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I need to find out all the facts in order to create the best, most profitable and most sustainable product.

  Research is needed at every point in the innovation cycle. Researchers must assess many possibilities in order to identify the most appropriate raw materials, the most efficient processes, packaging and marketing strategies.

Research ranges from testing materials to asking consumers about their buying habits. It relies on careful choice of questions, for example:
  • What's the cheapest, strongest material that can be used for the purpose?
  • How can I minimise the amount of material and energy used to make or use the product?
  • How effectively does my product do the job for which it is designed?
  • Is the product safe?
  • How does my design allow for the product to be recycled after its use?
  • Who will buy this product, through which outlet and for what price?
Thorough research is essential in the early stages of innovation; this is often carried out in universities or CSIRO and other government organisations. Continual reassessment is important as the product develops; this research is often carried out by industry.

Research that involves scientific testing needs to be unbiased and carefully controlled. In any scientific experiment or test, the test process is repeated and only one thing (called a variable) is changed at a time. As well as the people, plants or animals being tested in the experimental group, there must be another group that is used as a control. For that control group the variable is not changed, providing a baseline against which experimental results are compared. The individuals in the control group are as similar as possible to those in the experimental group and are treated the same way apart from the variable being tested.

For example, to test whether plants can survive without water, take a large group of plants that are all the same size, age and species. Divide the large group into two to create one experimental and one control group. Grow the plants in similar soil, give them the same amount of sunlight but stop watering the experimental group. Keep watering the control group. You can be pretty sure that if the experimental group dies while the control group remains healthy, the death is due to lack of water.

Tests of medical products often include double-blind trials in which neither the patient nor the doctor knows whether the patient is receiving medicine or a placebo. This allows researchers to rule out the effects of "expectation of success" by either the doctor or patient. A placebo is a substance which has no medical properties but has the same form, eg tablet or cream, as the active medicine. A placebo has no physiological function but might assist the patient psychologically. The medicine and placebo are packaged in the same way but can be identified by a number provided by the researchers. The doctor simply records the number on the patient's file. Researchers are the only ones who know which packages contain medicine and can correlate results at the end of the trial.

International Centre for Scientific Research
CSIRO Australia


  Australian tea tree oil — research for a healthy future

Tea tree oil is a powerful antiseptic. The aboriginal Bunjulung people of the NSW north coast have known about it for thousands of years. They use it to take the sting out of cuts and insect bites, and to successfully treat bacterial, viral and fungal infections. Tea tree oil is extracted from the leaves of a small native Australian tree, Melaleuca alternifolia.

The oil contains high concentrations (up to 35%) of an alcohol called terpinen-4-ol that's thought to be responsible for most of the oil's antimicrobial activity. There are more than 100 other chemicals in the oil.

In 1925, Arthur Penfold, a chemist and curator of Sydney's Technological Museum (now the Powerhouse Museum), demonstrated that tea tree oil was 13 times more powerful than phenol, the standard antiseptic of the time. To do this, Penfold gathered leaves from the bush, steamed them to release the oil, and distilled the oil from the water. He then tested the oil on the bacterium that causes typhoid.

For ten years Penfold provided oil to doctors and dentists for clinical trials. Results were so convincing that tea tree oil was sent to war with troops during World War II. During the war, however, penicillin was introduced to treat bacterial infections. The world fell in love with new antibiotics like penicillin and forgot about tea tree oil.

Interest in tea tree oil was rekindled in the 1980s. Growing bacterial resistance to antibiotics is partly responsible for this renewed interest. The tea tree industry has developed dramatically from one relying on harvesting of naturally occurring plants to one characterised by highly mechanised intensive plantations. Australia leads the world in the supply of high quality tea tree oil and associated products. It currently produces about 400 tonnes of oil a year, most of which is exported to North America and Europe. Research has played a vital role in the development of the industry and will be essential for its future.

Close up of a tea tree leaf. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.
Close up of a tea tree leaf. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.

A section through a tea tree leaf showing a vein beneath three oil glands. Technological Museum, Sydney.
A section through a tea tree leaf showing a vein beneath three oil glands. Technological Museum, Sydney.
Research for a growing industry

There are about 300 tea tree growers in Australia, all hoping to compete successfully in a world market. The industry body, the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association (ATTIA), is working closely with the Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC) to develop a profitable and environmentally sustainable industry. They hope to lead the world in marketing, value-adding, product reliability and production. Research is needed in this young industry in order to meet those goals.

Current research is under way in a number of areas. Two examples of the importance of research to the tea tree industry are:
  • Testing the safety and effectiveness of tea tree oil in laboratory and clinical trials designed to meet the standards of Australian and international regulatory authorities. This will lead to development of new products in the areas of animal and plant health and industrial hygiene. Safety tests will provide information for formulation and labelling of products.
  • Developing production systems that are both ecologically sustainable and profitable. Maximising the yield of oil will make best use of valuable resources, such as land and water.
For more information about the tea tree industry see the or

Professor Thomas Riley. Courtesy University of                         Western Australia Department of Microbiology.
Professor Thomas Riley. Courtesy University of Western Australia Department of Microbiology.

