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Big idea shrinks soil science and wins award

28 Feb 2019

Technical Officer, Ashlea Webster

NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) technical officer, Ashlea Webster, has been recognised as an agricultural innovator in the 2019 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Recipient of the AgriFutures Australia Award, Ms Webster, is developing a speedy and portable soil test to replicate complex laboratory analysis as part of her work with the DPI Australian Inoculants Research Group (AIRG).

Ms Webster said she aims to unlock the DNA code of key rhizobia and build a portable device to test rhizobial soil activity in the field and give farmers results in a matter of hours.

“Rhizobia inoculants play an import role in legume production, working in a symbiotic relationship with plants, allowing legumes to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and grow,” Ms Webster said.

“Rhizobia contribute billions to Australian agriculture each year and my aim is to deliver cost-effective technology which will help farmers gain an immediate insight into the relationship between their soil and plants.

“Farmers can use the results to better inform crop management decisions.

“Using genomic sequences of the DNA of 21 rhizobia strains, the project will develop molecular assays which can determine which strains are working in the crop and soil.

“We are using a small thermocycler, a machine used in molecular biology to make copies of a specific DNA segments, and will be able to run diagnostic tests using power from a car battery or solar panel.”

Once the test has been developed the plan is to use this portable device in the paddock to support farmers growing legume crops by ensuring the right bacteria are working to help crops fix as much nitrogen as they can.

Legumes play an important role in farming systems, as pasture for animals or grain legumes including chickpeas, lentil, lupin and faba bean, which can used for human consumption or livestock and having them working well is critical for Australian agriculture.

AIRG curates the National Code of Practice for Legume Inoculants and the Green Tick quality assurance scheme for commercial legume inoculant products.

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources 2019 Science Awards will be presented at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Outlook Conference on Tuesday March 5 in Canberra.

Media contact: Bernadette York (02) 6938 1664 or 0427 773 785