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Nic Taylor

Publication awards for Plant Energy Biology scientists

>>Press Release: March 2015<<

Two researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology have received University of Western Australia Faculty of Science awards for Research Excellence, and another Centre scientist was named as a finalist.

Dr Nicolas Taylor was presented with the Robson Medal, awarded in the areas of "Feeding the World, Research Excellence in Agriculture and Related Areas". The medal was presented by former UWA Vice Chancellor Emeritus Professor Alan Robson in recognition of Dr Taylor's work investigating the role that respiration plays in plant tolerance to salinity, through the analysis of mitochondrial proteomes.

The publication, co-authored with other Centre researchers, advances the understanding of how salinity affects respiration in wheat. With increased salinity being observed in soils around the world this information hold significant value for Australian and world agriculture.

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Dr Sandra Tanz was presented with the award for the category of "Furthering human knowledge and enhancing society" for her work on SUBA3, a database for integrating experimental and predictive information that helps to define the sub-cellular location of proteins in plant cells. The function of many plant proteins remains to be resolved. A key step towards understanding the metabolic or biochemical role of any protein is to define its sub-cellular location.

"Aggregating the evidence for where all the proteins of an organism are located within the cell is an important foundation for interpreting their roles" Dr Tanz said.

Plant Energy Biology researcher Dr David Secco was named as a finalist for the Robson Medal for his publication describing the profiling of genes expressed in the roots and shoots of rice in response to phosphate starvation and recovery. The study provides a comprehensive overview of the dynamic responses of rice to phosphate stress, and informs how plants that are more efficient at acquiring and using phosphate may be generated in the future.

The UWA Faculty of Science awards are given to early career researchers and are judged from a peer-reviewed paper published within the prior 12 months.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)

Plant Energy Biology to take over the Scitech Planetarium!

>>Press Release: February 16th 2015<<

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology will take to a unique forum this weekend to showcase some of its most exciting research. The Centre will combine with Scitech to premiere Plantarium, a spectacular, full-dome visual presentation of the Centre's science.

Plantarium, designed for a domed screen, is an immersive journey through the insides of plant cells and the insides of Plant Energy Biology laboratories. Several of the Centre's scientists will be at the screening to address questions about the research being done in Australia.

Plantarium will screen in the Scitech Planetarium in Perth on the 21st and 22nd of February. Plant Energy Biology will also host Meet The Scientist sessions on the Scitech main floor, giving visitors the opportunity to look down a microscope at plant cells and try their hand at DNA extractions.

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Also on display at Scitech until March is the Plant Energy Biology photography exhibition Plants: from micro to macro, with science in between.

The Centre is keen to empower the community with a better understanding of the power of plants and the benefits of plant energy biology research, and to do so in fun and engaging ways. The Centre has previously engaged with public audiences using Bio-Bounce, the world's biggest and bounciest inflatable plant cell and through other community and school activities.

View the Facebook event here.


  • Plantarium screening and Q and A session with scientists.
  • Scitech Planetarium, Perth.
  • Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd February.
  • Starting 12.30pm.
  • Meet the Scientist session/activities with Plant Energy Biology.
  • Scitech Think Tank.
  • Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd February.
  • 10.00-11.00am.
  • Plant Energy Biology photography display.
  • Plants: from micro to macro, with science in between
  • Scitech Curvy Wall, on display until March.

Media references:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) +61 8 6488 4481
Qu and Gilliham

Research finds source of salt tolerance in soybean

>>Press Release: January 8th 2015<<

A collaborative research project between Australian and Chinese scientists has shown how soybean can be bred to better tolerate soil salinity.

Researchers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology's University of Adelaide node and from the Institute of Crop Sciences in the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, have identified a specific gene in soybean that has great potential for soybean crop improvement.

"Soybean is the fifth largest crop in the world in terms of both crop area planted and amount harvested" says the project's lead Australian researcher, Associate Professor Matthew Gilliham.

"Many commercial crops, including soybean, are sensitive to soil salinity and this can cause major losses to their yield" he said. "On top of that, the area of salt affected agricultural land is rapidly increasing and is predicted to double in the next 35 years".

