A SPRAY to protect crops from frost damage.
It may sound like a long-shot, but it could be closer than you think if 2022 Science and Innovation Award winner Jaco Zandberg has anything to do with it.
Mr Zandberg, a molecular microbiologist at The University of Western Australia, was recently part of a team which identified an ice-nucleating bacteria (INB) linked to severe frost damage in grain crops, a problem that costs Australian farmers an estimated $400 million each year.
The bacteria, pseudomonas, produces proteins which raise the temperature at which water freezes in the environment, meaning frost damage can occur at temperatures as high as -2°C, rather than the -8°C to -10°C usually needed in the field.
Subsequent frost trials by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), which included the application of the isolated INB, concluded the effect was caused by the bacteria and not something else.
While that project characterised the INB and showed that it was causing increased frost damage, it did not provide a solution to the problem.
That's where Mr Zandberg, and his partner Samantha Harvie who is a molecular biologist in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Plant Energy Biology at the UWA School of Molecular Sciences, comes in.
"The technology that had won the award is an attempt to solve the issue of INB by suppressing their ability to synthesise the ice-nucleating protein (INP)," Mr Zandberg said.
"We call the technology anti-ice nucleating vesicles (AIVs) - vesicles are nanostructures that bud out of and into bacterial cell membranes and carry a specific set of molecules.
"The internal molecular cargo can be programmed to a certain extent, so my proof-of-concept will explore whether these can be used to carry interference molecules that will temporarily shut down production of ice-nucleating proteins."
Ultimately, it is expected the technology would provide farmers and growers with technology that could be utilised for in-field application via a spray that is GM-free, naturally forming, non-toxic and biodegradable.
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The project will first look into when the INP is being made in the field in order to develop a timeline for the farmers to know when to apply the AIVs to maximise its effectiveness in the field.
The second part of the project involves developing the AIVs technology in the lab and determining its effectiveness to suppress the ice nucleating activity caused by the bacteria.
Lastly, Mr Zandberg and Ms Harvie intend to run field-based trials in collaboration with the DPIRD frost trials to establish the effectiveness of AIVs in the field.
"It is envisaged that the AIV molecules would be created and stored in a laboratory setting," Mr Zandberg said.
"The supply of AIVs can be built over a year, as luckily frost events only occur in winter, and when a frost event is predicted by meteorologists, the AIVs can be transported to the affected areas where it can be applied to the field via available methods.
"This project was developed with specifically farmers in mind - the technology is purpose built to be stockpiled over a year thus reducing costs, applied using available equipment that a farmer has on hand and should not affect the soil microbiota which is vital for soil health."
A proof-of-concept will be established in mid-2023 and depending on the effectiveness and demand for the technology, AIVs could be available after that.
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