PICCC PhD student profile: Rebecca Vandegeer

PICCC PhD student profile: Rebecca Vandegeer

Rebecca is undertaking a joint PhD with the University of Melbourne and the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources Victoria (DEDJTR), studying pests and diseases under climate change. She conducts her research at AgriBio in Bundoora, the University of Melbourne in Creswick, and at the AGFACE field site in Horsham, western Victoria.

She is investigating how wheat plants respond to disease (in particular, Barley yellow dwarf virus), and how they protect their cells from stress using antioxidant defence systems. In addition, she is looking at how future environments under climate change will alter these systems and the ability of the plant to respond to stress.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is rapidly rising and is expected to increase from current levels of 400 ppm up to 550 ppm by the year 2050. In general, elevated atmospheric CO2 in isolation is predicted to influence future productivity and quality of food crops, for example by increasing yields and decreasing nutritional quality.

Biotic stress from viral infections will further influence crop productivity, and may have interactive effects with elevated CO2, although this area of research not well understood. The virus that Rebecca works with – Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) – is a widespread pathogen that infects crop plants including wheat, barley, oats, maize and rice. BYDV is a phloem-restricted virus that is transmitted between plants by aphids and reduces crop yields and quality.

For her research, Rebecca grows plants under elevated levels of CO2 in growth chambers and in the AGFACE facility – a state-of-the-art "outdoor laboratory" that allows researchers to grow plants in field conditions under elevated CO2. She infects the wheat plants using tiny aphid insects that feed on the plant and transmit the virus. She then takes plant physiological measurements to understand how they respond to infection e.g. photosynthesis, chlorophyll, growth and grain weight, along with measurements of plant antioxidant defence systems. In this study, she is aiming to determine symptom expression and the response of antioxidants in wheat during BYDV infection, and how this may change under elevated CO2.

In September 2015 Rebecca placed third in the University of Melbourne’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition grand final, with a talk entitled ‘Healthy wheat for a growing world’. This research communication competition challenges PhD students to present a compelling speech on their thesis topic and its significance to a non-specialised audience in just three minutes.

For more information on AGFACE visit  the AGFACE webpage.

Watch a video of Rebecca’s 3MT®presentation at www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/prof_dev/grad_researchers/3MT/honourboard.html.

Rebecca is supervised by Professor Michael Tausz (University of Melbourne) and Dr Kevin Powell (DEDJTR).The AGFACE program is jointly run by DEDJTR and the University of Melbourne, and receives funding support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and the Australian Research Council.