In early November 2022, two students from the University of Western Australia (UWA) visited The Plant Accelerator® (TPA) to expand their chickpea fertility research.

Montana Walsh Baddeley and Alistair Hockey spent an “amazing but intense” fortnight at TPA, exploring the role a range of different imaging technologies could play in phenotyping chickpea plants during their reproductive phase.

Montana, who is originally from Geraldton, is currently working on her Masters of Agricultural Science at UWA. Alistair grew up in Perth and studied botany at the University of Melbourne before starting his PhD at The UWA School of Agriculture and Environment.

Both are researching chickpea fertility and productivity, with Montana exploring how genes drive the reproductive response to temperature in different cultivars and Alistair exploring barriers to gene flow between wild and domestic species that currently impede enhanced productivity in new lines.

Alistair led the application for the APPF Postgraduate Internship Award, on the understanding that both students would utilise the opportunity to advance their closely linked projects.

“Our principal supervisor at UWA, Dr Judith Lichtenzveig, first suggested taking up the opportunity,” Alistair says.

“They have continued to provide great advice at every step. Dr Lichtenzveig remains party to our ongoing conversations with the APPF and continues to have a significant role in the trajectory of our project.”

Access to APPF facilities provided the students with an opportunity to see how advanced imaging systems could be used to phenotype chickpea plants more accurately and efficiently.

Montana explains that quantifying chickpea fertility presents some specific challenges.

“We use data such as the number of flowers per plant, abortive buds, filled pods, grains produced and so on,” she says.

“We work with about 1,000 plants at a time and we currently need to hand-count each of those features.

“It is very labour intensive and time consuming.”

Working at TPA gave Alistair and Montana the opportunity to explore ways of automating their phenotyping, for faster and more accurate results. They used the opportunity to experiment with APPF’s X-Ray CT scanning and hyperspectral imaging systems, to identify how different reproductive features could be identified and counted.

They found hyper-spectral reflectance was a great tool to characterise seed set through difference in water content in pods, while RGB imaging was suitable for identifying the distinctly purple petals of chickpea flowers.

The X-Ray CT scanning equipment was also used to scan plants in vivo and non-invasively determine seed set in pods.

Plants for the project were grown in Adelaide by Dr Janine Croser and her team at SARDI, using the accelerated Single Seed Descent (aSSD) platform they developed. Dr Croser is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at UWA and co-supervisor of Alistair’s and Montana’s project.

“My coordinating supervisor here at UWA, Professor Megan Ryan, was also instrumental in the administrative and funding aspects of our PIA application and research project,” Alistair says.

Overall, Alistair and Montana are very appreciative of the opportunity to work with the APPF team led by Associate Professor Bettina Berger, who shared their knowledge and expertise to decipher the challenges of their projects.

“It’s an amazing facility to have in Australia and it’s great there are access pathways for students to use the facilities, explore what they can do and gain insights from the staff,” Montana says.

“The staff weren’t just helpful – they were genuinely keen to see what we’d found out and to help us interpret our image data.”

Both students appreciate how TPA staff provided them with a wealth of extra advice based on experience, from suggestions for experimental approaches, to recommendations for open-source software tools to use for data processing.

They continue to enjoy conversations with APPF staff about data analysis and potential publications. Back home, the data between the groups was readily shared through the Pawsey Computing Facility at WA.

The APPF Postgraduate Internship Awards provide crop research students with a unique opportunity to access the world-class phenotyping facilities and expertise at APPF nodes.

The Awards reflect APPF’s commitment to encouraging young plant scientists in the ag tech and food innovation sectors, by offering exposure to world class research technology and knowledge.

Applications are opened twice each year. For more information click here.