Science and Engineering


04 December 2017

This stunning image of ultraviolet drenched leaves being slowly infected by a fluorescent-stained virus is a symbol of modern science’s fight against the plant diseases that threaten the world’s food crops.

Look closely and you’ll see the virus delicately – but potentially devastatingly – making its way along the veins of the plant and feasting its attention on the younger leaves.

The photograph, The power of fluorescent proteins, was taken by QUT international PhD student Steven Charlesworth and won this year’s QUT Science in Focus Image Competition.

It was captured under UV light (which gives the plant its purple glow) and shows Potato virus X – which has been tagged with green fluorescent protein (GFP) – making its way through the leaves.

Green fluorescent protein has existed in the Aequorea victoria jellyfish for 160 million years but was cloned in the 1990s, making it readily available for laboratories around the world.

It’s even been used to fight viruses in animals, with scientists creating glow-in-the dark cats to help study the feline virus that causes cats to get AIDS.

“Fluorescent protein has helped revolutionise the way we do research in many areas of biology because it has allowed the monitoring in time and space of a range of phenomena in living cells and organisms,” Mr Charlesworth said.

“Some of this areas include gene expression, protein localisation and dynamics, cell division and intracellular transport pathways.”

Mr Charlesworth, from the coastal city of Stavanger in Norway, has spent the past three years working with Professor Peter Waterhouse, a world-leading plant virologist and geneticist based at QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities.

His international journey from Norway to Australia included completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Edinburgh, where he majored in plant sciences, and working as a researcher on a wheat mosaic virus at Ohio State University

“My PhD focused on developing durable and effective resistance strategies against a group of plant pathogens called Geminiviruses, more specifically Tomato Yelow Leaf Curl virus within the genus Begomovirus,” he said.

“It’s an important challenge because geminiviruses cause significant yield loss in many major agriculturally important crops around the world, such as maize, cassava, cotton, beans and tomatoes.”

Steven Charlesworth with his award-winning image.

A fortuitous meeting with Professor Waterhouse while on holidays in Australia led Mr Charlesworth to study his PhD at QUT.

“I’m from the countryside of Norway and I’ve grown up working on farms and with crops like potatoes, carrots and suedes,” he said.

“I’ve always been passionate about biology and science and I’ve had a few professors along the way who have really inspired by interest in plant pathogens and how they affect global crops.”

Mr Charlesworth also has Australian communities on his mind.

He has developed an idea for a social enterprise venture that would bring giant multi-level greenhouses to the bush to enable remote communities to grow their own fresh produce.

“There’s a big focus on urban farming these days but there’s an even greater need to bring affordable and nutritious food to remote communities,” Mr Charlesworth said.

“The idea is for a multi-level, self-sufficient greenhouse where staples like lettuce, spinach and kale can be easily and cheaply grown by the community, rather than produce having to be trucked in.”

Steven Charlesworth at work at QUT.

Mr Charlesworth attended two events this year where he got to investigate urban and community farming.

The first was the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp at QUT where he was part of a team that claimed third place with its ‘Mobile Farm’ concept for a container farm business.

“The MIT Bootcamp was a steep learning curve but it was inspirational to meet people who are so passionate about starting their business and making a difference in the world,” he said.

“From there I got accepted to Ubercamp, hosted by QUT bluebox, where I changed the idea from urban farming to focusing on rural communities and also got third place with the greenhouse idea.”

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