Fungi fighter named ACT’s emerging scientist

Publication date
Friday, 19 Aug 2022
A man in a lab coat is looking towards the camera. He is sitting next to a computer displaying genetic analysis in a laboratory.
Dr Benjamin Schwessinger. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Using cutting-edge technology, biologist Dr Benjamin Schwessinger from The Australian National University (ANU) is helping to protect the biosecurity of Australia's unique flora and agricultural industry.   

Now Dr Schwessinger's work has seen him named the 2022 ACT Emerging Scientist of the Year. 

Describing his research, he says it's "all about fungi." 

"Fungi are hugely important for all our ecosystems. Over 80 per cent of all plants form tight interactions with fungi to get nutrients out of the soil. On the other hand, fungi can also be pathogens causing disease in animals and plants," Dr Schwessinger said. 

One such pathogen is the myrtle rust fungus which threatens Australia's forest ecosystems, affecting eucalypts, bottlebrush and paperbark trees.  

Myrtle rust was first detected over a decade ago in New South Wales but spread rapidly across the east coast. Earlier this year, it was detected in Western Australia. Now, Dr Schwessinger is investigating the origins of this new outbreak.  

"We want to know if the myrtle rust fungus found in WA is the same as on the east coast or a novel introduction to Australia. This is important to mitigate further spread, which is critical for our economy and community wellbeing so we can preserve our unique ecosystems," he said. 

Dr Schwessinger's team is undertaking similar research on the wheat stripe rust fungus that costs Australia's wheat industry over $100 million annually. They are looking at the evolution of this fungus and investigating how it causes disease at a cellular level.  

"Using this information, we are also developing technologies to better track the invasive fungus within Australia using genomic and molecular tools," Dr Schwessinger said. 

As wheat supplies diminish globally with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dr Schwessinger's research is particularly important.  

"Any work that can limit impact of disease on wheat production in the short and long term is important to secure food production now and in the future. A growing world population will require additional food production, and this production needs to be resilient to climate change and pathogen impacts," he said.  

While protecting Australia's plant health and biosecurity might be a large enough task for some, Dr Schwessinger has also spent the last two and a half years supporting the ACT's COVID-19 public health response by mapping the genomics of the virus to understand how it spreads.   

"We have been tracking SARS-COV2 in the ACT since early 2020 and are still at it. The most intense time was about a year ago when Delta hit and we had the two-month lockdown. We worked basically 24/7 to provide high quality genomic surveillance data to the ACT for contact tracing," he said. 

"Now, our data is being used more for surveillance and analysis of transmission in high-risk settings like hospital or jails. We are currently sequencing about 100 cases a week for surveillance of what variants are being found within the population." 

The 2022 ACT Emerging Scientist of the Year award recognises the national and global contributions of local scientists to scientific research and innovation and aims to inspire young people to consider a career in science.  

"I am exhilarated and honoured to receive this award, having found both my family and scientific home in Canberra since arriving in 2015," Dr Schwessinger said.  

Dr Schwessinger is hoping to use his prize money to work with and learn from Indigenous Australian groups and scientists, ideally focusing on biosecurity and environmental protection.  

"They are the traditional custodians of the land we live on, and we have a lot to learn," he said. 

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