The Centre for Crop and Food Innovation

At least 70 per cent more food will be needed to feed the world’s 9.5 billion people by 2050. At the Centre for Crop and Food Innovation, we are applying cutting edge science and technology to develop this capacity sustainably, while keeping WA and Australian farmers competitive in the world marketplace.

We undertake research on major broadacre and horticultural crops, to improve yield, quality, and enhance tolerance and protection from biological and environmental stresses. This effort is complemented by our work on innovative production systems and food security.

Our work is underpinned by research excellence in ‘AgBio’ – crop genomics, genetics, transgenics, gene editing, molecular biology and physiology; soil and water management, with significant support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and industry. This research is supported by generating value from new developments in ‘AgTech’ – especially in remote sensing, precision and digital agriculture, drones, robotics and autonomous vehicles.

The Centre integrates research groups in the fundamental and pre-breeding research space with a track-record of delivering new knowledge, germplasm and breeding tools – both genetic tools and phenotypic methodologies. The outputs are closely linked to industry priorities, end-users and commercial breeding companies such as Intergrain, AGT and Edstar Genetics. The developing AgTech area is poised to revolutionise data handling and agronomic practices, and benefit the environment by reducing inputs and increasing the efficiency of their use. 

Our emphasis is on translating research outputs to growers, industry and end-users across the food supply chain, to the benefit of both the agricultural industry and consumers.

Our core research areas

Our research has five integrated themes – Crop Production, Crop Quality, Crop Protection and Biosecurity, Innovative Production Systems and Pathways to Impact.

Hands with grain

Crop quality

Our research is targeted at enhancing quality, to keep Australian grain producers competitive in the world market. For example, it is a significant issue that Australian wheat has lower protein levels than that of Canadian and US competitors. We focus on increasing high molecular weight glutenins in Australian wheat, through increasing the expression of existing glutenin genes and seeking new glutenin genes from wild wheats, to improve protein content and baking quality. Another important aspect of wheat quality is wheat or gluten intolerance, and we work to understand the basis of wheat allergenicity.

For barley, we address factors which reduce quality, both physiological and pathogens, and work to understand the basis of traits which improve malting and brewing quality for the production of beer. Our potato research focuses on genome editing for improved quality traits such as reduced glycaemic index, reducing browning on bruising, and lowering the build-up of reducing sugars on storage to improve processing.

To find out more contact Professor Wujun Ma, W.Ma@murdoch.edu.au ph 9360 6836 or Dr Stephen Milroy, S.Milroy@murdoch.edu.au, ph 9360 2425.

Researcher studying plant

Crop production

For wheat our focus is on developing new wheat germplasm and varieties with increased yield and tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought. Poor Australian soils mean that we also address how efficiently our wheat can take up and use nitrogen and sulfur, which also contribute to grain quality. We study additional aspects of wheat physiology and biochemistry that contribute to both increased yield and quality, such as phenology genes which boost flowering, amino acid dynamics to keep plants greener for longer, and mobilisation of carbohydrates during grain filling and ageing. Our barley research, as part of the Western Barley Genetic Alliance, has common themes with wheat – increasing yields in poor quality soils and under environmental stress conditions, but also a strong focus on malting quality for brewing in export markets.

Potato is the major horticultural crop in Australia and Murdoch hosts Potato Research WA, a research and development joint venture between Murdoch University and the Potato Growers Association of WA. The research focus spans new molecular technologies to agronomy, including physiological studies to improve tolerance to heat stress, introducing new varieties, irrigation and nutrients, soil health, and pests and disease management.

To find out more contact Dr Chengdao Li, C.Li@murdoch.edu.au ph 9360 7519.

Green crop

Crop protection and biosecurity

The yield and quality of all plant crops is often reduced by the effects of pests and diseases. In some cases, infection by fungal diseases can result in contamination by mycotoxins which are highly toxic to humans. Diagnosing and controlling pests and diseases is an important aspect of plant biosecurity, both pre- and post-harvest.

We use new breeding technologies to understand fundamental interactions between crop pests and diseases and their host plants, and use this information to develop novel forms of resistance. Our emphasis is on genetic resistance to pests and diseases, and innovative methods for their control.

One development in this area is the use of ‘cold plasma’ as a potential new post-harvest treatment for pest and disease control. Promising results have been obtained using cold plasma to kill pests in stored grain, moulds on fruit and vegetables, and so prolong quality and shelf life.

To find out more contact Dr Kirsty Bayliss, K.Bayliss@murdoch.edu.au, ph 9360 2814 or Dr Steve Wylie, s.wylie@murdoch.edu.au.

Researchers in greenhouse

Innovative production systems

There has been a revolution in farming systems and agronomic practices, including precision farming, satellite-guided technologies and yield monitoring, miniaturised real-time sensors for monitoring of crops and soil health, and novel technologies for improved water and nutrient efficiency. We concentrate on these more agronomic and ‘AgTech’ aspects of crop and food production.

We focus on improving soil health as a core participant of the CRC for High Performance Soils. Improved land and water use is promoted through ‘protected farming’ for the production of high-value vegetable crops, expanded pivot irrigation, and advances in on-site desalination technology, which promise to enable conversion of unproductive land to high crop productivity.

Our newer activities in digital agriculture and deriving value from the ‘big data’ generated by new sensor and monitoring technologies aim to make farming more efficient, economic, and internationally competitive.

