PhD student’s sweet potato trial ‘knot’ overlooked in Opal Awards

Published:15 December 2017

CQUniversity Doctor of Philosophy student Upamali Peiris has garnered an Opal Award in the Engaged Service Learning (Students) category for her PhD research project on sweet potato root-knot nematodes.

A collaborative research project involving scientist and CQUni PhD student Upamali Peiris has the potential to save 80 percent of Australia’s sweet potato industry.

“Approximately 70-80% of our country’s sweet potato supply is grown locally in Bundaberg; and unfortunately, all sweet potato crops are at risk of developing root-knot nematodes (minute worm-like parasites found in soil),” Upamali said.

“This potentially devastating statistic spurred me to undertake my PhD.”

Not surprisingly, Upamali's efforts have been recognised with a prestigious CQUni Opal Award for Excellence in Engagement in the Engaged Service Learning (Students) category.

Upamali’s research involved a collaborative comprehensive field trial with Bundaberg sweet potato farmers whose crops were under attack from root-knot nematodes.

“These damaging root-knot nematodes – Meloidogyne spp – can be found world-wide impacting a range of agriculture crops,” she explained.

“To control the infestations, farmers use chemical nematicides; however, some of the effective nematicides have been removed from the market due to environmental and health risks, rendering root-knot nematode once again a threat.”

As an international student from Sri Lanka unfamiliar with some of Australia’s agriculture technology, Upamali said the field trial proved challenging.

“It was my responsibility to manage the field trial, work with new products, maintain stakeholder relationships, and collaboratively achieve team objectives,” she said.

“On top of that it was long, hard days working in the dirt with machinery.”

Seven months of intense planning and trials have; however, yielded interesting results and a positive project outcome.

“In this field trial, we just assessed the efficacy of different chemical and organic products to control root-knot nematodes” she said.

On conclusion of the project, Upamali acknowledged that chemical controls are still the preferable option for short-term nematode management in the areas with high root-knot nematode populations, compared with organic products.  

However, long-term use could generate a vacuum of soil organisms, creating poor quality soil for future use.

“If we are to create sustainable agriculture or eco-friendly agriculture, we need to reduce chemical usage and develop alternative control methods which can be integrated into our farming systems,” she said.

“Going forward, my PhD project will focus on assessing the biocontrol potential of nematode-trapping fungi and assessing the efficiency of organic amendments to control root-knot nematodes.

“Through these experiments I will identify the damage threshold causing significant yield loss in sweet potato; this is a key factor to determine before moving on to nematode control.”

The PhD project is supervised by Dr Stephen Xu, Dr Jady Li, and Professor Phil Brown; and supported by a research team consisting of Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries technical officer Rachael Langenbaker, and students Karlie Groves and Tham Dong.

In addition to Upamali, Engaged Service Learning (Student) projects that also garnered CQUni Opal Awards were: ‘Write on! Writing for Wellbeing’ by Leanne Dodd and ‘CQU AHRI Student Ambassador Program - "Step Up Your Career Savvy"’ by Tenille Da Rin Perette, Bianca Webster and Megan Brunker.

* Held simultaneously across the nation on 16 November, the CQUniversity Opal Awards for Excellence in Engagement recognised and encouraged outstanding engagement by CQUniversity staff and students with the community, as well as internally within the University.