Melbourne scientist develops ELISA test that could save dairy farmers millions

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Dairy cattle in pasture near Bemboka, NSW.
Dairy cattle in pasture near Bemboka, NSW.
Carl Davies, CSIRO

Devising a better method for detecting Mycoplasma Bovis, a microbacteria with the potential to cause big damage to herds, including mastitis, is a pressing priority for Australia’s dairy industry.

Dr Nadeeka Wawegama, winner of the Dairy Australia Prize at 2016’s National Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, is hoping she’s done just that.

Dr Wawegama, who holds a PhD in veterinary microbiology, first encountered mastitis and its devastating effect on herds as a vet student in her country of birth, Sri Lanka.

“I understood at that time that just becoming a veterinarian would not help,” she said. “We need better diagnostic tools, antimicrobials and vaccines, which require research.”

Dr Wawegama’s quest to better understand possible causes of and prophylactics for mastitis brought to Australia’s University of Melbourne (UoM), where her work developing a reliable, farmer-friendly test for detecting Mycoplasma Bovis infection in dairy cattle brought her to the attention of the National Science and Innovation Awards judges.

Cows lined up ready to be milked at an agricultural college near Perth, WA.
Cows lined up ready to be milked at an agricultural college near Perth, WA.
Phil Greenhalgh, Flickr CC

What’s the deal with Mycoplasma Bovis?

The Mycoplasma Bovis microbacteria was identified as a serious problem for Australian dairy herds back in 2006. It’s a particularly nasty little bug with the potential to cause pneumonia, arthritis and middle-ear infections as well as mastitis in affected cows.

Mastitis is one of the most complex and costly diseases worldwide in dairy cattle, with studies suggesting at least 50 percent of Australian dairy herds are affected by subclinical mastitis, costing the nation’s dairy industry more than $60 million a year.

M. bovis diseases can be difficult to detect using currently available diagnostic tools, which work only some of the time. “Once an animal is sub-clinically infected, they become carriers throughout their lives but shed it intermittently, so it evades detection,” Dr Wawegama explains.

Mycoplasma bovis: diagram of the bacteria cell wall.
Mycoplasma bovis: diagram of the bacteria cell wall.
Wiki Commons

How will the new detection tool work?

Developing better ways of detecting subclinical mastitis in dairy cows was the goal of Dr Wawegama’s doctoral thesis at UoM, which centered on developing an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test to estimate the prevalence of Mycoplasma bovis microbacteria in host animals.

ELISA tests work by detecting the presence of antibodies against a disease.

Dr Wawegama will use the $22,000 funding she received as part of the Science and Innovation Award to fund the next stage of her research: using the ELISA test for Mycoplasma bovis she developed as part of her PhD to detect the spread of subclinical mastitis in dairy areas across the country, and ascertain the true prevalence of Mycoplasma bovis microbacterial infection in Australian dairy herds.

“The results will improve our knowledge about Mycoplasma bovis infection in Australian dairy herds, and the industry will be able to make decisions to control and prevent transmission,” she says.

Cow being milked by hand, Malta:Wawegama's ELISA test for M. bovine could have have worldwide application.
Cow being milked, Malta: Wawegama's ELISA test for M. bovine could have have worldwide application.
Peter Grima, Flickr CC

If it proves effective, Dr Wawegama’s ELISA test will be a vast improvement on existing methods such as PCR, enabling farmers anywhere in the world to identify infected dairy herds simply by testing milk samples.

Dr Wawegama will share the results of her research on detection with Australia’s dairy industry via Dairy Australia, its Award partner, and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and hopes the new ELISA test will attract commercial interest, nationally and internationally.

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