We study a diverse set of fungal species that include plant pathogens, human pathogens, classical models for understanding biology and anything ‘interesting’, and that collectively span a large part of the fungal tree of life. This research aims to prevent fungi from causing problems to humans and to find new treatment and management strategies, while addressing also the potential fungi have to enhance our lives, particularly from the context of how little is known about them.
As such, members in the group have research interests in diverse areas of fungal biology. Our priority areas of research are as follows.
(1) Diseases of oilseed Brassicas, in particular canola (Brassica napus). The main disease of canola, and the major focus of the research in the lab, is to combat the disease blackleg, caused by species in the genus Leptosphaeria such as L. maculans and L. biglobosa. This research is based upon a nation-wide program – the National Canola Pathology Program – supported by the Australian Grains Development and Research Corporation (GRDC). Blackleg is a serious problem in agriculture and also of research interest because of its complex interactions with Brassica species. We lead a multi-agency program of research that aims both to gain fundamental insights into how the Leptosphaeria species cause disease on Brassicas and to provide recommendations to canola growers as to which cultivars and fungicide regimes are most effective at a regional level.
(2) Discovery of pathogenicity factors, mechanisms of virulence and antifungal drug targets in the human pathogenic Cryptococcus species. Within the Cryptococcus genus, there is a monophyletic group currently of seven proposed species that are all able to cause disease in humans over a wide range of healths from immunocompromised to normal immune systems. Collectively these fungi kill an estimated 119,000-234,000 people each year, according to an estimate from the United States CDC in 2014. We take molecular genetic approaches to identify the genes that enable Cryptococcus species to cause disease and have a second focus on the discovery of genes that are essential for viability of the fungus, as all antifungal drugs target essential functions.
(3) Environmental sensing and responses by fungi. Fungi can sense numerous signals, thereby impacting their physiology to utilise available nutrients or to trigger spore production. One signal that many fungi sense is light. There are multiple photosensor candidates encoded in the genomes of fungi; to date the best studied is the White Collar Complex that is involved in blue light sensing. Current research is focused on the role of this complex and interacting components on the virulence capabilities of Cryptococcus neoformans and the phototropic responses of the Mucoromycotina species Phycomyces blakesleeanus.
(4) Spore production and release in basidiomycete fungi. The basidiomycetes include important groups such as the mushrooms and the plant pathogenic rust fungi. Many basidiomycetes have a specialised system to shoot the spores they produce into the air. This spore production spreads the basidiomycetes in the environment to colonise new places or cause disease. Using a yeast species in the genus Sporobolomyces as a model system, our work is investigating the genetic basis for “ballistospore” production and firing by isolating mutants that cannot produce mirror images of themselves in culture due to faulty ballistospore formation or release.
(5) Collaborative research. In addition to these major research directions, we often also work in collaboration with researchers in Australia and around the world as part of other fascinating research related to fungal biology. Australia is renown for its flora and fauna in that its unique flora and fauna have been fully documented, but its even more remarkable fungal diversity is a ‘black’ box. We are engaged particularly in projects related to the discovery and characterisation of fungal diversity, the least understood yet clearly fundamental, aspect of biology.