West Australian Thomas Clune received the Australian Wool Innovation Award Science Awards at this week’s Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, announced at the Canberra ABARES Outlook this week.
He will investigate how chlamydia is impacting the health and welfare of ewes and their lambs, and develop a simple test for the disease.
Growing up on a sheep farm near Geraldton in Western Australia, Dr Clune developed an appreciation for the importance of animal health and welfare from a young age.
It led to a career as a veterinarian, and the start of PhD in infectious diseases recognised for causing reproductive losses in sheep. But in conducting his research, Thomas came across one disease he believes has been overlooked — chlamydia. In a recent study on 10 WA farms, Thomas found chlamydia infections were present in more than half of abortion or stillborn cases.
“The role of this bacteria in reproductive wastage is largely unknown,” he said. “If we do find it is a major cause of losses, then [fixing it] can contribute to increasing the productivity of farms and improving the welfare of sheep.”
The chlamydia bacteria that causes disease in sheep is different to the bacteria that causes disease in humans. It is common in the environment, and often carried by apparently healthy sheep in their gut.
“But the way sheep become infected and that circumstances that lead to reproductive disease for sheep are not completely understood,” he said. “That’s part of my project as well, understanding that transmission cycle and then how that leads to abortions or stillbirths or the birth of weak lambs.”
He also plans to develop a quick, portable diagnostic tool. “It takes about 45 minutes to run, so vets can either take it out onto the farm or take samples and take it back to the clinic,” he said. While there are other diagnostic tests available, Dr Clune is aiming for a test that would be much cheaper and quicker.