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The identification of genes that improve crop salt tolerance will be essential to efforts to improve global food security.

Associate Professor Gilliham and PhD student Yue Qu, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, investigated the function of the gene GmSALT3 after it was pinpointed by Professor Lijuan Qiu and Dr Rongxia Guan at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences as a candidate salt tolerance gene in soybean.

"This gene functions in a completely new way from other salt tolerance genes we know about" says Associate Professor Gilliham. "We can now use this information to find similar genes in different crops such as wheat and grapevine, to selectively breed for their enhanced salt tolerance."

The genetic sequence of several hundred soybean varieties was initially examined at the Institute of Crop Sciences in Beijing.

"We initially identified the gene by comparing two commercial cultivars" says Professor Qiu. "We were surprised and pleased to see that this gene also conferred salt tolerance in some other commercial cultivars, old domesticated soybean varieties and even wild soybean."

"It appears that this gene was lost when breeding new cultivars of soybean in areas without salinity. This has left many new cultivars susceptible to the rapid increases we are currently seeing in soil salinity around the world."

By identifying the gene, genetic markers can now be used in breeding programs to ensure that salt tolerance can be maintained in future cultivars of soybean that will be grown in areas prone to soil salinity.

The research has been published as a feature article in The Plant Journal.

Media References:

  • Dr Matthew Gilliham (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, The University of Adelaide) Phone +61 8 8313 8145, Mobile: +61 431 663 614
  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) +61 8 6488 4481
Laura Boykin

TED Fellowship for Australian Computational Biologist Dr Laura Boykin

>>Press Release: December 18th 2014<<

Passionate and engaging researcher Laura Boykin has been named as the only Australian-based TED Fellow for 2015.

Research Fellow Boykin is a joint researcher at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and the University of Western Australia's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She is applying her skills in computational biology and genomics to addressing food security issues in Sub-Saharan Africa (www.lauraboykinresearch.com).

Cassava crops, a staple food source in Africa, are being devastated by whiteflies that feed on the crops and spread viruses. Whiteflies are one of the most pervasive pests on earth and whitefly devastation is costing global agriculture billions of dollars a year. In Africa, the whitefly is leaving many smallholder farmers without the food to feed their families.

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Dr Boykin is studying the genetics of whitefly species to understand their differences and help to control whiteflies.

"Whitefly is a pest which is found all around the world, affecting agriculture wherever they go" she said. "The techniques we're developing with African whiteflies can be applied with researchers and farmers all around the world".

Dr Boykin also wants to help build capacity in genomics and super-computing in Sub-Saharan Africa, and empower African scientists with high performance computing skills to tackle the cassava and whitefly issue, as well as future insect outbreaks.

As of 2014 she is also working as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative: African cassava whitefly: outbreak causes and sustainable solutions. The initiative, established and funded by the Gates Foundation, is a collective of international researchers focussed on addressing the cassava and whitefly issue.

"I am not doing this alone" said Dr Boykin. "I have many collaborators around the world and we are fighting this fight together. We will only stop when farmers have food all year round and enough surplus to send their children to school and lead healthy, happy lives."

Research Fellow Boykin has been named as one of twenty-one TED Fellows for 2015, and joins an international community of around 300 innovative and "trail-blazing" TED Fellows from previous years.

TED, founded in 1985, is an internationally recognised non-profit body that operates under the slogan "ideas worth spreading". TED is best recognised for its TED Talks; short, powerful presentations delivered by inspiring people on a broad range of topics.

TED Fellowships offer unique access to skill-building workshops and the mentorship of world-renowned experts. TED Fellows present their own TED Talks at international conferences and remain connected to the many resources of the TED community.

The TED Fellowship will provide Dr Boykin with an avenue to raise awareness about food security issues in Sub-Saharan Africa and showcase how genomics and supercomputing are aiding research solutions for smallholder farmers. She will be presenting at TED2015 in March of next year.

"After two trips to Kenya and seeing the smallholder farmers suffering, I had to turn towards the heartbreak and do something about it" she said. "That "something" is stepping onto that TED stage and telling the world about our research and how we plan to help these famers."

