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Published: 4 Oct 2022

Esther Magor, a fourth year Bachelor of Agricultural Science student, is pictured smiling in a science lab in NSW.

Fourth year Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Hons) student, Esther Magor is researching a new approach to iodine fortification by boosting iodine levels in grains, so that bread will not have to be fortified at the processing stage, but the flour will already be fortified with iodine.

To address iodine deficiency in soils that is a problem in some parts of Australia mandatory fortification of (non-organic) bread with iodine has been in place since 2009.

Fourth year Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Hons) student, Esther Magor is taking that one step further by researching the effects of biofortification on wheat iodine, so that bread will not have to be fortified at the processing stage, but the flour will already be fortified with iodine.

As part of her Honours year, Esther will present her project “Effects of environment and foliar biofortification on Australian wheat iodine” as part of the Honours Seminar, to be held in Sandy Bay on Friday, October 7.

Along with eight of her fellow fourth-year students, Esther will present to Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) examiners and supervisors and representatives from industry plus the Ag Institute Australia (AIA), who will be judging the seminars for the 2022 Student Award. The winner of the 2022 Student Awards will be presented following the Seminars.

“Increasing concentration of micronutrients (such as iodine) in food crops to benefit human health is called biofortification,” Esther explained.

Esther won a scholarship for her Honours year from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and travelled to Sydney to use their instruments. Using Quantitative Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (qICP-MS), Esther was able to measure elements at trace levels.

“My project involved analysing the iodine content of wheat grain samples from across southern Australia using qICP-MS and investigating how grain iodine is affected by environmental factors such as rainfall soil type to identify where biofortification could be beneficial.

Esther also conducted a glasshouse experiment where she applied iodine to wheat with different commercial adjuvants to determine if leaf uptake of iodine and translocation from the leaves to the grain could be improved.

Adjuvants are chemicals often added to herbicides and other agrochemicals to alter the physical-chemical properties of the spray solution, so it better spreads over leaf surfaces and improve its efficiency.

Tasmania has had a long history of iodine deficiency because of the nature of the state's soils.

Prior to the 1950s iodine deficiency was widespread. In the 1950s and 1960s iodine tablets were provided for school children and women who were pregnant and breastfeeding.

Later in the 1970s iodine was added to bread, some 30 years before the national push for iodine fortification. Esther hopes her research will help direct further research into biofortification in Australia.

“I hope the findings of my glasshouse experiment will inform future research into how to optimise agronomic biofortification, improve the nutritional quality of wheat, and ultimately play a small part in reducing the burden of iodine or other micronutrient deficiencies and related health disorders,” Esther said.

Esther said she has enjoyed discussing her research with friends, family, and fellow students, and more broadly learning from people at TIA, who have diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise.

“I’ve had quite a few interesting conversations!’ Esther said.

“I’ve always enjoyed the opportunities we’ve had to get out and see all the concepts we’ve learnt about in practice across different industries and environments.

“I’ve been really lucky to collaborate with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and use their analytical facilities in NSW, as well as have co-supervisors from Murdoch University in WA.

“It was a great experience travelling over earlier in the year and meet new people researching all sorts of interesting and important things.

“It’s been very rewarding to finally draw conclusions after planning the glasshouse experiment and sowing seed at the start of the year, through to harvesting and analysing the grain, and then exploring the data several months later.

Dr Beth Penrose, plant nutrition scientist  at TIA, is also the coordinator for the Honours program. And said the Honours seminars are a culmination of all the hard work students have done in the last nine months.

“The calibre of the students is exceptionally high,” Dr Penrose said.

“It’s awesome to have TIA students working on projects that are not just about increasing yield, which is important, but also about improving quality, human health and wider societal or environmental benefits.

“It’s fantastic that Tasmanian students like Esther are awarded prestigious national scholarships to complete their Honours. It’s great for their future careers and is excellent networking.”

And Esther’s advice to future students? “Always make the most of any opportunity or experience. Be curious, ask questions. Be kind to yourself!”

You are invited to join the Honours Seminar in person, or via Zoom on Friday, October 7.

Go to the link to learn more and register: https://www.utas.edu.au/tia/events/items/honours-and-masters-seminars