UNE and Costa team up for world-first study

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A world-first study using DNA samples from hydroponics is being undertaken through a collaboration between University of New England (UNE) and Costa, as part of the Future Food Systems Co-operative Research Centre (CRC).

The CRC’s ‘Tomato rhizobiome’ project’ is designed to further the understanding of microbial colonies in the root zones of hydroponically grown greenhouse tomato crops.

A stronger rhizobiome helps plants grow better, produce more fruit and show greater resilience to pathogens. Once the project team has a better understanding about the rhizobiome of tomatoes grown in hydroponic media, they’ll use that knowledge to find ways to foster robust rhizobiomes in these plants.

All this will be of immense value to growers of hydroponic crops globally.  Hydroponics play a key role in sustainable food production, as they require less space and fewer resources than traditional agriculture.

Project lead Dr Gal Winter and industry-embedded PhD student Phil Thomas, from UNE, have set up trial plots of hydroponic tomatoes in close collaboration with the Costa Tomato glasshouses at Guyra.

“Hydroponic media are very different from the soil environment,” Dr Winter explains.

“Crops grown in soil get all the nutrients from the soil, and it is very, very rich in microorganisms. It’s challenging to study what’s in the root zone of hydroponic plants, because there isn’t a lot.

“The challenge is, how do we get a population of microorganisms [in that hydroponically grown plant’s root zone] to support the plant?”

The team has set up an experimental glasshouse at UNE to experiment with different probiotic treatments for the plants. Later, this will be used to test for different pathogens – by introducing pathogens into the root zones of our trial hydroponically grown tomatoes to see if the probiotic-treated plants handle them differently.

“Secondly, we have set up trial plants in a ‘sample slab’ at the Costa Group glasshouse facility in Guyra that emulates Costa’s standard hydroponic system at the facility; with these, obviously we don’t create any interference – we just see what is there,” Dr Winter said.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first-ever study that uses DNA metagenomics on hydroponic materials.”

Paul Butterworth, Technical Development Manager for the Costa glasshouses, says the initial findings are very promising.

“We believe the project is progressing nicely and the information already coming from the project is having an influence on how we look at our crops. Exciting times ahead,” he said.

Some of the promising initial results include the creation and demonstration of an effective sampling method to test the probiotics within the rootzone of hydroponic tomatoes; and the demonstration of probiotics persisting in the rootzone of hydroponic systems for a period of time – currently tested at 19 days from inoculation.

University of New England’s Dr Winter said samples of the root zones of the trial plants were taken by drilling ‘core holes’ into the slab.

“From these samples, we can ascertain the microbial community through DNA analysis. But rather than employing ‘classic microbiological methods’ – creating cultures, putting them on plates, then examining these under a microscope – we’re using a cutting-edge technique known as metagenomics. It is the most advanced technique available today,” she said.

“It basically takes the DNA and, through DNA sequencing, identifies a genome of everything that’s there – all the microbes. We use a piece of equipment known as a MinIon to do this advanced DNA sampling. The device is so small it could fit in the palm of your hand – it’s amazing.

“The overarching aim, once we understand what’s in the hydroponic plant’s rhizobiome, is to work out how best to manipulate that for better plant health.

“Ultimately, that allows us to develop tools for hydroponic growers that enable them to analyse and understand their plants’ microbiomes on the go – and then say, ‘now I need to apply this or that treatment’ to strengthen their microbiomes.

“And our study is one of the first to do this sort of analysis.”

About the Future Food Systems CRC

The Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is a national initiative funded as part of the Australian Government’s CRC Program and commenced in December 2019. Its goal is to broker industry-led collaborations between business, researchers and the community that improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australia’s agrifood sector, especially in areas of competitive strength. CRC industry partners include large and small firms across farming, food manufacturing and technology services that share a vision for increasing Australia’s ability to value-add agrifood production and build scale in growth markets for trusted, healthy food and advanced precision-nutrition goods. For more information about the Future Food Systems CRC, its participants and its research, visit the CRC’s website www.futurefoodsystems.com.au

About Costa Group

Costa is Australia’s leading grower, packer and marketer of premium quality fresh fruit and vegetables. Across Australia, Costa has 5000 planted hectares of farmland, 30 hectares of glasshouse facilities and three mushroom growing facilities.  It also has strategic foreign interests with majority owned joint ventures covering six blueberry farms in Morocco and four berry farms in China.

Media enquiries:
Merran White, Communications Manager, Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre, 03 8395 6038 or 0411 728 984

Brigid Veale, Costa Group Public Relations and Communications Manager, 0427 697 164.