Dr Boykin also looks forward to the opportunity to interact with the "amazing TED Fellows - past, present and future."

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Caitlin Byrt

Early Career Research Medal for Dr Caitlin Byrt

>>Press Release: December 12th 2014<<

Dr Caitlin Byrt, a Postdoctoral Associate researcher at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology's University of Adelaide node has become the inaugural recipient of the Edith Emily Dornwell Early Career Research Medal.

Dr Byrt's research expertise is in plant physiology. Her specific research interests include investigating salt tolerance mechanisms in wheat, ion transport in cereal crops and the assessment and modification of crops for biofuel and chemical industries.

Excessive salt in soils can limit the productivity of crops. The area of salt-affected agricultural land is predicted to double by the year 2050. This presents a challenge that can be addressed with the production of crops with improved salt-tolerance.

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Dr Byrt's research into molecular mechanisms that increase the salt-tolerance of wheat plants has contributed to the production of a wheat variety capable of a 25% improvement in yield when grown in saline soil, compared with other varieties. This is a positive outcome for farmers and for global food security.

When not performing her research Dr Byrt enjoys being mother to two young sons, aged one and three years old.

The new Edith Emily Dornwell Early Career Research Medal recognises excellence in early-career research at the University of Adelaide. The medal has been named after the University's first female graduate (Bachelor of Science, 1885). The University of Adelaide was the second university in the world to have allowed the award of degrees to women.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Caitlin Byrt

A promising new cohort of Discovery Early Career Researchers for Plant Energy Biology

>>Press Release: December 12th 2014<<

A number of early career scientists from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology have had success in the most recent Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRAs) funding round.

The DECRA recipients include Dr Caitlin Byrt (The University of Adelaide), Dr David Secco and Dr Bernard Gutmann (The University of Western Australia), and Dr Steven Eichten (The Australian National University), young researchers based at different Australian nodes of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology. Dr Brendan O'Leary was also awarded a DECRA and will join the Centre in 2015.

Dr Byrt's project will focus on economically important plants, and will examine how the regulation and inter-conversion of nucleotide sugar synthesis controls properties of arabinoxylan. Arabinoxylan is a major component of dietary fibre, and is highly variable in plants. The modification of arabinoxylan properties holds potential for many applications in plant industries. Dr Byrt's project will be performed as part of a collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.

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Dr Secco's project will aim to comprehensively identify the DNA methylation changes that occur in plant cells when nutrient starved. The modification of DNA through methylation is essential for maintaining appropriate gene expression patterns in cells, and was recently suggested to be responsive to environmental cues, in plants. Dr Secco aims to determine the effects of nutrient stress-induced DNA methylation in plants, as well as assess whether such DNA methylation changes can be passed to subsequent generations, producing inter-generational stress responsiveness. An understanding of the role DNA methylation can play in plant stress response will be valuable for future crop-improvement strategies.

Under DECRA funding Dr Gutmann will apply an understanding of the pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) code in PPR proteins, to the design of molecular, customised RNA-binding tools. The PPR code can guide the recognition of specific RNA molecules by a PPR protein. The application of this to molecular tools holds tremendous potential for research, biotechnology and for therapeutic strategies such as the targeting of RNA-based viruses that infect vegetable crops.

The objective of Dr Eichten's research into the functional role of the extended genotype in plants will be the prediction and selection of plant genetic responses to the environment.

"Adaptation to environmental change is required for species to persist. However rapid environmental change may exceed the limits of traditional genetic adaptation leading to widespread decline" said Dr Eichten. "The extended genotype could provide heritable variation, allowing rapid adaptation to environmental challenges."

Dr Brendan O'Leary, who is currently performing research with the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford, was also awarded a DECRA and will join the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology's UWA team in 2015. His project will focus on understanding a specific type of chemical modification to key enzymes in plant cells. Dr O'Leary will examine how this influences plant metabolism.

DECRAs are administered by the Australian Research Council and fund researcher's salaries for three years. Some awards include additional funds to be put towards project costs.

Dr Inge de Clercq, a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology's La Trobe University node in Melbourne was also recently awarded a Fellowship by The Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), to investigate the role of mitochondria in plants and expand an understanding of how plants perceive and respond to adverse environmental conditions.

