With the value of Australian wine exports in the billions, a researcher in Melbourne may have found a way to help wineries to protect their valuable vines from mildew outbreaks.

Professor Andy Ball with his research colleagues in Jai Biotech in India.
Photo: RMIT University

Professor Andy Ball is an expert in environmental microbiology and is working out how to stop microbes such as fungi from attacking and destroying crops using nanotechnology.

Mildew can destroy an entire year’s harvest and can continue to affect vines in the following years, forcing wineries to take pre-emptive action by spraying chemical fungicides to control outbreaks.

“Viticulturists tend to just spray chemical pesticides at certain times of the year when they know mildew is potentially present,” Professor Ball said.

“It’s expensive and [growers are] adding difficult-to-break-down chemicals which are highly active in biological systems. And eventually you get resistance from the mildew.

“It’s not an ideal way forward.”

The new technique is designed to detect mildew in the vines and then target it with nanomaterials designed destroy it – with no harm to the grape vine or the soil.

So far, field trials have shown very encouraging results.

“It seems that the fungi take up the nanomaterials inside the cell and it destroys them. So far we’ve had a lot of success and it hasn’t had any environmental issues at all,” Professor Ball said.

Professor Ball believe that the technique has applications far beyond the vineyard and could be used to detect a huge range of organisms that could contaminate food.

“It will enable you to detect any organism you’re looking for. It doesn’t have to be a fungus, it could be a bacteria. It could be looking for E.coli, for example. Or listeria,” he said.

With a grant from the Global Connections Fund, Professor Ball formed a relationship with Jai Biotech in India.

“They were really keen and they had a scientist working with them who understood the concepts of what we’re trying to do and was very excited about this technique,” he said.

“The company was really forward thinking and allowed us to carry out the trials.”

Without the grant, Professor Ball believed his team would have struggled to conduct field trials to prove their technique works. While not huge, the grant gave the team enough money to get the ball rolling with Jai Biotech.

Professor Ball felt there was often a gap between researchers and the companies who were interested in their research and that the Global Connections Fund helps bridge it.

“You have these ideas and you’re talking to companies but there’s just never any money with which to do that small trial, meet up, discuss,” he said.

“This bridging grant system fills a really important niche in relationship between researchers and industry.”

Profile of Professor Ball written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.