Australia's Chief Scientist

Microscopes, bugs and biosecurity

As the world gets smaller in the face of increasing trade and travel, Australia’s crops are no longer protected by geographic isolation, with new pests discovered almost daily.

But efforts to protect our agricultural and trade interests have been boosted by digital technology that links the field to the lab, through an initiative of the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant Biosecurity, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and international collaborators.

Dangerous pests are one of the biggest threats to Australia’s most valuable crops but until recently, pest controllers often had no way of determining types of bugs or whether they were harmful – essentially fighting blind folded.

Now, a network of more than 50 digital microscopes across Australia is putting these stealthy bugs well and truly in the spotlight. The microscopes are linked to the online Pest and Disease Image Library (PaDIL), and the eyes of biosecurity experts around the world, providing pest identification almost immediately.

Remote Microscope Support Officer Michael Thompson manages the implementation of the project and knows the importance of instant identification for Australia.   

“Australia’s plant industries are valued at more than $18 billion and contribute more than $12 billion to export income so it’s crucial that we have the best biosecurity measures in place, which includes these remotely accessible digital microscopes,” Thompson said.

“If we don’t know what we’re up against, whether it’s dangerous, whether it’s new or whether it’s manageable, then we don’t know how to control it. Identification is crucial.”

Using the microscopes, found in 58 locations across Australia, New Zealand and regional Asia, the CRC network will enable users to upload pictures of unknown pests directly from their laptops and even mobile phones to PaDIL.

Within 48 hours, taxonomy experts around the world will receive the pictures and identify the pests, letting biosecurity experts respond appropriately, thus preventing damage to our crops. Through PaDIL, experts also have access to a range of response strategies to contain the pests if necessary.   

The system is especially relevant for quarantine processes in protecting Australia’s large borders.

“Every single day there are unknown pests being intercepted at our ports,” Thompson said.

“Prior to our system, a boat could spend three days sitting in port not knowing whether the pest was dangerous, whether it was introduced or whether it was completely harmless,” he said.

“Often it was more expensive to sit in port than to fumigate so they would treat products without knowing if they were dangerous or not just to save time and money.”

This year, the CRC’s remote microscope network has expanded to seven locations in South East Asia, with interest also coming from Canada and the US.

“International collaboration makes the network so much stronger and the biosecurity efforts much more effective,” Thompson said.

“They learn how to keep pests out of their countries, we learn how to keep pests out of ours and we learn more about treatment options and the distribution of pests around the world,”

PaDIL is also proving to be one of the most valuable taxonomic resources for pests worldwide. There are very few taxonomists in Australia, but by engaging the few experts in the world in identification processes and through the incorporation of social networking features, PaDIL allows academics to stay on the cutting edge of new pest identification and discovery while mutually benefiting response teams around the world.

To learn more about plant biosecurity in Australia visit:

Image: A banana aphid from the Pest and Disease Image Library