Barbara Howlett has a B.Sc (Hons) in Biochemistry (University of Melbourne), M.Sc in Botany (ANU), and a Ph.D in Botany (University of Melbourne). She has worked in a diverse range of research areas including influenza, bacterial chemotaxis, pollen allergens, nitrogen fixation and plant diseases. During a sabbatical visit to Stanford University she studied genetics of the bread mould, Neurospora crassa: this laid the foundation for her subsequent research on blackleg disease of canola. Until 2015 Howlett led a national project monitoring virulence of blackleg fungal populations across Australia and developing disease management strategies for canola farmers.
With French colleagues, Howlett’s team sequenced the genome of the blackleg fungus. A key finding was that disease-related genes are often located in unstable parts of the genome, where gene loss and mutations readily occur. This explains how disease resistance can rapidly break down in the field. The practical applications of this discovery have had a significant impact on the profitability of the Australian canola industry.
Howlett is a Fellow of the American Society of Microbiology, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australasian Plant Pathology Society, as well as an Honorary Member of the American Mycological Society