There are a number of research projects available with the Faculty in the following areas: Crop Physiology, Future Farming in a Changing Environment, Plant Physiology and Remote Sensing, Soil Science, and Sustainable Crop Production.

Crop Physiology

Contact: Dr. Maryse Bourgault
Room 421, Stage 1, Creswick campus
Email: maryse.bourgault@unimelb.edu.au
Phone: +61 3 5321 4144 

Honours projects are available in the following areas:

  • Evaluation of plant responses to elevated CO2 in combination with drought or heat in field peas, lentils, or wheat in glasshouse or at the world-class Australian Grains Free Air CO2 enrichment (AGFACE) facility in Horsham, Victoria
  • Evaluation of differences between cultivars in traits related to productivity, such as water use efficiency, nitrogen fixation in legumes, heat tolerance, etc.

Future Farming in a Changing Environment

Supervisors: Peter McSweeney, Ruth Nettle and Ros Gall
Contact: Dr Ruth Nettle
Email: ranettle@unimelb.edu.au

Honours in Rural Innovation: projects are available for students interested in social factors driving agricultural practice and innovation. The Rural Innovation Research Group (RIRG) is lead by Dr Ruth Nettle and operates within MSLE with research under the following four themes:

  • Improving transitions in farming systems: farm decision making, workforce development (entry, exit and retention), business management and risk
  •  Improving knowledge utilisation and practice: Knowledge and learning systems, social implications of technological developments, communities of practice, collaboration and collective action, multidisciplinary approaches
  • Improving extension and change management: Advisory capacity and public-private sector roles, extension design and delivery, capacity building, sustainable change
  • Improving processes in resource management: Resilience, adaptation, community development

Some specific projects are:

Measuring the costs of turnover on farms.

This Honours project will suit students interested in farming systems, farm business management, people management on farms and social research. The project will involve intensive analysis of up to 30 dairy farms on useful measures of turnover and the economic and social costs of employee turnover. Supervisors: Ruth Nettle and Peter McSweeney

Agency implications and costs for institutional ownership

Agriculture's appeal in broadening investment portfolios requires innovative models for farm management. Institutional investors inparticular will need to be satisfied that management models provide a long term return on their asset as well as cost-effective asset management. This project may involve case study analysis or other analysis of the agency implications involving institutional / off-farm ownership

Plant Physiology and Remote Sensing

Contact: Dr Sigfredo Fuentes
Email: sfuentes@unimelb.edu.au

Unravelling night-time water uptake and transpiration mechanisms in plants using sap flow sensors, gas exchange and chemometric techniques

Water is a scarce resource in Australia and has become a decreasing resource due to climate change and the quantitative and qualitative deterioration of water sources. Significant night-time water losses have been recently reported by different plant species which, in the case of crops, reduces water use efficiency (WUE) and have not been considered by Evapotranspiration (ET) models developed by FAO (Allen et al. 1998).

There is an imperative need on improving WUE of crops through defining critical plant water status parameters for precise and efficient water management in a changing environment (Anderson et al. 2008).

For such purposes, it is not only important the use of more sophisticated soil-plant-atmosphere sensor technology but also to unravel the links between hormonal and hydraulic signals on night-time physiological processes, such as night-time water uptake, refill and transpiration, which have been considered as non-existent previously. Filling this knowledge gap is of extreme importance since: i) night-time water losses decrease WUE (not linked to photosynthesis); ii) Night-time temperatures are predicted to rise in a higher rate compared to diurnal temperatures, which can exacerbate night-time processes; iii) Night-time water losses are not considered in evapotranspiration models, which assume zero values for all C3 and C4 crops. The latter having significant implications in the estimation of plant water consumption and irrigation scheduling.

The aims of this project is to monitor real time the physiological dynamics of crops, focussing on vineyards as a model, in a multi-scale level: i) leaf level (gas exchange Licor-6400), iii) stomata level, using non-invasive techniques.

Automated recognition of disease and insect attacks in grapevines using infrared thermography and artificial neural networks

There is an increasing interest in the use of new and emerging technology for rapid assessment of plant health. The latter been a subjective term that often is used to describe the nutritional and pathological status of plants. This project has as a main aim to use remote sensing techniques, such as visible and infrared thermal images for early detection of disease and insect attack on plants. Therefore, objective indices of health can be achieved my modeling the attach of biotic stresses using pattern recognition and multivariate data analysis, such as Artificial Neural Networks (ANN).

Developing wireless automated information systems for in-field monitoring of pests from plants by using automated pheromone traps

Pheromone traps are important tools that aid the combat against pests for different fruit orchards. These traps combined with temperature and relative humidity sensors enclosed in Stevenson screens in a network array could become important IPM tools for automated monitoring. Accurate monitoring of insects appearance in their adult stage combined with integrated pest control management could improve crop health / yield with the additional benefit of reduced operational costs and lowering environmental impact. Important advances in wireless technology and image analysis have allowed applying automated management tools in the field. These tools have been investigated within the Vineyard of The Future (VoF) initiative, which is an international effort to establish fully instrumented vineyards to monitor the effects of climate change in viticulture. These technologies can be easily applied to other crops facilitating the establishment of the Orchard of The Future (OTF). An important component of these initiatives are high definition stereoscopic cameras to monitor canopy growth, phenological changes, water status and yield monitoring. These cameras are established using wireless technology to transmit captured images or video to be processed in a central computer. This project proposes to implement the technologies currently used by the VoF in the form of automated pheromone traps using cameras over radio frequency (RF) to work in parallel to the established network to gather continuous images and micrometeorological data from the traps throughout the day. Images and data will be transmitted to a central server that analyses each one of them automatically for insect recognition, classification and counting using multivariate analysis techniques and to apply mathematical models based on temperature and relative humidity for fungal diseases and degree day monitoring for other insects. Finally, by distributing the traps in the orchard and having them geo-referenced, the system can map data obtained to assess spatially insect density or disease indices for a more precise management strategy.

