Throwing seeds into fertile soil – research projects get funding kickstart

Solar glasshouse on Murdoch's Perth campus

Early to mid-career Murdoch University researchers will share in more than $300,000 to drive a diverse range of projects tackling health, food and environmental challenges.

From real-time monitoring of glasshouse crops via autonomous robots to an analysis of environmental influences on the development of Type 2 Diabetes and obesity, 21 projects from a total of 62 applications were selected for a Research & Innovation Seed Grant.

Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and Innovation Professor Peter Davies said the successful projects aligned with the focus of Murdoch’s three research institutes – Food Futures, Health Futures, and the Harry Butler Institute.

“The standard of application across the board was fantastic,” he said.

“All the successful applicants put forward projects that we felt could develop into full-blown research programs over time - they just needed a kickstart and that’s what this funding program is looking to provide.

We believe we’re throwing seed into fertile soil, and we expect some great long-term projects to evolve from this.”
Professor Peter Davies
Dr Nicola Gray, from the Australian National Phenome Centre in Murdoch’s Health Futures Institute, received $18,000 to develop a test to detect levels of steroids and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in human plasma and their possible implications in the development of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. 

EDCs mimic hormonal action in the body and are found widely in the environment, including food, water, industrial chemicals, pesticides, plastics and personal care products. 

We know Type 2 diabetes and obesity are heavily influenced by environmental factors,” she said.

What we're trying to tease out here is the influence of genetics but also environmental factors throughout life that might lead to increased risk of developing either of those diseases.

“Funding programs like this one are so important for early to mid-career researchers who want to test a new idea. I’m excited to get started and I hope that once I have good pilot data, this will help attract further funding for a bigger project.”

Dr Hai Wang, an expert in robotics and mechatronics in the Harry Butler Institute, secured $20,000 to begin development of a real-time monitoring system for glasshouse food crops using intelligent autonomous robots.

Bespoke mobile robot platforms will be deployed in Murdoch’s ClearVue glasshouse - the world’s first clear solar glass greenhouse - as well as a standard glasshouse so plant performance in each can be compared.

“Global glasshouse horticulture is a massive industry, worth an estimated $30 billion US in 2020,” Dr Wang said. 

If we are to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable way, we need to extend crop seasons and growing cycles.
Dr Hai Wang

“While glasshouses have many advantages, there are issues that slow down growth. If we can manage those issues, I believe we could improve glasshouse crop yields. We could also apply this system to other agricultural and industrial applications, such as livestock monitoring and mining inspections.”

Dr Fiona Anderson, a physiologist in the Food Futures Institute, will use her $19,360 grant to develop more efficient ways of producing high-grade Yellowtail Kingfish for the premium sashimi market.

Currently, it can take 12 to 18 months to produce fish with the required high fat content.

Dr Anderson and PhD student Dino Milotic want to use computed tomography (CT) scanning as a non-destructive method to predict lean yield and intramuscular fat percentage in live Yellowtail Kingfish, with genetically superior fish then used for breeding. 

“Muscle and fat content are heritable traits, so the long-term aim of our project is to increase fillet fat content of cultured Yellowtail Kingfish through genetic selection, which will enable the commercial harvest of high-quality fish at an earlier age,” she said.

This will significantly improve the profitability of the industry by reducing the costs of feed, labour and infrastructure.
Dr Fiona Anderson
This is a collaborative project involving teams from Murdoch University, other research institutes and the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, who manage the only Yellowtail Kingfish hatchery in Western Australia.

The research could support the breeding program, while also developing a testing method that could ultimately benefit the global aquaculture industry.

This research supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Posted on:

9 Nov 2021


Science, Research

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