AUSTRALIA produces 60% of the world market demand of pyrethrum and Tasmania is the greatest contributor to that figure.

Spreyton’s Tamieka Pearce has proved that despite many Australians, and even some researchers, not knowing what pyrethrum is, her research into the disease crown rot is being noticed.

Miss Pearce came out on top of four students from across the nation to present her honours project, which focuses on crown rot, as part of the Agricultural Institute of Australia’s inaugural National Young Professionals in Agriculture Competition in Adelaide earlier this month.

“It was funny at the Ag Institute conference, they kept talking about poppies and how Tasmania produces more than 50% of the world’s demand, but no one thinks of pyrethrum and half the people at the conference didn’t even know what it was,” she said.

Miss Pearce’s honours project looked into the population genetics of crown rot in pyrethrum and focused on determining if a sexual cycle was present in the fungal pathogen that causes crown rot.

Miss Pearce said the win gave her the confidence that the research she is doing is was something people were interested in.

“The three other people that I was up against gave amazing presentations, so to be able to beat them made me feel really good and gave me confidence, but also made me realise that research is really where I want to go,” she said.

It was in the summer of 2010-11 that Miss Pearce completed a project for Botanical Resources Australia at the University of Tasmania Cradle Coast Campus that sparked her interest in fungal genetics and plant pathology.

This then led to her honours project.

Her honours presentation won first prize at the Ag Institute’s Tasmanian forum at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture Showcase, held in November last year.

She graduated with first-class honours and won the Ag Institute of Tasmania medallion for 2011.

As the winner of the Tasmanian forum, Miss Pearce was invited to represent Tasmania and competed against finalists from Western Australia, Queensland and NSW on August 2, which she won.

Miss Pearce admits that ag science was never an option when applying for university courses, with biotechnology her focus.

It was not until the second year of her degree that she lost interest in biotechnology – which had a focus on human medicine – and decided an ag science degree would enable her to study plant and animal genetics, as well as gain a broad understanding of agricultural science concepts.

“I guess I’d always thoughtthat ag science was for farmers, but it’s not and this is something I hope to convey with my research,” she said.

Miss Pearce started her PhD in March at the UTAS Cradle Coast campus and expects to finish mid 2015.

“I chose to complete it at the Cradle Coast campus instead of Hobart, as I wanted to be closer to my family and partner and the TIA division at the Cradle Coast is such a supportive and encouraging place to be undertaking research,” she said.

Miss Pearce’s PhD is a continuation of work into tan spot in pyrethrum.

“The incidence of this disease, caused by a fungal species called Microsphaeropsis tanaceti, has increased over the last decade and is now quite severe in a proportion of pyrethrum fields, leading to early crop termination,” she said.

The PhD project is jointly funded by BRA and TIA and Miss Pearce said the research would try to determine why it was increasing in frequency as well as learn more about the fungal species, including how it was being spread; the host range; and the interactions between the pathogen and plant that resulted in infection – all of which are important to allow farmers to monitor and control the disease in the field.

“We also want to look at why it has increased in frequency, if it has got some sort of resistance to a fungicide or it is more pathogenic than some of the other fungal species that are out there or whether the plants are more susceptible than they use to be,” Miss Pearce said.

“Hopefully, by my third year, I’d really like to start looking at the plant and fungi interaction, how they interact to cause the infection and see if we can find some ways to make the plant resistant.”We can’t rely on fungicides forever, so if we can find plants that are resistant then that will be a really good step.”

UTAS PHD student Tamieka Pearce was given the opportunity to present her honours project at a Young Professionals in Agriculture competition. Picture: Stuart Wilson.

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