Congratulations to all award recipients!

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Sandra Tanz

Recognition From The UWA Vice Chancellor For A Promising Early Career Researcher Investigating High Performance Photosynthesis

>>Press Release: November 10th 2014<<

Assistant Professor Sandra Tanz, of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, was last week presented with a University of Western Australia Vice Chancellor's Research Award for Early Career Investigators.

A/Prof. Tanz' work, which focuses on understanding the photosynthetic mechanisms of high performance C4 plants, has the potential to improve productivity of crop plants grown under adverse conditions.

Many significant global food crops, such as rice and wheat, are of the C3 photosynthetic variety. The potential outcome of A/Prof. Tanz' research is embedding efficient C4 photosynthetic traits into C3 crops. This could significantly boost yield from staple food crops around the globe.

"By investigating the photosynthetic mechanisms that exist in known high performing C4 plants, my ambition is to make the knowledge available for application in food crops used in adverse climates, and thereby contribute to feeding an increasing world population" A/Prof. Tanz said.

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Her work, at UWA, forms part of the greater ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology research vision; to enhance plant energy efficiency under changing environments to improve their productivity.

A/Prof. Tanz currently performs her research with funding from a prestigious ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award. She has previously secured a number of other competitive grants, awards and prizes.

She acknowledges the great opportunities afforded to her through her position at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, UWA and through the support of the ARC.

A/Prof. Tanz has published high impact papers in a number of internationally recognised journals, and in 2012 and 2013 attended the celebrations of UWA's Highly Cited Researchers and The Authors of UWA's Highly Cited Papers, in recognition of her achievements.

A/Prof. Tanz has also been proactive in promoting her work and related science by engaging in academic activity beyond her research. She has presented at esteemed international conferences in plant science, has sat on the organising committee of the Western Australian Combined Biological Sciences Meeting, and has been actively involved in outreach and public awareness projects for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and UWA.

"You need to be determined and prepared to work hard, but for those that do, the rewards are a career full of discoveries, travel, and a sense of real satisfaction in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge" A/Prof Tanz said.

UWA recognises that major contributions to research and scholarship require commitment and dedication, and the Research Award for Early Career Investigators and similar Vice Chancellor's prizes serve to acknowledge the efforts of outstanding members of the UWA academe.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Professor Ryan Lister

Professor Ryan Lister Awarded Prime Minister's Prize for Australian Life Scientist of the Year

>>Press Release: October 29th 2014<<

Professor Ryan Lister, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia, was this evening awarded the prestigious Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, at the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science awards ceremony.

Professor Lister's research, which focuses on epigenetics and genomics, has the potential to revolutionise agriculture, improve our understanding of the human brain and transform stem-cell medicine.

Organisms are composed of hundreds of different types of cells, yet all cells are formed from the same set of instructions - the organism's genome. A major challenge in biology is determining how the information contained in genes can give rise to the hundreds of specialised cell types that make up a complex organism.

"On top of the genetic code sits another code, the epigenome. It can direct which genes are switched on and which are switched off" Professor Lister says. "The genome contains a huge volume of information, a parts list to build an entire organism. Controlling when and where the different components are used is crucial. The epigenetic code regulates the release of the genome's potential."

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It is now known that the epigenome plays pivotal roles in normal development and disease or stress states in plants, humans and animals.

Professor Lister has sat at the forefront of epigenetics research after he pioneered new techniques that use large-scale DNA sequencing to rapidly produce whole-genome maps of the epigenome.

He first applied these new techniques to the model plant Arabidopsis. The resultant plant epigenomes provide foundational knowledge for understanding the role of epigenetic regulation in plant growth, development, and responses to the environment. His work will be critical for future efforts to develop crops that provide better yields of food, fuel and fibre in challenging and changing environments.

Professor Lister went on to apply his techniques to the human genome. The fundamental importance of the first complete and accurate human epigenetic maps was evidenced by the widespread recognition of his study. It was rated by TIME Magazine as the second most important scientific discovery of 2009, and received widespread media attention.

