Mega-pest worms its way into Brazil

Helicoverpa armigera_5

By Wee Tek Tay, Research Scientist, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship

We often speak of the risks of new invasions in our increasingly interconnected world, and stress the need for a strong and reliable biosecurity system to safeguard our borders.

As global trading and markets increase, it’s essential to develop our ability to detect incursions using new and innovative surveillance techniques combined with rapid identification capabilities.  This is important because Incursions by exotic pests and diseases have the potential to seriously impact Australia’s people, agricultural industries and unique environment.

And right now, a team of Australian and international scientists are working closely with colleagues in Brazil as one of the most destructive pests known to agriculture – the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) – worms its way into Brazilian agricultural fields.

Helicoverpa armigera has long been recognised as a serious biosecurity threat to the Americas, where it has the potential to establish across the South and North American continent with far greater anticipated potential economic loss to corn and cotton than the closely related Helicoverpa zea which is endemic to the Americas.

Incredibly, despite being intercepted at US Ports of Entry a staggering 4431 times since 1985, this mega-pest had not been previously reported to take hold on the American continents.

In Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe, where cotton bollworm is considered native, the damage it causes is estimated to cost $US 2 billion each year. In the last two growing seasons, high infestations of Helicoverpa species larvae were found in different regions of Brazil, resulting in substantial economic losses of up to 10 billion Brazilian Reals ($US 4.4 billion).

A cotton bollworm larvae decimating a cob of corn

A cotton bollworm larvae decimating a cob of corn

At first it was assumed that the damage was being caused by Helicoverpa zea, because the cotton bollworm had never previously been detected within the country. However, as the scale of spread and destruction was monitored, the Brazilian scientists knew that something was different and suspected that maybe the dreaded incursion of Helicoverpa armigera had indeed begun. At this point, Brazilian scientists from the Mato Grosso Cotton Institute approached CSIRO researchers to assist in the careful identification of the species attacking their crops.

Our scientists, together with French and Indian colleagues from CIRAD and IRD in France and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research used evolutionary and population genetics to confirm that the cotton bollworm has now successfully invaded Brazil.

Along with the confirmation that the Brazilians are indeed dealing with a new incursion of a serious exotic pest, the international team led by scientists from the CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship and Matto Grosso Cotton Institute is providing further vital data that will assist Brazil to manage this new menace.

The next steps for the research team are to investigate where the moth originated, where they are currently distributed, its spread across the South American continent, and the incidence of resistance to key pesticides. This information, coupled with CSIRO’s extensive expertise in insecticide resistance management will assist Brazil to develop effective strategies to manage this mega-pest.

You can read the full research paper at PLOS ONE.


For media enquiries contact Emma Pyers: +61 3 5227 5123, emma.pyers@csiro.au


Putting a stop to the rot

Queensland Fruit Fly

The Queensland Fruit Fly

Flies aren’t only a nuisance for beach goers, some species can cause havoc for Australia’s agricultural industries and threaten the production and export opportunities of our fresh fruit and vegetable produce.

Queensland Fruit Fly (Q-fly) is one of these species. It’s the highest priority pest for a broad range of horticultural industries and can inflict significant costs on producers through management costs, lost production and reduced export opportunities, and on government and industries through eradication campaigns in areas where fruit fly does not regularly occur. These costs all eventually flow through to consumers and taxpayers.

An outbreak of Q-fly in a major fruit or vegetable production area, such as the Riverland in South Australia, has the potential to impact Australia’s export and domestic horticulture markets.

CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship together with Horticulture Australia Ltd, Plant & Food Research Australia and the Department of Primary Industries and Regions South Australia are joining forces to find a solution to this Q-fly problem.

Today marks the beginning of this partnership with the South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announcing the establishment of a $3 million facility to breed male-only sterile Q-flies for use in Sterile Insect Technology (SIT) programs.

SIT is a scientifically proven method for suppressing or eradicating fruit fly populations and managing their potential impacts in horticulture production areas.

The $3 million State investment is in addition to a collaborative $15 million research and development consortium which will focus on new technologies to produce the male-only sterile Q-flies, and then the most effective release strategies and monitoring technologies needed to underpin effective area-wide control of Q-fly.

Boy biting into peach with blue sky in the background

Image: iStock

SIT approaches have already been used with great success around the world and in South Australia to combat Mediterranean fruit fly. However, the development of male-only sterile Q-fly will be a world first and will significantly enhance the cost effectiveness of SIT.

SIT is environmentally friendly and can be used in orchards, urban and environmentally sensitive areas, where application of conventional chemical treatments isn’t possible or is intrusive.


For media enquiries contact Emma Pyers: +61 3 5227 5123, emma.pyers@csiro.au


Defending ag from disease

Photo of the exterior of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria

On-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, diagnostic scientists at CSIRO are ready to respond should an emergency disease outbreak occur.