Development of robotic systems to measure canopy architectural parameters at high spatial resolution for crops.

Canopy vigour monitoring is an important tool in vineyard management to obtain balanced vines (vegetative versus reproductive organs). Leaf area index (LAI) is the main parameter representing canopy vigour. The aim of this study is to test an automated computational method to obtain LAI and canopy vigour parameters from grapevines using digital photography and video analysed using MATLAB® programming techniques for rapid data uptake and gap size analysis. Digital cameras will be mounted in terrestrial and aerial vehicles (UTvs and UAVs respectively) to extract canopy architecture and vigour from plants automatically. 

Using newly developed infrared thermography scanners to detect plant water status for irrigation scheduling

Several studies have demonstrated that a certain degree of water stress improves olive oil quality and grape quality for winemaking. However, most of the currently available methods used for monitoring plant water status, are based on manual measurement points, which have low spatial resolution and are time-consuming. In this context, canopy temperature (Tc) has been recognized as a good indicator of plant water status. Nowadays, thermal images can be obtained from airborne sensors and satellites. However, airborne sensors are of high cost and operational complexity. On the other hand, satellite-based products have limited application in crop management due to low spatial and temporal resolutions. An alternative is the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which allow solving the problem of lack   frequency, spatial and spectral resolution presented by satellite platforms. Therefore, the main goal of this study is to assess plant water status and its spatial variability in a vineyard using infrared thermal images obtained from an UAV (Octocopter) and proximal acquisition using newly developed IR scanners.  Results from the infrared thermal data will be compared with ground measures of stomatal conductance (gs) and midday stem water potential (Ψx).

Honours projects are available in the following areas:

  • Evaluation of the biology, life cycle and host-pathogen relationship of fungal plant pathogens involved in diseases of horticultural and agricultural crops including chili, potato and pyrethrum
  • Molecular taxonomy of fungal pathogens causing leaf necrosis of Australian native plants

Contact: Professor Paul Taylor
Email: paulwjt@unimelb.edu.au

Soil Science

Contact: Prof. Jizheng He
Email: jizheng.he@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Hangwei Hu
Email: hang-wei.hu@unimelb.edu.au

Effects of animal manure application on soil antibiotic resistance genes

Antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) are worldwide emerging contaminants, and soil is believed to be the largest reservoir for the increased burden of ARGs. Application of manure from antibiotic-treated animals to farmlands may facilitate the dissemination of antibiotic resistance into the soil environment. However, our knowledge of the types, diversity, and distribution patterns of these ARGs remains largely unknown. This project will use state-of-the art molecular approaches to examine the impacts of animal manure application to farmland on the key types of ARGs in soils. Findings will be compared with results from pristine soils to assess whether ARGs are enriched in manure-amended farm lands, and will contribute to a better design of agricultural practices. 

Linking abundance and community structures of ammonia oxidizers to emissions of greenhouse gas from soil ecosystems

Soil ecosystems are believed to be the most dominant sources of global nitrous oxide emissions. However, mitigations of nitrous oxide are strongly hindered by lack of knowledge on microbial mechanisms underpinning its production. Increasing evidence suggests that ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) and bacteria (AOB) have the genetic potential to produce N2O, but their contributions to soil N2O emissions and the relevant pathways remains unclear. It is essential to identify the dominant biological sources of soil N2O production and to characterize the environmental factors which influence their activity. This project will integrate a range of advanced approaches to identify the key ammonia oxidation genes as best predictors of nitrous oxide in field studies and disentangle relative contribution of AOA and AOB to nitrous oxide in glasshouse and microcosm studies. This will provide a critical framework incorporating microbial data into the nitrous oxide prediction models for better mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Understanding the effects of nitrification inhibitors in autotrophic nitrification, nitrous oxide emissions, and microorganism in different soils

Nitrification inhibitors have demonstrated great potential for improving nitrogen use efficiency and for reducing greenhouse gas nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching. However, the efficiency of the nitrification inhibitors is variable across different agricultural soils. Increasing molecular evidence suggested that nitrification inhibitors could inhibit or reduce nitrification rates mainly through deactivating the ammonia monooxygenase and impairing the activity of ammonia-oxidizing microorganisms to utilize ammonium sources. The inconsistency of effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors in different soils is highly related to the specific soil-inhabitant microorganisms. Therefore, it is essential to understand the interactions between nitrification inhibitors and soil microbial communities, particularly between nitrification inhibitors and soil ammonia oxidizers which mediate the first and rate-limiting step of nitrification. This project will use 15N and 13C stable isotope probing techniques combined with molecular approaches to assess the effects of nitrification inhibitors on nitrification, nitrous oxide fluxes, and ammonia oxidizers in pasture and agricultural soils.

Sustainable Crop Production

Contact: Dorin Gupta - Lecturer (Sustainable Agriculture)
Email: dorin.gupta@unimelb.edu.au
Phone:   + 61 3 58339277   

Honours projects are available in the following areas:

  • Sustainable Crop production: abiotic stress management
  • Understanding interaction of flowering time and frost injury on wheat grain yield.
  • Effect of different levels of drought stress during flowering and grain filling on wheat grain yield.

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