Diversity and evolution of phytoplasmas infecting banana and coconut in Papua New Guinea

Project opportunity

This Earmarked Scholarship project is aligned with a recently awarded Category 1 research grant. It offers you the opportunity to work with leading researchers and contribute to large projects of national significance.

Phytoplasmas are insect-vectored bacteria that affect many plant species, causing devastating yield losses in crops worldwide. Their transmission occurs through insects, planting material and seeds. Phytoplasmas are non-culturable, have small genomes and they require part of the machinery in cells of their hosts (plant and insect) for multiplication.

In 2011, a phytoplasma was associated with the Bogia coconut syndrome, a disease responsible for decimating coconut plantations in the Madang province in Papua New Guinea (PNG) since the late 1970s. In 2012, another phytoplasma, known as Banana Wilt Associated Phytoplasma (BWAP), was reported in banana plants from the same location. This phytoplasma has spread within PNG and the Solomon Islands. In PNG, 87% of the total population live in rural areas, with bananas and coconuts being the second and third most important commodities. Due to its biosecurity risks, banana phytoplasmas are a priority pathogen in Australia.

This project proposes to better understand the diversity of phytoplasmas infecting coconut and banana in PNG and banana in the Solomon Islands, define a genome-based phylogeny and hypothesise the most parsimonious ancestor host. We also propose to measure the genetic diversity of phytoplasmas associated with the same host at different time points and distinct geographical locations to estimate how fast this pathogen is evolving.

Core genes and those present exclusively in phytoplasmas infecting banana and coconut will be identified using comparative genomics. We aim to identify potential virulence genes, new targets for molecular diagnostics, evaluate genetic determinants for adaptation to banana and coconuts and host jumps, as well as to investigate changes in gene expression of hosts upon infection. We seek to understand how the phytoplasmas are distributed across the different tissues and what is their titre across the different plant organs. This knowledge will provide new insight into sampling for indexing purposes, such as for the post-entry quarantine screening of imported banana germplasm.

Findings through this project will improve our understanding of coconut and banana phytoplasmas and assess biosecurity risks associated with their biology. This is crucial to establish robust barriers for its spread and lay the foundations for effective diagnostics.

Scholarship value

As a scholarship recipient, you'll receive: 

  • living stipend of $32,192 per annum tax free (2023 rate), indexed annually
  • tuition fees covered
  • single Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC)


Professor Andre Drenth

Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation

Email: a.drenth@uq.edu.au

Preferred educational background

Your application will be assessed on a competitive basis.

We take into account your

  • previous academic record
  • publication record
  • honours and awards
  • employment history.

A working knowledge of bioinformatics would be of benefit to someone working on this project.

The applicant will demonstrate academic achievement in the field(s) of molecular biology, plant pathology, plant sciences, bioinformatics and/or microbiology and the potential for scholastic success.

A background or knowledge of bioinformatics is highly desirable.

Latest commencement date

If you are the successful candidate, you must commence by Research Quarter 2, 2025. You should apply at least 3 months prior to the research quarter commencement date.

If you are an international applicant, you may need to apply much earlier for visa requirements.

How to apply

You apply for this project as part of your PhD program application.

View application process