They could test 10,000 samples per day in an emergency, but as standard delivery, CSIRO scientists at Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria, test more than 45,000 samples for 55 terrestrial and 40 aquatic animal diseases every year.

Luckily, Australia is relatively free of many animal and human diseases found in other parts of the world, such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) and Nipah virus.

However, new infectious diseases, such as new strains of avian influenza, pose a constant threat to the health and wellbeing of animals and humans and pose a risk to Australia’s environment, industries and trade.

According to AAHL’s director Dr Kurt Zuelke, researchers are focused on reducing the threats of exotic and emerging animal diseases and, for example, are on standby with over 650 different tests covering a diverse range of animal species. “AAHL researches diseases of national importance found in livestock, aquaculture animals and wildlife, including those that can pass from animals to people,” Dr Zuelke said. “Our scientists are a front-line defence who help protect the country’s billion dollar livestock and aquaculture industries from disease threats on a daily basis.”

They play this defence role through performing diagnoses, establishing surveillance to monitor movements and emergences and if required, responding to animal disease emergencies. Better understanding diseases to develop diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments is also crucial and CSIRO AAHL scientists lead the world on bat and insect-borne disease research. This is important for animal and human health as bats and insects are natural reserviours of a range of viruses and cause many of the world’s infectious diseases in both animals and humans.

Malaria and dengue, for example, are harmless to mosquitoes; blue tongue virus is harmless to midges; and Hendra, Nipah, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses are harmless to bats – but all can be lethal to humans. AAHL also helps to train veterinarians in other countries to reduce the disease risks to Australia and is an official collaborating centre for capacity building in Southeast Asia. Recently, teams have visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to train local veterinarians in disease diagnosis and testing techniques in their efforts to control and eradicate diseases such as FMD, classical swine fever and avian influenza. Importantly, this international work means Australia is more prepared with better threat assessments, surveillance and management options for many foreign diseases.


This article originally appeared in our 16 May Rural Press insert (pdf).

You can see what else we’ve been up to in our Rural Press Inserts Archive.


Nanoscale food structures captured on video

By Andrew Leis, microscopist, CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory

If you’re watching our little video, you’re among the first to see this very common, naturally occurring, nano-sized structure.

This is a 3D transmission electron tomogram of a single assembly of milk proteins, called a casein micelle.

In our last blog on food structures, we talked about food at the micro scale. A micrometre is one millionth of a metre. This post looks deeper into food and talks about food structures at the nano scale – that’s billionths of a metre! This micelle is around 160 nanometres in diameter. Many viruses are a similar size.

Why is this video important, you ask? It shows us the structure the micelle arranges itself into, and we can see that it forms a cross-linked, interconnected network. Knowing this will help us do things like better understand how the network holds and releases water molecules. This, along with understanding the size variation of micelles, can hopefully help with processing efficiency for manufacturers (like using less energy and water and reducing waste) and product quality of everyday dairy foods like yoghurt, cheese and milk powder.

Tomography technology

Tomography is a type of microscopy and it works like a hospital CT scan, except it’s with electrons instead of x-rays. A powerful electron microscope takes a lot of pictures as it moves around the sample and then it is turned into a 3D movie. The black and white at the start of the movie is just the image building.

But milk’s not blue!

We know that casein micelles are a suspension type food structure. We don’t actually know the colour of a single casein micelle, so the scientist who created this image arbitrarily chose to colour it a pretty shade of blue (adding colour helps to bring out the detail). We know of course what the colour is of a population of them together – that’s how milk gets its white!

Nature’s wonder thickener

This tomography video shows a pectin system, which is a gel structure. Pectin forms a strong network giving it properties as a thickener. It’s what sets jams and marmalades and fruit like apples, citrus and plums are packed with it.

Pectin also has a health function because it’s soluble dietary fibre. One benefit of understanding this structure better is to help the manufacturing industry use naturally-derived ingredients to make our food healthier.


CSIRO is hosting the Food Structures, Digestion and Health Conference on 21 – 24 October, which will discuss the role of structure in designing foods for nutrition and wellbeing.


About the author

Andrew_LeisDr Andrew Leis is a microscopist with expertise in electron tomography and correlative microscopy. He works within the microbiologically secure Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria.


Crunchy carrots and fluffy bread – It’s all about the structure

Flickr/stephendl

Flickr/stephendl

By Li Day, Research Group Leader, CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences

It’s a food’s structure that gives a carrot its crunch and a loaf of bread its fluffiness, and researchers increasingly believe that many of a food’s key properties relate to its structure.

Nature is able to assemble sophisticated structures and food is no exception, even right down to the microscopic scale. Food components such as protein, carbohydrate, fat and minor ingredients, when mixed, organise into a range of structures, and its becoming clear that many properties key to a food’s processability, nutritional and sensory qualities, and safety are related to its structure.

