MSc scholarships available

Landcare Research is offering support for two MSc students as part of the Joint Graduate School in Biodiversity and Biosecurity (University of Auckland and Landcare Research).

The projects will investigate unseen links between gall-forming mites and pathogenic fungi in the biocontrol of broom. Most of the lab work will be based on Tamaki campus, but there will be some field work in Lincoln.

You will have the opportunity to work with a team of systematists, ecologists, plant pathologists and molecular biologists and publish papers in peer-reviewed international journals. One project will likely focus on fungus-mite interaction, and the other on predator-prey interaction. There will be an award of $10K for each student for stipend and fees.

Applications should be sent to

Prof Bill Lee
Joint Graduate School of Biodiversity and Biosecurity

Please include a copy of your academic transcript, an indication of when you are available to start and a 60 word explanation of why you are interested in this topic.

About the research topic

Exploring unseen links in weed biocontrol: mites and fungi on broom

Minute organisms unseen to the naked eye can play important roles in macro-species interactions. Mites and fungi represent two such important groups that are often closely associated and are present in almost all major habitats. We propose to examine previously unknown mite-fungus interactions affecting the biocontrol of an invasive weed (broom). This project demonstrates the importance of interactions amongst cryptic elements of biodiversity, on an alien weed, in order to understand and reduce the threats of invasive weeds on indigenous biodiversity.

The gall mite (Aceria genistae) was introduced in 2008 to control broom and is establishing readily at many sites. Our recent study revealed a community of fungi and mites in the gall on broom. The dominant fungus is a species of Fusarium, whose members are known to cause plant diseases including induction of floral and vegetative deformations. Fungal spores, identified as Fusarium sp., were recently found on most gall mites. Of great biosecurity importance is the question of the origin of the fungi: were they introduced along with the galls and mites from Europe or are they a local species recently moved onto the introduced hosts. Also of great significance is how the newly discovered mite-fungus association will affect the results of biocontrol. This study will test our hypothesis that the gall mites and fungi provide a synergistic effect on the weed, with the mechanism that (1) the gall mites vector the fungal spores, and (2) fungus infections in turn make the plants more susceptible to mites. This project looks into a new area of biological weed control that was previously overlooked and will offer insights for future introduction of biocontrol agents.

This project will also offer a unique opportunity to examine the effect of introduced biocontrol agents on local fauna and the consequence of new associations on biocontrol. This study will test the hypothesis that local predatory mites (Typhlodromus caudiglans, not known from France where the gall mites were introduced) can reduce the effectiveness of weed biocontrol when moving onto the gall mite-broom system. Most weed biocontrol agent risk-assessment focuses on the direct non-target impacts of weed biocontrol: little is known about how introductions of classical biological control agents affect local food webs.

This study will also examine the role of an interesting linkage between the above two aspects of the interactions (fungi-herbivore v.s. predator-prey) and fungivorous mites (Tydeidae) yet to be fully identified. These mites typically feed on fungi, can feed facultatively on small mites such as gall mites (in the case of Tydeidae) and also can serve as alternative prey for predatory mites.

This proposal is unique because it teams up acarologists, plant pathologists and ecologists to investigate previously unknown interactions between a host-plant, a plant pathogen, an eriophyid mite, a fungivorous mite and a predatory mite.