Gondwana Genomics branches out 

Gondwana Genomics Chief Scientist Dr Bala Thumma and Managing Director Robert Southerton

The Agrifood Hub said goodbye to one of its longest-standing members last month, when Gondwana Genomics was acquired by another Canberra business, Diversity Arrays Technology (DArT). 

High-tech tools 

Here since the inception of the Agrifood Hub, then know as the CEAT Innovation Hub, Gondwana Genomics weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and found success on the other side, something which Managing Director, Robert Southerton, credits in part to the business being based at ANU.  

In their time at ANU, the business formed close relationships with the Biomolecular Resource Facility (BRF) at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, which has high-tech sequencing machines used to process DNA samples. 

“What we’re doing, no one’s done before, and it’s quite cutting edge. So, it’s great having those close links to the BRF and the sequencing team who do the work for us, because not much of what we do is standard,” Robert says.  

Taming the wild 

The business was born from technology developed by CSIRO which uses DNA markers in eucalyptus trees to predict performance. 

“Trees have a unique challenge, they’re not like other crops which are domesticated, they’re still quite wild, so we’ve had to develop DNA testing methods to support trees specifically.  

“Now, we can go into someone’s breeding program, test their trees and help them make better breeding decisions.” 

Trees are bred for a range of reasons: pulp and paper production, timber veneer, and even biofuel. So, what does ‘better’ mean when it comes to breeding trees? 

“Everyone wants trees that grow quicker; high growth is what everyone wants, but within that there could be things like pulp yield – how much paper a tree produces.  

“We also do a lot of work on disease resistance, and site tolerances, so for sites which might be subject to flooding, the customer wants trees that are resistant to flooding. There are also lots of emerging critical traits around climate change and changing weather patterns.” 

Recently, the business has worked to apply the technology to other crops, including mangoes. They are currently working with Hort Innovation to apply their technology to develop low-cost DNA testing for the horticulture sector. 

The Hub factor 

Robert says the Hub has been critical to Gondwana Genomics’ success.  

“The support that we’ve had has been fantastic, we wouldn’t be here without it. 

“As a Hub member there’s networking benefits, employment benefits; and we didn’t have to deal with the day-to-day administrative things. It’s super-handy to be able to focus on the business, and not worry about the other stuff.” 

Asked what his advice to future Hub members would be, Robert says that they should take advantage of the opportunities which come from being located at ANU. 

“Definitely make the most of it while you’re here! We did things like ‘A Pint of Science’ where our staff were able to give mini lectures at ANU about their area, and that’s fantastic for staff development.  

“We hired many casuals from ANU directly. It’s easy and AFII helps with things like the job ads.   

“If you’re a smaller company, you’re not so isolated, you feel like part of something bigger. 

“I would highly, highly, highly recommend it. We wouldn’t have thrived without it.” 

You can learn more about what it’s like to be a part of the Agrifood Hub community, and enquire about joining, here. 

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