Plants are structured like honeycomb, called ‘cell wall’ structure. The video below clearly shows the defined cell walls in raw carrot – that’s why it’s crunchy!

A scanning laser confocal microscope video in 3D showing the defined cell wall structure of raw carrot (Video: Sofia Oeseth)

Most foods have a ‘fluffy’ foam structure that forms when air bubbles are incorporated into a liquid, like bread, ice cream and meringue. The microscopic image below shows dough with air bubbles (black), gluten (yellow), starch granules (green) and protein (red).

Dough under the microscope (Click for full size image)

Dough’s foam structure is full of air (Click for full size image)

Then there are suspensions, which are a bit like oceans, with a sea of solid particles (the ingredients) suspended within a major component that is a liquid (quite often water).  Think tomato paste, fruit juices and some sauces and soups.

Cooked pumpkin in water under the microscope (Click for full size image)

Cooked pumpkin cells suspended in water (Click for full size image)

The next microscopic image shows a suspension in 3D of cooked pumpkin in water. Notice how round the pumpkin cells are – that’s why pumpkin soup feels so smooth and creamy when we’re eating it.

Colloids, which have microscopic particles dispersed through another substance, are another type of structure. Milk is an emulsified colloid of liquid butterfat dispersed in a water-based solution. The third microscopic image is of milk, and the red dots are drops of fat dispersed throughout the liquid whey (black).

Microscopic image of breast milk

Milk has a colloid structure (Click for full size image)

There are other structure types as well – solutions, emulsions and gels, which all behave differently to each other.

The structure of a food affects the way we chew it, how it breaks down in our mouths and our perception of its texture and flavour.  And because each structure also breaks down differently in our digestive system, the release and bioavailability of small molecules such as minerals, vitamins and polyphenols is also different.

Because of all these factors, food structures are increasingly being recognised as important in technology innovation for the development of healthier foods.

And as there is increasing awareness that structure has a significant effect on the bio-availability of nutrients, the focus of developing nutritional guidelines is shifting away from the traditional approach of simply assessing the nutrient composition of foods.


CSIRO is hosting the Food Structures, Digestion and Health Conference on 21 – 24 October, which will discuss the role of structure in designing foods for nutrition and wellbeing.


The turbulent times ahead for airborne pests

Boy on beach playing with sand

Image: Shutterstock

By Emma Pyers

Picture this – it’s a windy day in Northern Australia; in fact it’s a northerly wind. What are your initial thoughts?  Maybe heading to the beach with the family, hosting a BBQ or spending time outside with your canine friend?  But did you think about the risks these winds pose to our country’s biosecurity status?

If not, that’s OK because that’s what our scientists are here for – to help find solutions to protecting our environment and people from nasty pest and disease threats.

Currently the biggest biosecurity threat to Australia comes from the import of animals, plants, seeds and food that carry pests or pathogens.

So it makes sense that most of our surveillance effort goes into detecting these potential biosecurity threats at air and marine ports, and using our quarantine system for imported animals, although this still leaves open another ‘pathway’ for these nasties to use.

It’s on the wind.

It’s not as common as the direct import pathway, but it’s more concerning as it’s out of our immediate control.

So, we’re turning to mathematics and computer modelling to develop surveillance systems that can predict when and where pests and pathogens might be blown into, and from, Australia.

Yellow hot air balloon in the sky

Been hot air ballooning? Then you’ve experienced travelling with air layers and currents. Image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

Traditionally wind trajectories have been used to show wind direction, but transport on the wind is more complex, as the pests and pathogens are also taken vertically.  The higher they are taken, the further they can travel.

Fortunately this is an area of great significance to atmospheric physicists, as they are interested in predicting things like how pollutants are dispersed in the air by chimneys, and how radiation might disperse following a nuclear accident.

This has led them to use a combination of mathematics and computer simulation to represent transport of particles in the atmosphere. There are now a number of computer applications that can do the hard work of combining the climate and weather data with the maths and physics of wind dispersion.

Infographic including maps detailing the dispersal of culicoides midges blowing into northern Australia

However, pest or pathogen dispersion is different to dust or pollutant dispersions, as living organisms respond differently within the atmosphere.  They might die if it’s too hot or cold, if the wind is too turbulent, or even if they’re susceptible to ultra-violet light.  All these organism-specific parameters need to be taken into account on top of standard dispersion modelling approaches to establish if there is a biosecurity risk or not.

It’s a challenge to bring these important elements together and make optimal decisions about when and where to do surveillance for wind-borne threats, even allowing for a high performance computer to analyse the data.

We’re working to solve this problem for all the relevant biosecurity domains interested in wind-borne spread, for example plant, animal and human health.

We are in the process of building a web-based tool that will link to the Bureau of Meteorology’s high-performance computing.  This new application is called the Tool for Assessing Pest or Pathogen Airborne Spread, also known as TAPPAS (sorry, it’s not Spanish cuisine). 

