Research Group for Molecular Biology

About Us

The focus of the Group is the use of molecular biology to study areas of importance to human health, agriculture and industry. The goals are to develop and maintain high quality, outside-funded research projects, to train graduate students, and to strengthen undergraduate teaching in this area.

Molecular techniques are being used to investigate a range of biological aspects: from bone biology and homeostasis to auxin production in rice and microbial interactions. Microorganisms under study include the anaerobic bacterium Dichelobacter nodosus, which causes footrot in sheep, filamentous fungi from the genus Aspergillus, and the fungus Thielaviopsis basicola, which causes black root rot in plants, Azospirillum, plant growth promoting soil bacteria and both pathogens and probiotic species associated with lobster aquaculture.

Projects for research students

This work was published in 1995 (Gene 162:53-58) and attracted international attention, with an invitation to write a review for the leading journal in this field, Molecular Microbiology (Cheetham, B.F. and Katz, M.E., 1995, Mol. Microbiol. 18: 201-20). At about this time, it was discovered that, in several different bacteria, genes associated with virulence were located on genetic elements integrated into tRNA genes, and the concept of "Pathogenicity Islands" was proposed. They were subsequently invited to present their work at the 12 European Meeting on Bacterial Gene Transfer and Expression, in Siena, Italy, September, 1996, and to write a chapter for a book on Pathogenicity Islands and Other Mobile Virulence Elements (Publications, 1). The Molecular Microbiology review was cited 122 times in the period 1997-2004 (Science Citation Index). One aspect of the work was adapted for the improved diagnosis of footrot, and they have then filed a full patent application, and have received substantial industry funding to evaluate their new diagnostic test for which accreditation had been sought from SCAHLS in 2005/2006.

Introducing the Group's associate researchers

Dr David Backhouse

David's main research interests are in the ecology of soil fungi and in the epidemiology and management of plant diseases caused by soilborne fungi. David did my PhD on the biology of Botrytis species. This was followed by a postdoc at the University of Auckland working on biological control of onion white rot, and another postdoc at the University of Sydney working on the effects of farming practices on the health of wheat root systems. Since joining UNE in 1998 David has had funded research and supervised postgraduate projects on topics including:

  • Epidemiology and management of crown rot in wheat
  • Population genetics of Fusarium species from cereals
  • Effects of climate on the geographical distribution of fungi and plant diseases
  • Fungal-plant interactions in soilborne diseases
  • Biological control of soilborne diseases.

Monochramtic scan showing series of black dots with id labels and lines on x and y axis reading "pl 4-7" and "15kDa - 150kDa" respectively

Two-dimensional electrophoresis gel of proteins extracted from cotton root harvested after inoculation with Thielaviopsis basicola. Labelled proteins were found to be up-regulated following inoculation with the fungi.

Dr Joelle Coumans-Moens

My interest resides in the regulation of protein expression in response to external cues. Currently, my goal is to enhance short- and long-term plant disease management strategies through an understanding of cotton resistance mechanisms towards a soil-borne fungal pathogen Thielaviopsis basicola. We have found that cotton plants activate diverse defence responses following infection with T. basicola and we are currently investigating the possibility of triggering these responses through the application of plant defence elicitors. Defence can be induced through two regulatory pathways; the salicylic acid (SA) and jasmonic acid (JA)-dependent pathway. SA defence responses are often efficient against biotrophic pathogens, whereas the JA response is mostly effective against necrotrophic pathogens and insects. However, extensive cross-talk between the different signalling pathways is believed to fine-tune this inducible defence response leading to the most favourable response to the invader encountered. Using a proteomic approach, we anticipate identifying proteins expressed in cotton root following treatment with different elicitors providing a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which these elicitors protect plants against pathogens.