To find out more contact Professor Richard Bell, R.Bell@murdoch.edu.au, ph 9360 2370.

Machinery in wheat field

Pathway to impact

Our aim is to ensure that our research outputs translate into industry best practice, community engagement, vocational training, and evidence-based government policy. We engage not only with the grains, pastures and horticultural industries, but also with exporters, food processors and other end-users. We are also involved in international programs, from high-level breeding to on-farm research in poorer countries.

Activities include private- and public-sector engagement, ensuring delivery of genetic products (new germplasm), delivering know-how and new practices, delivering services, commercialisation: basically translating research into practice with industry. We are also involved in gene technology policy, making evidence-based submissions to update state and national policies on gene technology regulation and promote public acceptance of new breeding technologies. We plan to expand this area at the international level by developing leadership in ‘Science Diplomacy’.

Along with gene technologies, another transformational platform is the application of nanotechnology to agriculture. Applications being investigated include more effective delivery of fertilisers and pesticides, and converting wastes to value-added products.

To find out more contact Dr Eddie Poinern, G.Poinern@murdoch.edu.au, ph 9360 2892 or Professor Michael Jones, M.Jones@murdoch.edu.au, ph 9360 2424.

Our research projects

Bioinformatics and translational genomics of grains

Murdoch scientists are using wheat and barley reference genome sequences to design molecular markers to pinpoint genes that control beneficial traits for the crops. Traits such as acid soil tolerance and blue aleurone in barley, and improved nutrient use in wheat can greatly improve crop performance and this work will help deliver better outcomes for growers. For example, acid soil tolerant barley has up to 30% higher yield potential than the current barley varieties and white aleurone acid soil tolerant lines of barley have the potential to increase grower income by more than $30 million per year.

Pest control

Murdoch researchers are leaders in understanding the molecular basis of pest-plant interactions, focusing on reducing losses caused by nematodes, aphids and viruses.

Nematodes attack the roots of many different crop plants, including wheat, barley, sugarcane, legumes, potatoes, tomatoes, brassicas and most horticultural plants. They cause an estimated US$120 billion in crop losses worldwide.

Murdoch researchers are using RNA interference to down-regulate vital pest genes to protect crop plants such as wheat, brassicas, beets and horticultural species from nematode and aphid damage.

Sandy soils: Organic and clay amendments to improve the productivity of sandy soils

In Australia there are over 11 million hectares of sands under agricultural production with most in South and Western Australia. Crop productivity is generally lower on sands than on loam and clay soils under the same environment and technology. Our hypothesis is that step changes towards high performance sands will come from permanently raising their reactive surface area, with added clay or recalcitrant organic matter or both.

Previous research has shown that doubling of production on sands can be achieved by clay or organic matter incorporation but the mechanisms are poorly understood. This program of research focuses on understanding the mechanisms by which improved water and nutrient use efficiency of crops on sands can be explained.

Our researchers

Professor Michael Jones

Professor Michael Jones Centre Director

Professor Jones is Director of the Centre for Crop and Food Innovation. Mike was appointed as Professor of Plant Sciences at Murdoch University in 1990, following a distinguished international career in both the UK and USA. He became Foundation Director of the State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre in 1993 and Professor of Agricultural Biotechnology in 2003.

Mike’s research focuses on plant crop pathogens such as nematode and the use of comparative genomics and gene editing technologies to generate pest resistant traits in major crop plants such as wheat, barley and sugar cane. Using these patented technologies Mike launched the start-up company Nemgenix. He has received extensive competitive funding through the ARC Discovery, Linkage and LIEF programs as well as from GRDC and other industry sources.

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Professor Chengdao Li Director of the Western Barley Alliance

Professor Li is Director of the Western Barley Alliance, a Joint Venture between Murdoch University and the Western Australia Agriculture Authority.

Chengdao obtained his Master's degree in plant genetics and breeding from Zheijing University and has worked extensively in both Australia and Canada. His research focuses on improving barley breeding efficiency by combining conventional breeding, molecular marker assisted breeding, double haploid genetics and most recently, gene editing technologies.

He is one of the breeders responsible for the development of a number of commercial barley strains including: Baudin, Vlamingh, Roe, Lockyer and Litmus. These strains now form the basis of WA’s exports to supply the Chinese brewing market. Chengdao is a member of the consortium of molecular geneticists, who published the Barley Genome in 2017; this work forming the basis of his gene editing work. He is funded extensively by grants from the GRDC and other industry partners.

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Professor Richard Bell Centre Deputy Director

Professor Bell is Deputy Director of the Centre for Crop and Food Innovation. Richard is a specialist in soil fertility and land management; he works nationally and throughout the Indo Pacific region and South America.

Richard has published more than 200 refereed articles and much of this work focuses on the mineral nutrition of crop plants and the rehabilitation of degraded agricultural land. His international research has focused on village scale soil, crop and water management, particularly in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam.

He has received extensive funding from national competitive grant schemes including ARC-linkage, industry (GRDC and CRC) and international (ACIAR) funding sources. Richard is currently Associate Editor for Frontiers in Plant Nutrition and a member of the steering committee of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Project on Farm Power and Conservation Agriculture in East Africa.

Contact us
Professor Michael Jones
 M.Jones@murdoch.edu.au
 9360 2424