I grew up in the large city of Melbourne, but a love of farms and plants lead me to the Agricultural Science degree at Melbourne University, from which I graduated in 1975. I was awarded a University of Melbourne Travelling Scholarship and studied for the PhD in Plant Pathology at the University of California at Davis, completed in 1980. My PhD supervisor was Dr David Gilchrist, Professor in Plant Pathology at UC Davis. Plant breeding for disease resistance and associated molecular and genetic research has dominated my career since that time, starting with a CSIRO Postdoctoral Studentship at Cornell University and then as a plant breeder for lupins at Agriculture Western Australia. In February 1999 I took up the position in Plant Breeding at the University of Western Australia. This is an industry-funded position and is 70% involved in canola breeding in the company NPZ Australia Pty Ltd, and 30% involved in teaching and research.
As a practicing plant breeder, I have released several commercial lupin and canola varieties. I have also undertaken research into genetics and physiology of resistance to various diseases in lupins and canola, and published several research papers in this field. I was co-author with international authors on a book chapter on lupin breeding (Cowling et al., 1998b), and published a monograph on lupin genetic resources through the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (Cowling et al., 1998a).
My research in canola is moving into molecular genetics and identifying genes by molecular markers and other means in wide crosses of canola with related species. I am investigating new methods for crop improvement based on the animal model and genomic selection, and to explore new ways to improve Brassica oilseeds through interspecific crossing, doubled haploidy, gene transformation or hybrid development. This involves international collaboration with our German plant breeding partners NPZ Lembke, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada’s canola molecular genetics laboratory at Saskatoon, Canada, and others.
I acted as convenor of the 12th Australasian Plant Breeding Conference in 2002 and the 1st Australian Lupin Technical Symposium in 1994, and an OECD conference on Brassica genomics in 2009.
I am Principal Plant Breeder for NPZ Australia Pty Ltd, a small canola breeding company associated with The University of Western Australia. I am qualified as a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. As a plant breeder, I have released several lupin and canola cultivars during my career, and I am enthusiastically applying new breeding approaches to canola in our company NPZA. I achieve great satisfaction from seeing the results of research in new and improved canola varieties on farms.
Hybrid breeding requires advanced understanding of “heterotic pools” of germplasm that may be exploited in hybrids with strong hybrid vigour or heterosis. I am involved in a new international ACIAR project between Australia, China and India where I will apply molecular markers to determining genetic distance between canola germplasm in the different countries and measure the heterosis in cross progeny between the different countries. Is there an association between genetic distance and heterosis?
With research colleagues, I hope to further explore the application of molecular genetics to the study of gene transfer in wide crosses in the Brassica family. We are already seeing great practical benefits from our previous research in this area, and hope to extend the research to new Brassica species and related species.
I have a strong interest in the basic mechanism of disease resistance and susceptibility in plants, and would like to pursue our current results that suggest that the susceptible reaction in lesions caused by necrotrophic fungal pathogens is the result of apoptosis in plant tissue induced by the fungus.
From 2000 onwards I have won competitive grant funding over $4 million with an additional $0.5 million per year of commercial plant breeding income through the NPZA project at UWA. The latter includes 70% of my salary.
1982-1999 Plant Breeder/Senior Plant Breeder, Agriculture WA, South Perth, Western Australia
1981-1982 CSIRO Postdoctoral Student and Visiting Fellow, Department of Plant Pathology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA.
1980 Postgraduate Research Plant Pathologist, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis, USA.
1976-1980 Graduate Student and Research Assistant, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis, USA.
1975 Research Officer, Land Conservation Council, Victoria, Australia.
1975 Tutor in Plant Sciences, School of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
My work ranges from pure research through to applied plant breeding. However, all my work has industry relevance. For example, if we are successful in understanding the molecular basis of disease resistance, this will have major ramifications for plant breeding around the world. My canola breeding activities are focussed on industry outcomes.
I teach a third year course AGRI4404/4405 “Breeding and Animal/Plant Biotechnology”, and contribute to other courses on genetics in the Faculty. I supervise or co-supervise PhD students. I help to co-ordinate other plant breeding activities at UWA.
My research goal is to apply knowledge of evolutionary genetics, molecular genetics and biotechnology for efficient genetic improvement in plants.
In my research, I have applied the principles of population and quantitative genetics to plant breeding, and explored ways of improving breeding for multiple traits such as yield, disease resistance and other important agronomic characters. I am using the principles of the animal model to develop new breeding methods in plants, including more efficient genomic selection. I am concerned about the efficient use of plant genetic resources, and understanding and exploiting natural genetic variation in plants.
Current projects include:
• Using molecular markers to follow genes and chromosomal segments in wide crosses between Brassica napus and B. juncea.
• Making use of known genes in Arabidopsis and other close relatives of B. napus to identify key genes involved in disease resistance and oil quality in B. napus.
• Improving resistance of peas to blackspot fungus through rapid cycles of recurrent selection, in combination with improvements in stem strength.
• Improving doubled haploid technology from microspore culture in lupins.
I learned French and German in High School. This was a good start but I need much work to improve on my languages! Now I have the honour of working with colleagues all over the world and unfortunately my language skills in their country are not as good as their English language skills are in mine.