New centre to drive productivity gains

Photo of a lit up building at night

AgriBio, the new $288 million world-class Centre
for AgriBioscience in Victoria.

Advances in soil health, salt tolerance, break and cover cropping, nutrient efficiency, and molecular breeding for improved wheat and canola are in the sights of researchers now working under the one high-tech roof with the recent opening of AgriBio in Victoria.

AgriBio, the $288 million world-class Centre for AgriBioscience specialising in plant, animal and soil research, is fostering both fundamental and applied science. It has created an environment where state-of-the-art genomic analysis can be undertaken collaboratively with traditional agronomic research.

A joint venture between the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) and La Trobe University, the building at the university’s Bundoora campus near Melbourne is now home to more than 400 researchers.

It has 78 controlled environment rooms, 13 greenhouses, a secure facility to study plant and animal disease, and strong capabilities in computational biology. These are across eight open-plan ‘quadrants’, each housing three laboratories for both Victorian DEPI and university staff.

“It is co-mingling,” says AgriBio co-director and La Trobe University Agricultural Sciences Professor Terry Spithill. “The building is designed to promote interactions. We are sharing equipment, going to seminars together and talking over lunch.” He says this direct contact could result in new research that might otherwise not happen.

The facility is the biggest of its kind dedicated to agri-bioscience in Australia.

“Our focus is to improve productivity not just in Victoria but also across Australia and in our region,” Professor Spithill says. “We might improve wheat traits, develop a vaccine for an animal disease and help combat soil salinity, acidity and nutrient depletion, so we think our work will have international impact.”

He says improvements in wheat and canola have the capacity to be fast-tracked through advanced genome editing technologies developed in partnership with Dow AgroSciences and an AgriBio team led by Professor German Spangenberg. Professor Spangenberg is AgriBio co-director and DEPI Biosciences Research Division executive director.

Professor Spithill says the new complex is able to facilitate international partnerships by providing a comprehensive suite of hardware dedicated to agri-biosciences. This includes several mass spectrometers used for biomarker discovery and validation and protein and metabolite analysis, along with a large capacity for computational biology.

The new platform for genome editing, developed with Dow AgroSciences, will enable researchers to make precise improvements to the genetics of wheat and canola by allowing the introduction or removal of genetic information at precise locations in the plant genome for specific trait development.

AgriBio will also foster more traditional paddock agronomic research, such as a project investigating the effect of elevated CO2 on crops using the controlled environment laboratories where CO2 levels can be carefully determined.

Meanwhile, fundamental science is already underway using the controlled-environment rooms – or plant chambers – where specific conditions can be maintained year-round.

This includes GRDC-funded research by two PhD students working with La Trobe University’s Dr Tony Gendall studying proteins that have been shown to improve salt tolerance in transgenic plants. “This involves some fairly fundamental cell biochemistry … but as well as salt tolerance, in the longer term the proteins may also be important for seed vigour,” Professor Spithill says.

Another GRDC-funded project into subsoil manuring for productivity gains in the high-rainfall zone is nearing completion. Lead researcher Associate Professor Peter Sale says the preliminary results are extremely promising. “We are able to make better use of rainfall, which will help increase yields as demand grows,” he says. “Improving the capacity of duplex soil to utilise rainwater is just one potential way of dealing with the agronomic challenges of the future.”

Professor Spithill says the key objective for AgriBio is to meet the challenges associated with increasing productivity to serve the growing demand for food from finite agricultural resources. 

More information:

Professor German Spangenberg,
03 9032 7165,
german.spangenberg@depi.vic.gov.au;

Professor Terry Spithill,
03 9032 7428,
t.spithill@latrobe.edu.au

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