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K-State Today

February 21, 2012



Growing opportunities: Research collaboration with Australian Plant Biosecurity center set to secure food supplies, increase academic exchanges

By Communications & Marketing

Officials at Kansas State University and at Australia's leading plant pests research center are finalizing an agreement for a collaboration aimed at increasing agricultural security in both countries.

Once formalized, the six-year partnership will pair Kansas State University plant pathology and entomology experts with those from the Australian Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, or CRC. The center is a consortium among several of Australia's leading governmental research institutions and universities. Through this partnership, researchers will study emerging plant diseases and insect pests that threaten American and Australian agricultural systems and develop new strategies and technologies to defend against them.

Kansas State University will be the only American university involved.

"This initiative between Kansas State University and the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre comes at a crucial time when increased need is placed on the world's agriculture because of a growing population," said Kirk Schulz, Kansas State University president. "As two recognized world leaders in this area, it makes sense to work together to find solutions to these biosecurity challenges that confront producers in the U.S., Australia and the rest of the world. Developing flagship initiatives like this gives us an advantage and will help make Kansas State University a top 50 public research university by 2025."

Through this first collaboration, officials anticipate future Kansas State University-Cooperative Research Centre partnerships, as well as research partnerships with Australia's animal health industry. The collaboration also establishes a relationship between Kansas State University and Cooperative Research Centre member universities and creates academic exchange opportunities for undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff. Initially, Kansas State University will house eight graduate students from Australia.

Interactions with the Cooperative Research Centre began several years ago when center officials contacted Jim Stack, a Kansas State University professor of plant pathology, about the Great Plains Diagnostic Network. The network, which Stack directs, helps researchers across the Great Plains obtain quick, accurate identifications of plant diseases and insect pests, and is one of five U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored research and extension networks in the country. The Australian center officials believed the network matched their vision for Australia's agricultural future. In 2009 they visited Kansas State University to learn more about the university and its research efforts in plant diseases and insect pests.

"Biosecurity is a global issue and it is imperative for us to work with other leading research organizations to help Australia and the U.S. achieve the best possible outcomes to that issue," said Simon McKirdy, CEO and director of the Cooperative Research Centre.

In August 2011, Schulz traveled to Australia to discuss collaboration with McKirdy and other center officials. That October, Australia's minister counselor for innovation, industry, science and research accepted an invitation from Kansas State University to tour the campus and laboratories and meet with administrators and researchers.

Australian policy prohibits foreign pathogens and organisms from entering the country -- even for research purposes. Consequently, the research on pathogens, insects and various Fusarium diseases and bacteria will be conducted at Kansas State University by both university and Cooperative Research Centre researchers. Plant pathogens classified at biosafety level-3, such as wheat blast, will be studied in the university's Biosecurity Research Institute at Pat Roberts Hall.

"These fungi and bacteria are all potential problems for both the U.S. and Australia," said John Leslie, university distinguished professor and head of the department of plant pathology. "Other than tropical North Queensland, Australia and Kansas share similar agriculture and rely heavily on wheat and livestock. They both have mostly dry land and drought is always a possibility. Because of that climate, we share similar problems and concerns."

Finding solutions for grain storage will also be a top priority.

"When you struggle with drought and water issues like they do in Australia and in parts of the Midwest, stored grain issues go right to the top of the list because the best way to increase the grain available is to protect the crop you have," said Randall Tosh, university liaison for the Australia initiative.

Tosh, who spent more than six years working for the Australian commonwealth government, is advising university officials and researchers on studies that have the highest benefit to both countries.

Although research for the collaboration is not projected to begin until July, interactions with the Cooperative Research Centre are already creating opportunities in areas outside of agriculture, according to Leslie. In one instance, administrators at the University of Sydney are considering sending several architecture students to study at Kansas State University. Similar opportunities are anticipated for Kansas State University undergraduate and graduate students across multiple disciplines to study at universities in Queensland, western Australia, Melbourne and Sydney.

"Because that relationship has been established, it allows us to begin expanding into these other areas," Leslie said. "I think that if all goes well, it could mean an explosive growth of research and academic opportunities for faculty, staff and students at Kansas State University."