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Curtin research wins top prize at 2017 Innovator of the Year awards

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Curtin University was named Overall Winner of the 2017 Mitsubishi Corporation WA Innovator of the Year awards, for research aimed at extending the shelf-life and reducing post-harvest losses in fruit, vegetables and cut flowers.

The project, led by Professor Zora Singh from Curtin’s Department of Environment and Agriculture and Dr Alan Payne, Department of Chemistry, was announced as the winner by Innovation and ICT Minister, the Hon Dave Kelly, at the prestigious awards ceremony in Kings Park last night.

Professor Zora Singh said the award – which comes with a $75,000 prize – is a wonderful recognition of the hard work of a large team at Curtin University striving to improve outcomes for farmers, supply chain stakeholders and consumers across the globe.

“Our research focuses on the development of new ethylene blocking compounds that can be used to extend the storage, transport and shelf-life of fresh horticultural produce, while still ensuring they are of the highest quality for local and international markets,” Professor Singh said.

“This could have significant benefits in reducing post-harvest losses that are believed to cost Australia in excess of $2.4 billion a year. In WA alone, post-harvest losses in horticulture produce are estimated at more than 30 per cent of the total production.”

Dr Alan Payne said the blocking compounds developed by the Curtin team work to inhibit naturally-occurring ethylene produced in plants, which triggers ripening, flower and fruit drop as well as hastens aging.

“The plant’s natural reaction to ethylene is responsible for up to 50 per cent of total post-harvest losses in fresh horticultural produce. To counteract this, we have developed ethylene blocking compounds that could be used in a range of user-friendly ways including dipping, waxing, spraying or fumigation on cut flowers, fruit and vegetables,” Dr Payne said.

“We have already been trialling these compounds on a range of products including plums, nectarines, apples, bananas, and cut flowers. We are now working with a US-based partner to conduct further testing.”

Curtin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Terry said the award is deserving recognition of the innovative approach by the Curtin research team.

“At Curtin, our aim is always to develop research that has real-life relevance and impact, and this innovation has the potential to improve horticultural production, storage and transport in Australia and around the world,” Professor Terry said.

Although more testing is still required, Professor Singh said the research team is also looking at expanded use of the compounds to counteract other hurdles facing the horticultural industry.

“We believe these compounds could also potentially be developed to reduce the adverse effects of ethylene induced by stresses such as salinity, drought, heat and frost in broadacre crops and may even be suitable for household use in keeping produce fresher for longer,” Professor Singh said.

The $75,000 prize will be used for further research and development of the ethylene blocking compounds.

Curtin University was linked to two other awards last night with Safescape (Managing Director and Curtin alumnus Steve Durkin) winning the Mitsubishi Corporation Emerging Innovation Category. Research conducted by Curtin University was also recognised by the winner of the South32 Designing for Excellence Award, Onesun Pty Ltd, for contribution to the Shutdown Maintenance Optimisation project.

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