"We can now vault the species divide in our research" Professor Lister said. "With these new technologies we're seeing the old discipline borders between animals and plants dissolve. As the cost of DNA sequencing and synthesis continues to fall, science is pushing towards discoveries that impact across many species simultaneously."

In the human brain, Professor Lister has found a new form of the epigenome that is extensively reconfigured during childhood brain development, and that may play a critical role in learning, memory and neurological disorders. In stem-cell medicine, he has clarified a current challenge with his discovery that cells retain an epigenetic memory of their past.

Professor Lister is now an ARC Future Fellow, Chief Investigator and a program leader in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and leads a vibrant epigenetics and genomics research group at UWA. In accepting the Prize Professor Lister acknowledged his "fantastic colleagues", stating that "science isn't done in isolation, and none of my achievements are mine alone. I have to thank all my wonderful colleagues, past and present."

Professor Lister has been highly successful in securing multiple grants from the ARC, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the National Institutes of Health.

"Support of both basic and applied research into the future is critical for Australian science" he said. "In the coming years, the genomics revolution will become much more apparent to us all as it brings transformative advances in agriculture and medicine. This will touch everyone and have major economic benefits, and so it is a perfect opportunity for Australia to play a leading international role in the area of genomics."

Professor Lister was nominated for the Prize by colleague, mentor and current director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, Professor Harvey Millar. Professor Millar was the recipient of the same prize in 2005.

"Ryan's landmark scientific achievements have greatly advanced our understanding of the epigenetic code superimposed upon the genome" said Professor Millar. "Ryan's receipt of this Prize reflects the unquestionable significance of his work to the progress of agriculture and human health."

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Dr Nicolas Taylor

Exploring Plant Metabolism and Adaptation to Environmental Extremes

>>Press Release: October 10th 2014<<

Read about the work being performed by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology's ARC Future Fellow Dr Nicolas Taylor in the latest edition of International Innovation

Dr Taylor and members of his Molecular Acclimation Laboratory use mass spectrometry and other molecular approaches to investigate the mechanisms that allow plants to adapt and survive in extreme environmental conditions.

Understanding how plant growth responds to different extremes, such as those in temperature and salinity, is critical in the face of changing climates and limiting environments. Dr Taylor's work will help provide the knowledge needed to breed for certain traits that allow plants - our food and fuel - to weather the future.

Ian Small

Prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowship for Plant Energy Biology's Professor Ian Small

>>Press Release: August 22nd 2014<<

Professor Ian Small has been announced as an Australian Laureate Fellow under the Australian Research Council (ARC)'s most prestigious research grants scheme.

The Fellowship will support Professor Small and his team conducting valuable research at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia.

Professor Small's research interests focus on the RNA world of mitochondria and chloroplasts in plant cells and also on building computational models of plant metabolism. Professor Small and his group investigate how genes are controlled with a view to optimising the use of plants in agricultural and environmental applications.

The research project to be funded under the Laureate Fellowship will aim to understand how the largest class of RNA-binding protein in plants recognise their genetic targets and to develop custom-designed proteins for switching genes on or off. The technology will be used to create new hybrid cereal crop varieties and will be valuable for applications in human health, such as the correction of genetic mutations.

The project complements the greater research mission of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology which aims to improve plant energy efficiency for greater yields in harsh and changing environments.

"This is great news for our team. The funding will allow us to develop some radically new approaches with broad promise in biotechnology. In collaboration with the Centre we'll be trying out some really novel ways of controlling energy processes in plants" said Professor Small.

Professor Small established the world-leading ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology in Perth and served as Centre Director from 2006 to 2013.

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Professor Small was yesterday named Scientist of the Year in the Western Australian Premier's Science Awards. Earlier this year he was listed by Thomson-Reuters as one of the world's most influential scientific minds and named among a list of the most cited researchers in the world.

"Professor Ian Small's receipt of an Australian Laureate Fellowship is another major recognition of Professor Small and his team's research and is an excellent result for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology" said Harvey Millar, current Director of the Centre.

The Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme aims to support excellence in research by attracting world-class researchers and research leaders to key positions, and creating new rewards and incentives for the application of their talents in Australia. The ARC funding consists of salary support, funding for postdoctoral researchers and postgraduate students, and significant project funding over six years.

