Alyssa Martino is a current PhD student, doing her research in plant genetics for rust resistance in the Myrtaceae Family.
Myrtle rust is a disease caused by the fungal pathogen Austropuccinia psidii which impacts Australian native trees in the family Myrtaceae. Since the arrival into Australia in 2010, the pathogen has already caused the demise of several rainforest species, however several species display variable resistance to the pathogen. My research aims to identify and compare species that are susceptible and resistant to the pathogen, in order to investigate the genes and molecular pathways that underpin resistance. By identifying genes that confer resistance to the pathogen, we hope to assist development of rapid screening tools to aid breeding and conservation efforts.
Most of my research is carried out between the labs of the Life, Earth and Environmental Science (LEES) building in Camperdown and the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cobbitty. Using the specialised equipment at PBI for rust pathogen research, I expose plants from various species to the pathogen, which allows me to identify susceptible and resistant plants. Leaf samples from these plants are then transported back to LEES and processed for downstream molecular analyses. Using bioinformatic tools, I conduct comparative analyses of the genome and transcriptome of these plants, with the hope of identifying genes involved in pathogen resistance.
My current findings are concerning, as several screened species have shown little to no resistance to the pathogen. Although these species come from areas currently unaffected by myrtle rust, the pathogen's rapid spread across Australia raises concerns about its future impact on these species. This emphasises the importance of monitoring the pathogen's spread. To aid this effort, I have launched the Gum Tree Guardians project on iNaturalist, which uses a citizen science approach to monitor myrtle rust in Australia.
My work is not without its challenges. Managing multiple mentally and physically demanding projects across different facilities takes its toll. However, I am fortunate to have the incredible support of the technical staff at PBI and LEES. My supervisors, Professor Robert Park, Dr Peri Tobias, and Associate Professor Brian Jones, also play a vital role in providing constant guidance and reassurance of my progress, without whom my work would not be possible.