Getting to the root cause of health in hydroponic tomatoes

The University of New England (UNE) is now temporarily home to a replica of one of the largest tomato glasshouse operations in the Southern Hemisphere, with Costa Group installing a small-scale version of its hydroponic production system in UNE’s on-campus glasshouse complex.

The collaboration will open the doors to a game-changing experiment for PhD candidate Phil Thomas’ research project, which could help transform the way commercial growers identify diseases and plant stress in hydroponic tomato crops.

“I’m studying the microbiome that lives around the roots of hydroponic tomatoes to see what the different fungi and bacteria can tell us about the health of the plant,” Thomas says.

“If the plant is experiencing stress, or it’s exposed to different conditions, it releases different compounds from its roots, which in turn alters the microbiome.

“What we’re hoping to do is identify the changes in the microbiome that indicate the plant has some kind of problem, whether that’s a stress problem, nutrient problem or a pathogen problem.”

The project, funded by the Future Food Systems CRC, could provide large growers like Costa with a streamlined way to monitor the health of crops.

“In a commercial environment, where we have thousands of plants, keeping them healthy is a very labour-intensive operation, so if you can get an early warning of problems with less effort, then it will be a huge benefit to growers,” says Thomas.

The experiment will be conducted on the UNE campus over the next few months. It will compare the root microbiome of healthy plants with those that have been subjected to unfavourable conditions, such as too much heat, not enough water, or disease.

“By doing this, when we come to look at the microbiome, we can compare the healthy plants with the diseased, and we’ll be looking for the key indicators that tell us the difference between the two,” he says.

“This will help us to develop an assay that can give growers early warning of problems and enable intervention to limit the impact of disease and ill-health.”

Thomas says collaborating with professional growers gives insight into the most effective growing methods and ensures the results will be applicable in real-world situations.

“The microbiome that develops is strongly influenced by the environment that the plant is in, so if we tested the plant in a different environment that wasn’t the commercial glasshouse, it’s likely to behave very differently – we’d be getting lab results, not commercial results.”

This experiment will build on the research Thomas has done over the past two years, and will get underway in the coming weeks.

You can read more about Phil Thomas and his work with the tomato rhizobiome here.

Source: This article first appeared on the UNE website on 1 June 2022. It has been republished here courtesy of the UNE Media team. View the original story.

Lead image: Phil Thomas (centre) and Costa Group employees constructing the infrastructure for the experiment within UNE’s glasshouse complex. Credit: University of New England