Professor Small has received one of only 15 fellowships awarded under the current Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme round and is the only Fellow from this round in Western Australia.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Ian Small

Overwhelming Success For Plant Energy Biology At The 2014 WA Premier's Science Awards

>>Press Release: August 22nd 2014<<

Professor Ian Small has been announced as the 2014 Scientist of the Year.

Western Australian Premier and Science Minister Colin Barnett announced the title at the 2014 Premier's Science Awards ceremony held last night at the WA Museum.

Professor Small's work has built global understanding of how plants capture, store and release energy - vital information for sustainable agriculture production and food security. He established the world-leading Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Plant Energy Biology in Perth and served as Centre Director from 2006 to 2013. He continues his work with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology as one of the Centre's Chief Investigators. Professor Small was this year listed by Thomson-Reuters as one of the world's most influential scientific minds and named among a list of the world's most cited researchers.

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"This is wonderful recognition for our Centre and highlights the importance of plant science to the future of agriculture and the environment in Australia" he said.

Current Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology Professor Harvey Millar congratulated Professor Small, saying "This is an excellent recognition of Ian Small's commitment to making new discoveries in plant science and his role as a leader, mentor and collaborator with researchers both nationally and internationally".

The Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER), partner Centre to the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology was also, last night, awarded the 2014 Chevron Science Engagement Initiative of the Year. The award was presented to the Centre in recognition of its activities raising community awareness about the importance of honeybees to the environment. CIBER collaborates with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology in molecular science aspects of bee reproduction, immunity and their pollination of crops and the two Centres have joint laboratories at the University of Western Australia.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Dignitaries touring

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology is Officially Launched

>>Press Release: August 5th 2014<<

The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology was showcased at an official launch held at the University of Western Australia (UWA) on Monday evening, the 4th of August.

Dignitaries, including Senator for Western Australia Chris Back, ARC Chief Executive Officer Professor Aidan Byrne, UWA Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson and Chief Scientist of Western Australia Professor Peter Klinken toured laboratory facilities at the Centre's UWA node. The Centre's research was showcased by Chief Investigators representing the Centre's Australian National University, University of Adelaide and La Trobe University nodes and by Chief Investigators, staff and students from the Centre's UWA node.

The Centre of Excellence Scheme aims to fund highly innovative and potentially transformational research. The Centre's successful application for funding in the most recent ARC Centres of Excellence scheme round will support research and community engagement through till the year 2020.

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Professor Aidan Byrne emphasised that while the Centre shares a name with a previous Centre the ARC does not automatically grant a renewal of funding. "It is not good enough just to have done excellent research. To succeed again a Centre must be able to build from previous activity, it must identify new challenges and demonstrate the capacity to achieve them - it is not just about more of the same" he said.

The current Centre has seen Professor Harvey Millar commence as Centre Director and the appointment of new Chief Investigators, expanding research directions and capabilities for the Centre. The new Centre has also seen the start of a La Trobe University node.

The Centre's vision is to enhance plant energy efficiency by simultaneously optimising energy capture, conversion and use in changing environments to improve the sustainable productivity of plants. The Centre aims to do this through innovative, collaborative research and valuable national and international academic and industry partnerships.

"This research Centre is about plant scientists combining their efforts in fundamental plant biology, with an eye on its application as part of a global effort" said Professor Millar. "Salinity, temperature extremes, and nutrient deficient soils are key parts of the problems we face, and these are all topics we are addressing in the Centre".

The Centre's research will help to tackle food security and energy crisis concerns, and will lead to social and economic benefits for Australia.

"The impact [of plant science] will be profound on what we grow, what we eat and how we engage with the natural environment" said Professor Millar.

The Centre also aims to provide Australians with access to information and to facilitate a better understanding of the importance of plants and their incredible ability to capture, process and convert energy through its Education, Training and Outreach programs.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology 2014-2020 was officially opened by Senator Chris Back.

