AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program researcher spotlight: Julia Voelker

19.03.20

We’re shining the research torch on Julia Voelker, PhD candidate at Southern Cross Plant Science, Southern Cross University, whose project involves sequencing and analysing the genome of Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia).

Why is this research project important?

By unravelling the genome characteristics of tea tree and conducting comparative genomic studies with eucalypts, the team and I hope to understand more about the evolutionary history of the Myrtaceae plant family in Australia. I am particularly interested in understanding how the unique Australian environment shaped the genomes of these trees, and what made them what they are today, iconic trees with special essential oils. Genome sequencing, which is the anlaysis of all the genetic material of an organism, can help us to understand which parts of a genome are important and how species adapt to their habitat. An increasing number of plant genome sequences became available in the last few years, but early sequencing projects of plants were mainly concentrated on short-lived model organisms. Hence, we still need further studies on long-lived non-model plants. These studies will help us to explain how environmental factors influence the adaptation of species and how tree genomes evolve. In order to understand more about the diversification of species, it is also valuable to compare the genomes of related species. Thus, tea tree is our perfect plant.

Tea tree is a long-lived tree, belongs to the family of Myrtaceae and is related to eucalypts. With a few genomes of eucalypts already sequenced, this gives us a platform for comparative studies.  Furthermore, a number of studies have previously been conducted on tea tree including genomics, breeding, population structure and more, because of its valuable essential oil. So there’s a wealth of information to incorporate into this project as well as new knowledge to uncover.

 

Why did you get involved in the project?

Plants are fascinating organisms and essential for our well-being in so many ways. I liked the idea of studying tea tree to contribute to the scientific knowledge, and also support a comparatively small industry.

I’ve met some of the tea tree farmers, and they’re great people who seem to love what they’re doing, despite all the challenges they’re currently facing with drought and fires. I hope that my findings will help them.

How will this research benefit the tea tree industry? Are there any learnings beyond this industry?

It is anticipated the industry will be able to learn from the growing knowledge about tea tree genetics. We know much about the characteristics of tea tree oil, but there’s still a lot to learn about the genetic factors and their correlation with oil quality and yield. Ultimately, the investigation of all genes that might be involved in the production of tea tree oil will improve our understanding of the plant. Identified genes could be used for the development of genetic markers, for example, so that trees in a breeding program can be screened for those markers and only the best trees used for future breeding. This may lead to even better oil quality or improved tea tree growth, and would greatly benefit tea tree growers.

It is also anticipated that the learnings will shed more light on the evolutionary history of trees and their mechanisms of adaptation, especially here in Australia. The family of Myrtaceae is of Gondwanan origin, and the long history of increasing aridification, nutrient-poor soils, and changing climates in Australia could have left a unique fingerprint in the genomes of those trees, which hopefully we’ll be able to identify.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

The best advice I’ve been given is probably that there is no perfect way of following your career. It is always an individual journey, and you need to find what works best for you. It is not only the achievements on your CV that count, but also your personality. So be honest with yourself and to others, communicate and cooperate, and the opportunities will come.

Read more about the AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program

 

Media Enquiries:

Lauren Sharkey, AgriFutures Australia, Manager, Communications & Capacity Building

Lauren.Sharkey@agrifutures.com.au | 02 6923 6916 | 0409 966 182