Testing safety and effectiveness

Tea tree oil must meet national and international standards for safety and efficacy before it can be accepted as a valid antiseptic agent. Until recently, claims about its power were based on anecdotes or on outdated scientific methods.
For pharmaceutical and medical communities to accept tea tree oil as a bona fide antimicrobial agent, the results of investigations need to be published in international journals acceptable to these groups. Only when this occurs will tea tree oil move out of the realms of quackery and alternative medicine.
Professor Thomas Riley, Department of Microbiology at the University of Western Australia, 1998.
Professor Riley leads a team of scientists investigating the antimicrobial activity and safety of tea tree oil. So far they have demonstrated, using test tube (in vitro) trials, that the oil is active against a wide range of bacteria, viruses and fungi. For more information about their research see
Testing bacteria growth in tea tree oil. Courtesy University of Western Australia Department of Microbiology.
Testing bacteria growth in tea tree oil. Courtesy University of Western Australia Department of Microbiology.
Laboratory trials

Before registering a health-care antiseptic, the Food and Drug Administration of the USA requires a list of all the organisms that are killed by the antiseptic. Riley's team designed experiments to test the susceptibility of organisms to tea tree oil. They aimed to identify the minimum concentrations of oil that would inhibit growth or kill particular micro-organisms. They tested many micro-organisms including:
  • Escherichia coli, which causes gastroenteritis
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a penicillin-resistant bacterium that infects wounds, burns, and the urinary and respiratory tracts
  • Methicillin-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus (Golden staph), a major cause of hospital-acquired infections
  • Streptococcus and Staphylococcus species, which cause skin infections including impetigo
  • Propionibacterium acnes, which plays a role in acne
  • Candida albicans, a fungus that causes thrush infections.
The team grew the organisms in several warm broths containing varying concentrations of tea tree oil for 24 hours. They found that the growth of most of the organisms was inhibited at an oil concentration of 0.25%v/v (volume/volume, ie 0.25ml of tea tree oil added to 99.75ml of broth). Most of the organisms died at 0.50% while an oil concentration of 3.0% was needed to kill the penicillin-resistant bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. All of these findings have been published in international journals.

Clinical trials

Controlled, double-blind clinical trials are under way to test the effectiveness of the oil in treating a number of infections, including thrush, impetigo, methicillin-resistant golden staph, and cold sores caused by the Herpes labialis virus. These projects are funded by RIRDC and Australian Bodycare Pty Ltd, and involve hospital patients in Western Australia and NSW.
Patch tests containing tea tree oil are used to determine skin sensitivity. Courtesy University of Western Australia Department of Microbiology.
Patch tests containing tea tree oil are used to determine skin sensitivity. Courtesy University of Western Australia Department of Microbiology.
Skin sensitivity trials

Skin sensitivity trials have been carried out to determine the prevalence and characteristics of allergy or sensitivity to tea tree oil. This research is essential for the formulation, packaging and labelling of products. The research involved testing more than 200 healthy volunteers for allergy to tea tree oil using two different tests, the prick test and the patch test. Ten different tea tree oils were tested.

The prick test involved applying oil to the skin, then breaking the skin with a needle. Other common allergens, including dust mite and grass, were tested at the same time (on different areas of skin!) to determine whether the volunteers were more or less allergic than average. Any reactions were noted immediately.

The patch test involved sticking squares of material soaked in different concentrations of oil onto each patient's skin. Patches were left in place for some time and then checked. This test detected delayed irritant reactions and allergic contact dermatitis. Any volunteer who showed a reaction to tea tree oil was tested again with 100% oil, 10% oil and then the major oil components.

The prevalence of allergy in the whole group was 2.9% (up to a possible 4.8% if mild reactions are included). Incidence of reactions to the other common allergens indicated that the test subjects were somewhat 'more allergic' than the general public.

Irritant reactions were particularly concentration dependent, which means that many of these reactions should be avoidable if a lower concentration of oil is used in formulations. Very few reactions occurred in response to tea tree oil components. Subsequent tests demonstrated that allergic reactions are generally caused by oxidation products of tea-tree oil, rather than the fresh oil itself. These findings provided valuable information regarding the formulation and packaging of the oil products. That is, low concentrations should be used and the oil should be stored in brown glass bottles, away from heat and light in order to prevent oxidation.
A tea tree plantation. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.
A tea tree plantation. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.

A tea tree oil production system. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.
A tea tree oil production system. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.

Developing production systems

Research in this area aims to boost the amount of oil produced by each tree in order to maximise the yield from available resources, including land and water. The main focus is on the selective breeding of high-yielding trees and on the appropriate management of trees in different growing areas and climates.

