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Dean Phillips’ lifelong interest in plants has taken him on an academic journey that began with a TAFE diploma and has now culminated in the completion of a PhD.
Awarded a grant that will support further research, Dean has recently gained recognition for his work into the early-stage development of antibiotics to control the destructive plant disease Phytophthora which is also known as die-back or late-blight.
Capable of wiping out crops and causing extensive ecological damage, this disease is perhaps best known as one of the causes behind the Irish potato famine that resulted in more than one million deaths in the mid-1800s.
With an interest in the environment from a ‘very young age’, Dean chose a career path that followed his passion. He undertook a TAFE diploma in natural resource management that led him to Deakin and a degree in environmental management.
‘After completing this, I approached Associate Professor Peter Beech about conducting research on environmental molecular biology. He allowed me to develop my own research topic and this is what I’ve been researching through both my honours and PhD degrees,’ he says.
By using the same molecular techniques used in developing antibiotics for humans, Dean has been working on an antibiotic that fights Phytophthora but without adverse environmental impacts.
‘It involves the identification of a protein in the disease that is both unique to and critical for the survival of the organism, then developing a small molecule which blocks this protein function,’ he explains.
‘Such an approach has the additional advantage of yielding a molecule with little or no negative environmental impacts due to its specificity , unlike the chemicals currently used by the agriculture and forestry industries.’
Dean has been able to identify a unique protein that controls a number of cellular functions and this makes it an ideal target for antibiotic development.
‘Having solved the biochemical function of this protein it is now possible to screen chemical libraries to identify new inhibitors of the protein and hence the disease,’ he says.
Recently receiving funding from Deakin and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Dean says he is looking forward to continuing his research into Phytophthora antibiotics.
‘In collaboration with Deakin, I have obtained a patent and we are now seeking industry partners to commercialise the technology.’
In the future, he hopes to establish a biotechnology company that specialises in the development of agricultural and environmental antibiotics.
‘The training in such a diversity of scientific fields at Deakin gives me the option to pursue an equally wide diversity of career opportunities. In addition, the training and experience in business management, entrepreneurialism and intellectual property management will be invaluable in developing my own company.’