Opportunities for postgraduate study in Plant Pathology at UNE

 Are you interested in studying for a PhD or MSc (research Masters) in plant pathology? Have you considered the University of New England? We are the oldest regional university in Australia with a proud record of achievement in agriculture and environmental sciences.

Plant pathology is the study of plant diseases. Most diseases of plants are caused by fungi, viruses, bacteria or nematodes. Plant pathology is an enormously varied discipline that applies a diversity of approaches including ecology, molecular biology, mathematics, economics and sociology to understanding and managing diseases in crops and natural systems. We have been training PhD and research Masters students in plant pathology at the University of New England for over 40 years. Our graduates continue to make an impact in Australia and around the world.

Australian PhDs consist of a supervised research project conducted over three years (2 for MSc), resulting in a thesis. A typical PhD thesis describes work equivalent to that found in 3-4 research papers. The thesis is usually the only form of examination, and there is usually no coursework component.


Most students design their own project in consultation with their supervisors, based on their interests and what they wish to learn. Your project will be more successful if you set your own goals! If you have an idea, or an area in which you would like to work, contact David Backhouse for advice and suggestions.

 Which pathogens do we work with?

Current or recent students have worked with Fusarium pseudograminearum, Fusarium oxysporum, Thielaviopsis basicola, Phytophthora cinnamomi, Rhizoctonia solani, Puccinia striiformis, Botrytis cinerea and Sclerotinia sclerotiorum. Most of our work is currently with soilborne pathogens but almost anything is possible.

 Which plants do we work with?

Wheat and cotton are the major crops in northern New South Wales, so we do a lot of work with these. However we can supervise projects on most temperate crops, as well as weeds, pastures and natural systems.

 What sort of projects can be done?

Recent projects have covered a broad range from classical epidemiology and management, remote sensing, biological control, and host-pathogen interactions to molecular determinants of pathogenicity. Most students design their own project in consultation with their supervisors, based on their interests and what they wish to learn. Your project will be more successful if you set your own goals! If you have an idea, or an area in which you would like to work, contact David Backhouse for advice and suggestions.



Nasser Panjehkeh finished his PhD recently in record time on the relationship between flower colour and disease resistance in Sturts desert pea


The main plant pathology laboratories have all the facilities you would expect including a mycological lab, greenhouses and plant growth chambers, and a routine molecular lab. There is an internationally recognised herbarium, and microtechnique and microscopy facilities, in the same building. More specialised equipment including the electron microscope unit, soil and plant analytical facilities, real-time PCR, proteomics lab, HPLC/GC-MS/LC-MS and so on are located nearby. A new state-of–the art soils lab is due for completion in early 2010, together with a new 3-D microimaging facility. Because we are a small university with excellent internal collaboration, students have access to equipment and facilities across the full range of scientific disciplines.




Dr David Backhouse is the specialist plant pathologist. His main interests are in epidemiology and management of soilborne diseases, ecology of soil fungi, and biological control. He has a PhD from the University of New South Wales, working on Botrytis under Hayden Willetts. He did a postdoc with Alison Stewart at the University of Auckland on white rot of onion, then worked with Lester Burgess at the University of Sydney on Fusarium before joining the staff at UNE in 1998.

Our PhD students are supervised by at least two people. Other UNE staff who supervise or co-supervise students with plant pathology-related projects have come from discipline areas such as microbiology, molecular biology, fungal genetics, agronomy, remote sensing, plant biochemistry and plant ecophysiology. There are also collaborative and supervisory links with a number of other organisations, especially Industry & Investment NSW (former Department of Primary Industries).


Dalvinder Singh studied niche overlap between Fusarium pseudograminearum and other fungi in wheat stubble as part of a project on biocontrol


 Scholarships are available from the university and from other agencies. Australian PhD students generally require a scholarship to pay their living expenses, and international students will also require a scholarship to pay their tuition fees. Some sources of scholarships are:

 From UNE: The university offers Australian Postgraduate Awards (AWA) and UNE Strategic Doctoral scholarships for living expenses. Applications can be submitted at any time of the year. Information and application forms are available from the Research Office

 A limited number of International Postgraduate Research Scholarships (IPRS) are available from UNE to pay tuition fees. These are highly competitive, and successful applicants usually have an outstanding academic record and several refereed publications. Closing date is usually at the end of September. Details and application forms are available from the Research Office

 Scholarships for international students offered by the Australian Government are called Australian Scholarships. If you are from Asia,  the Pacific or the Middle East, the category most relevant are Australian Development Scholarships. Application and selection methods for these scholarships vary between countries, but they generally pay both tuition and living expenses. The Endeavour Program scholarships are also available to students from other parts of the world. You will find links to these scholarship programs from the Australian Scholarships page, as well as a link that shows which scholarships students from your country are eligible to apply for.

 Australian students should also check for scholarships offered by the research funding bodies, such as the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). These often pay higher stipends than general scholarships. A database of scholarships is also available at JASON



Research assistant Ian White checking an experiment in the growth chambers

Admission and enquiries

Research higher degree students (PhD and MSc) can apply for admission and commence at any time of the year. The process is different for domestic (Australian citizen or permanent resident) and international students.

You will find the process explained here with links to applications forms.