Selective breeding of trees

Growing the highest yielding trees in a plantation makes sense. In the past, people grew seeds collected from a limited number of bush trees. CSIRO and NSW Agriculture have increased the quality of seed available for growers as a result of eight years' research at the Wollongbar Agricultural Institute, near Lismore, NSW. They have created a 'seed orchard' which produces high quality seed.

First, they assessed the variability in oil yield and quality from individual trees in their field trials. They progressively culled inferior trees and developed controlled pollination techniques to produce desirable hybrids. Genetic technologies were also employed in the research. They identified the genes responsible for oil yield and quality, and breeding lines can now be DNA fingerprinted. The first batch of improved seed was distributed in 1997, and the second-generation seed orchard was established from seedlings in 2001.

A 30% increase in oil yield is predicted through use of this improved seed, and further culling of the orchards over time is expected to give improvements of 60%. The results of this ongoing research will help to maintain the financial viability of the industry.

Managing plantations

A research project in the Atherton Tableland of North Queensland has implications for the way trees are managed for maximum oil production. In the 1990s, tobacco quotas fell and farmers on the Tableland replaced their tobacco crops with tea trees. Previously the tea tree industry had been located almost exclusively in northern NSW and was very new to Queensland.
In these areas tea trees are being grown in different climates and on different soil types. Little was known about the levels of production or how to manage the trees. Growers had used information from NSW to help establish plantations; however there was a real need for research work to adapt and alter this information and determine the factors which affect oil concentrations and yields in these areas.
Dr James Drinnan, RIRDC Communications.
The research involved collaboration and cooperation between the NSW Department of Agriculture, the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association, and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Because all tea tree farms on the Atherton tablelands are irrigated, much of the research focussed on the best way to tailor water use to the needs of the crop. Irrigation is a major expense, so it needs to be as cost-effective as possible. A water monitoring system (Enviroscan) was installed on a farm that had soil and water use typical of the area. Sensors were installed in the soil at 100-800 mm depths to determine the water requirements of seedlings, mature trees, and trees regrowing after harvest.

Researchers also measured changes in oil yields from the trees throughout the year and in response to irrigation. Research in New South Wales had already shown that the amount of oil obtained one day after irrigation was less than half that obtained from the same crop four days after irrigation. This sort of information is crucial for the maximisation of yield from a plantation.

Other research has shown that tea trees have high requirements for iron, zinc and copper. And the optimum harvesting time is either December or just after the wet season in April.

Thus research has demonstrated that the major factors influencing yield are genetics, irrigation and nutrition. It is essential to start with seeds from good genetic stock, to regularly irrigate and fertilise the crop, and to harvest at the appropriate time. This information has changed the farming practices and profits of growers in the Atherton Tableland and is potentially valuable for growers wishing to establish plantations in other parts of Australia.

The Rural Industry Research and Development Corporation funds many of the research projects currently under way in the tea tree industry. Reports on those projects can be found at

Tea tree oil products sold by Thursday Plantation. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.
Tea tree oil products sold by Thursday Plantation. Courtesy Thursday Plantation.
The impacts

Through the research efforts of academics and the Australian tea tree industry, the properties of tea tree oil are becoming recognised and accepted within mainstream medicine. Production methods have been improved in the last 20 years such that the volume of tea tree oil produced in Australia has increased by almost 20 times. More than 80% of this oil is exported, usually as bulk oil.

Links and references

Australian Tea Tree Industry Association
Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation
Wollongbar Agricultural Institute
University of Western Australia Tea Tree Research
Technical paper by UWA researchers
Tea Tree Oil UK
Thursday Plantation

Key organisations

Australian Tea Tree Industry Association
Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation
University of Western Australia Tea Tree Oil Research Group
Thursday Plantation

Jobs and skills

Scientists (biologist, chemist, immunologist, horticulturalist)
Plantation manager

Discussion questions


1. What did the Aboriginal Bunjulung people of the NSW north coast use tea tree oil for?

2. Using a tape recorder, interview an expert (botanist, horticulturist, gardener) about how to grow a tea tree.

3. Research an Indigenous Dreaming story about tea tree.

4. Using a digital camera record images of tea trees and tea tree products. Look for trees in gardens, (eg. botanical gardens), in plant nurseries or in your local area. Make a collage, drawing or diagram which shows the process of making tea tree oil.


1. Research how Indigenous peoples used tea tree for antiseptic purposes. Draw a timeline to show how different people in different times used tea tree oil to treat infection.

2. As a market researcher, what kinds of questions would you ask consumers about a product like tea tree oil? Design a questionnaire to ascertain buying habits.

3. List the main micro-organisms used in laboratory trials to test tea tree oil’s antiseptic qualities. Discuss the findings of these trials.

4. What is ecological sustainability? How important is it to the tea tree industry?


1. What kinds of questions might a scientific researcher ask when investigating the best way to create a product?

2. What is usually required before a pharmaceutical or medical preparation is accepted as safe and effective?

3. Why are skin sensitivity trials so important?

4. Perform a first-hand investigation to measure the pH value of a range of tea tree products.

ATSE Powerhouse Museum