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Rapid assessment of environmental stress for major Australian plant groups

One of the most popular approaches for studying plant stress involves the measurement of changes in the fluorescence emitted from chlorophyll pigments in leaves. Plant roots, which may be the first organ to experience environmental stress, are not amenable to this approach because they typically have little or no chlorophyll.

Salmon coloured branches of an Australian gum tree
Our research is looking at new ways to measure environmental stress in trees. © Flickr CC2.0, Alex Proimos

A very exciting alternative approach is to create a device for the detection of conserved microRNAs that increase in abundance in all organs when plants experience stress. MicroRNAs are becoming widely used as biomarkers of human disease and cancer. We will first identify a common set of microRNAs that increase under stress in all plant groups tested in glasshouse and field trials. Based on their known sequences, we will then design and test a novel microfluidic platform to detect changes in their abundance. Ultimately, we aim to produce a device for the on-the-spot, rapid detection of stress that can be used as an early alert tool for land managers.

Project Lead: Dr Sarah Mathews