We expect TAPPAS to be ready for government, industry and research agencies interested in predicting and responding to airborne biosecurity threats for a ‘user acceptance testing” workshop in around 12-18 months time.

Our very own Peter Durr is presenting a talk on TAPPAS at the Biosecurity and Bioinvasion workshop tomorrow at CSIRO Discovery in Canberra.  CSIRO is co-hosting this event, which is part of the International Year of the Mathematics of Planet Earth, with AMSI, ANU and DAFF.


Emerging tech creating a safer food chain

iStock_000021161362XLarge

By Mala Gamage and Kai Knoerzer

In recent years a number of emerging or new food processing technologies have been investigated, developed and to some extent implemented, with the aim of improving or replacing conventional processing technologies.

By reducing pathogens and invasive species from food products, these technologies have great potential for the treatment of products exported interstate or overseas, opening the doors for wider export markets.

Because they take advantage of different applications and gentler processing methods, they also often result in processed food with a ‘fresh-like’ quality.

And while they all use vastly different techniques, they’re all pretty impressive.

Photo of sesame seeds being subjected to cool plasma

Are these sesame seeds cooler now after a dose of plasma?

Cool plasma

Cool plasma isn’t only cool in temperature, it’s cool science.

Plasma is also known as the fourth state of matter (as well as solid, liquid and gas) and exists when the internal energy of a gas is increased to a state where the gas molecules become ionised.  This plasma phase contains a number of reactive species, such as ions, free radicals and also UV radiation, which are all effective in killing bacteria, fungal spores and insects, and can be used to inactivate pests on the product surface.

Photo of a Pilot-scale continuous, pentagonal Microwave tunnel

A continuous pentagonal microwave tunnel (including convection heating facilities) at our Food Manufacturing pilot plant in Werribee, Victoria.

Microwave Processing

Large scale microwaves are actually very similar to the microwave ovens most of us have at home, but usually have a higher power capacity, and conveying systems to transport products through a microwave tunnel, where they are heated with an electromagnetic field.

Microwave processing has recently been used to disinfest (inactivate insect pests) fresh food such as apples, capsicums, zucchinis and avocados, while maintaining the quality and freshness of the product.

The microwave technology also has great potential for the disinfestation of grains.

The effect of high pressure on bugs

The effect of high pressure on bugs

High Pressure Processing

Imagine 200 elephants, each weighing three tons, standing on a piston the size of a CD. That’s greater pressure than at the deepest point of the ocean, and is the amount of pressure that products face during High Pressure Processing (HPP).

The products are packed into tight vessels and subjected to pressures up to 600 MPa, or 6000 bars.

And while you might think that would crush the products, they actually only compress by about 20 per cent, although that’s enough to kill any bacteria and insects present.

And by the end of the process, the product usually finishes at the same size it started.

Photo of a collapsing cavitation bubble

A collapsing cavitation bubble

Ultrasound

Ultrasound is nothing but sound, but at a frequency so high that it can’t be heard by people.

It’s generated by vibrating plates (at 20,000 vibrations per second or higher) which leads to the formation of water vapour bubbles, called cavitation bubbles.

Once they exceed a certain size the bubbles violently collapse, creating very high pressures, temperatures and streaming. These harsh conditions can be used to get rid of pests from product surfaces, as well as cracks and crevices.

A schematic representation of electrons activating on the surface of pecan nuts. Or...pecan nuts covered with a lot of e-'s

A schematic representation of electrons activating on the surface of pecan nuts. Or…pecan nuts covered with a lot of ‘e-‘s

Low Energy Electron Beams

Electron beams inactivate bacteria, spores, fungi and insects through ionisation of the molecules in the pest.

The technology is actually very similar to the old, bulky tube TVs, where electrons are released from a hot electrode and accelerated and guided by magnetic fields onto the TV screen. Instead of the TV screen, the electron beam is guided onto the surface of a product.

Similar to cool plasma, it’s mainly effective on product surfaces, but can also penetrate to depths up to 1mm.

The technology is gaining traction in Germany for the organic treatment of grain seeds, where it completely inactivates pests without negatively affecting germination of the seeds.


About the Authors

Photo of Mala GamageDr Mala Gamage, Research Project Leader, CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences

Mala has initiated research on the identification of innovative technological solutions for insect disinfestation in horticultural commodities, and evaluated the feasibility of using ultrasound, high pressure and microwave for the disinfestation of fruit flies.


Kai KnoerzerDr Kai Knoerzer, Research Project Leader, CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences

Kai is working to enhance the nutritional value, convenience and quality attributes (such as fresh taste, colour etc) of processed foods through innovative food processing technologies, including high pressure, pulsed electric fields, microwave, ultrasound, and cool plasma processing.


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