Some Recent Publications from the Backhouse lab

Panjehkeh, N., Backhouse, D. and Taji, A. (in press) Role of proanthocyanidins in resistance of the legume Swainsona formosa to Phytophthora cinnamomi. Journal of Phytopathology (published online 28 September 2009)

Devadas, R., Lamb, D.W., Simpfendorfer, S. and Backhouse, D. (2009) Evaluating ten spectral vegetation indices for identifying rust infection in individual wheat leaves. Precision Agriculture 10, 459-470.

Singh, D.P., Backhouse, D. and Kristiansen, P. (2009) Interactions of temperature and water potential in displacement of Fusarium pseudograminearum from cereal residues by fungal antagonists. Biological Control 48, 188-195.

Rahmanpour, S., Backhouse, D. and Nonhebel, H.M. (2009) Induced tolerance of Sclerotinia sclerotiorum to isothiocyanates and toxic volatiles from Brassica species. Plant Pathology 58, 479-486.

Coumans, J.V.F., Poljak, A., Raftery, M.J., Backhouse, D. and Pereg-Gerk, L. (2009) Analysis of cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) root proteomes during a compatible interaction with the black root rot fungus Thielaviopsis basicola. Proteomics 9, 335-349.

Kawaguchi, M., Taji, A., Backhouse, D. and Oda, M. (2008) Anatomy and physiology of graft incompatibility in solanaceous plants. Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology 83, 581-588.

Akinsanmi, O.A., Backhouse, D., Simpfendorfer, S. and Chakraborty, S. (2008) Mycelial compatibility reactions of Australian Fusarium graminearum and F. pseudograminearum isolates compared with AFLP groupings. Plant Pathology 57, 251-261.

Panjehkeh, N., Backhouse, D. and Taji, A. (2007) Flower colour is associated with susceptibility to disease in the legume Swainsona formosa. Australasian Plant Pathology 36, 341-346.

Akinsanmi, O.A., Chakraborty, S., Backhouse, D. and Simpfendorfer, S. (2007) Passage through alternative hosts changes the fitness of Fusarium graminearum and Fusarium pseudograminearum. Environmental Microbiology 9, 512-520.

White, I.R. and Backhouse, D. (2007) Comparison of fungal endophyte communities in the invasive panicoid grass Hyparrhenia hirta and the native grass Bothriochloa macra. Australian Journal of Botany 55, 178-185.

Huang, L-D. and Backhouse, D. (2006) Analysis of chitinase isoenzymes in sorghum seedlings inoculated with Fusarium thapsinum or F. proliferatum. Plant Science 171, 539-545. Abstract

Akinsanmi, O.A., Backhouse, D., Simpfendorfer, S. and Chakraborty, S. (2006) Pathogenic variation of Fusarium isolates associated with head blight of wheat in Australia. Journal of Phytopathology 154, 513-521. Abstract

Akinsanmi, O.A., Backhouse, D., Simpfendorfer, S. and Chakraborty, S. (2006) Genetic diversity of Australian Fusarium graminearum and F. pseudograminearum. Plant Pathology 55, 494-504. Abstract

Backhouse, D. (2006) Forecasting the risk of crown rot between successive wheat crops. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46, 1499-1506. Abstract

Donovan, N.J., Backhouse, D. and Burgess, L.W. (2006) Enhanced suppression of Gaeumannomyces graminis var. tritici by retention of residues in a cereal cropping system. Australasian Plant Pathology 35, 43-48. Abstract

Huang, L.-D. and Backhouse, D. (2005) Induction of defence responses in roots and mesocotyls of sorghum seedlings by inoculation with Fusarium thapsinum and F. proliferatum, wounding and light. Journal of Phytopathology 153, 522-529. Abstract

Tan, M.K., Simpfendorfer, S., Backhouse, D. and Murray, G.M. (2004) Occurrence of Fusarium head blight (FHB) in southern NSW in 2000: identification of causal fungi and determination of putative chemotype of Fusarium graminearum isolates by PCR. Australasian Plant Pathology 33, 385-392. Abstract

Huang, L.-D. and Backhouse, D. (2004) Effects of Fusarium species on defence mechanisms in sorghum seedlings. New Zealand Plant Protection 57, 121-124. Full text

Neumann, M.J., Backhouse, D., Carter, D.A., Summerell, B.A. and Burgess, L.W. (2004) Genetic structure of populations of Fusarium proliferatum in soils associated with Livistona mariae palms in Little Palm Creek, Northern Territory, Australia. Australian Journal of Botany 52, 543-550. Abstract

Backhouse, D., Abubakar, A.A., Burgess, L.W., Dennis, J.I., Hollaway, G.J., Wildermuth, G.B., Wallwork, H. and Henry, F.J. (2004) Survey of Fusarium species associated with crown rot of wheat and barley in eastern Australia. Australasian Plant Pathology 33, 255-261. Abstract

Akinsanmi, O.A., Mitter, V., Simpfendorfer, S., Backhouse, D. and Chakraborty, S. (2004) Identity and pathogenicity of Fusarium spp. isolated from wheat fields in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 55, 97-107. Abstract

Backhouse, D. and Burgess, L.W. (2002) Climatic analysis of the distribution of Fusarium graminearum, F. pseudograminearum and F. culmorum on cereals in Australia. Australasian Plant Pathology 31, 321-327. Abstract