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Battling a plant disease pandemic

When we hear 'pandemic' we immediately think of COVID-19. But there's a deadly plant disease pandemic tearing through Australia that arrived long before COVID-19.

Myrtle rust - the striking but deadly killer

Myrtle rust is a deadly plant disease caused by the pathogen Austropuccinia psidii. It attacks plants in the Myrtaceae family such as our iconic eucalypts, lemon myrtle and tea-tree. Transported here from a foreign continent in 2010, it has already decimated industries and reshaped economies overseas. It could do the same here, all while posing a massive threat to life in the country. 

DNA research to the rescue

In this episode of Branch Out you'll discover the thrilling, cutting-edge science that is our best bet for saving our unique environment. In fact, some of it is the same science that will save us from the COVID-19 pandemic - DNA research. 

Hit play below to take a deep dive into the battle against myrtle rust with this stellar line up of scientists across a variety of disciplines: 

  • Dr Ed Liew - Manager of Plant Pathology and at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science based at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney
  • Dr Jason Bragg - Computational Biologist at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science based at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney
  • Dr Karen Sommerville - Rainforest Conservation Scientists at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science based at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan
  • Dr Rebecca Johnson - Chief Scientist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC
  • Dr Rebecca Rockett - Virologist at the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at Westmead Hospital
It's easy to see why it's called 'myrtle rust' as the initial symptoms produce these powdery, bright yellow or orange-yellow pustules on leaves, tips and stems.
Mrytle rust is impacting about 358 native plant species in Australia such as our native guava, Rhodomyrtus psidioides. Wikicommons image credit: Zaareo (2009).
Myrtle rust is also impacting the primary food source of our endangered and iconic koalas. 
The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the myrtle rust pandemic is very similar with DNA research showing promising signs of battling the disease. 
Storing seeds of plant species in the Myrtaceae family that are being impacted by myrtle rust at the Australian PlantBank in either the seed vault, tissue culture or cryopreservation is an insurance policy against their extinction in the wild. 

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Between episodes, head over to our science page to learn more about how world leading scientists are developing solutions to the world’s most critical environmental and biodiversity issues.