undergone extensive molecular breeding programs to produce elite cultivars.

One reason for this is that many tree crops are resistant to genetic manipulation techniques such as agrobacterium-mediated transformation, a technique that can be used to produce desirable traits or test the function of genes involved in a particular trait.

Through my research, I aim to test novel transformation technologies in mango and macadamia to aid in the development of elite cultivars. This will benefit the mango and macadamia industries to respond quickly to future challenges, such as climate change and pathogens, by providing new tools to test gene function and produce elite cultivars.

Why is this research important?

Responding to new challenges, such as climate change, will always be an issue for horticultural tree species. Molecular breeding allows for much faster responses to these challenges than conventional breeding. However, molecular breeding is hampered by the lack of techniques available to genetically manipulate many tree crops, especially mango and macadamia.

Developing genetic manipulation techniques for mango and macadamia would be an invaluable tool, especially if used in conjunction with CRISPR technologies to produce elite cultivars that would not be classified as genetically modified organisms in Australia.

In addition, these techniques would facilitate in vivo functional characterisation of genes or allelic variants responsible for controlling agronomically important traits. The information gained would aid breeders in determining exactly which genes or allelic variants to select in their breeding programs or to target for genetic engineering.

This project will test newly developed techniques to genetically transform different plant species, especially those that are resistant to conventional transformation methods.

What benefits will this research bring to industry?

There are significant potential long-term financial and other benefits to the macadamia and mango industries. The development of protocols to genetically manipulate mango and macadamia will enable them to test the function of any gene believed to be involved in regulating a process.

For example, if a new disease emerges and researchers find several candidate genes that may confer resistance to the disease, then the protocols can be used to manipulate these candidate genes and identify which ones confer resistance. This will then provide breeders with disease-resistant genes to select for in their breeding programs. If this is used in combination with manipulating genes to speed up flowering, then disease-resistant cultivars could be generated in a much quicker time frame.

Throughout this research, I plan to attend industry conferences to communicate my project and findings to industry, as well as engage directly with mango and macadamia breeders that I already collaborate with.