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Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture

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Published: 6 Jun 2018

After being called-on to respond to a mystery disease outbreak affecting Tasmania’s poppy industry, TIA researchers made a speedy discovery. It has led to an ongoing research program that is strongly supported by industry.

During 2014, poppy growers across Tasmania started noticing large swathes of poppy seedlings withering and dying in their paddocks. TIA Plant Pathologist Dr Jason Scott responded and started collecting samples of affected crops.

"The young plants looked like they were being attacked by a common fungal disease called downy mildew. However, the disease was not behaving like the normal downy mildew that just affects the leaves and which poppy growers had been managing successfully for years,” Dr Scott said.

“Whole plants were being killed and it was wiping out large crop areas - something we had never seen before. The disease was also not responding to normal control measures, with commonly used fungicides proving to be ineffective."

The mystery disease outbreak sparked an industry-wide response. TIA was tasked with a special $320,000 two-year rapid response research project, jointly funded by the Tasmanian Government, all three poppy processing companies (Tasmanian Alkaloids, GlaxoSmithKline and TPI Enterprises) and Poppy Growers Tasmania.

Poppy Growers Tasmania chief executive Keith Rice said growers were concerned but remained upbeat and heartened by the fact TIA’s renowned scientists were on the case.

The disease has since been found to be caused by a new species of downy mildew only recently identified and described as a new species in Europe. It had not previously been recorded in Tasmania.

TIA developed a DNA test to identify this new downy mildew pathogen in poppy seeds, which prevents diseased seeds being planted for the next crop. The team is also developing new seed treatments, including chemical, microwave and heat sterilisation.

The ultimate goal of this research is to put in place management tools for growers that ensure the continued long-term sustainability of the Tasmanian poppy industry.