"The Centre has already produced outstanding research outcomes in the past and will continue to do so for the next seven years that funding that has been assured. I look forward to the continued success of [Centre Director] Harvey, your colleagues and of course your graduate and postgraduate students. It really gives me great pleasure to launch the Centre" Senator Back stated before officially opening the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Ian and Harvey

Professor Ian Small named as a finalist for Scientist of the Year

>>Press Release: July 28th 2014<<

Western Australian Premier and Science Minister Colin Barnett recently announced the finalists for the Premier's Science Awards, in which Professor Ian Small of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology has been named as a contender for Scientist of the Year.

This year Professor Small was listed by Thomson-Reuters as one of the world's most highly-cited authors, ranking in the top one percent for his subject field. Since coming to Western Australia as a Premier's Fellow in 2006 he has established the world leading ARC Centre of Excellence of Plant Energy Biology, acting as Centre Director from 2006 till 2013 and attracting over $57 million in ARC funding.

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As a Chief Investigator at the Centre's UWA node Professor Small's research continues to focus on understanding how plants capture, store and release energy. Investigating how genes are controlled, his discoveries have provided the basis for efficiencies in large food production with implications for agriculture and the environment.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Ian and Harvey

Plant Scientists Named Among the World's Most Influential Scientific Minds

>>Press Release: June 24th 2014<<

Two scientists from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology have been recognised as some of the most influential scientific minds in the world.

Professor Harvey Millar and Professor Ian Small earned the title through their inclusion in the prestigious Thomson Reuters 2014 Highly Cited Researchers list. They have also been named in the accompanying report; The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds: 2014. This accomplishment reflects the significance, quality and impact of the many scientific publications they have published in collaboration with other scientists and students from the Centre.

The Centre focuses its research on the energy system of plants - an energy system that ultimately feeds, clothes and fuels the world. Researchers aim to discover and characterise the molecular components that drive energy metabolism in plant cells, which will lead to significant benefits for Australian agriculture. The Centre performs in partnership with a number of agencies including the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Agilent Technologies and Limagrain.

Professor Millar, newly appointed Director of the Centre, leads a research team that investigates respiration in plants and the roles played by proteins in maintaining the function of plants in harsh environments, such as drought, salinity and temperature extremes. His group is also working on measuring the speed of protein turnover in plants, which represents a major energy expense but is necessary to maintain the quality of plant products.

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Professor Small, who served as Director from 2006 to 2013, and his research group focus on the RNA world of mitochondria and chloroplasts in plant cells. These organelles make some of the most important and abundant proteins on Earth. The group investigates how genes are controlled with a view to optimising the use of plants in agricultural and environmental applications.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology comprises four collaborating nodes at University of Western Australia, Australian National University, University of Adelaide and La Trobe University. Professor Millar and Professor Small conduct their research at UWA.

The Centre was recently awarded $26 million funding by the Australian Research Council to accelerate its research from 2014 to 2020. It was also recognised for its outstanding community engagement last year when it won Science Engagement Initiative of the Year Award at the 2013 WA Science Awards.

The Centre's outreach and educational programs include a variety of strategies to engage the community with plant science. They promote the importance of science and aim to increase understanding of the significance of plants and their ability to capture, process and covert energy, focusing on engaging the general public, students, farmers and industry professionals. The programs also connect scientists and growers with the general public.

Media References:

  • Karina Price (ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology, Science Communications Officer) (+61 8) 6488 4481)
Food and Environment

Food and environmental security: opportunities for Australian agriculture

>>Press Release: June 4th 2014<<

Food production needs to double over the next half-century to accommodate increasing global population. Moreover, it will need to do so against the backdrop of environmental problems such as soil degradation, decreased biodiversity and increasingly frequent droughts that are likely to reduce agricultural productivity. It is thus becoming increasingly clear food and environmental security are interlinked. Environmental processes, so-called 'ecosystem services', such as soil-health-maintenance, waterway purification and pollination, are necessary for sustainable food production.

With this in mind, a forum entitled: "Food and Environmental Security: Australia's contribution" was hosted in April by the Crawford School of Public Policy, in an initiative by Justin Borevitz of the ARC Centre of Plant Energy Biology, supported by the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University.

Professor Lister said the epigenome was like a layer of information superimposed upon the genome, which could control the way the underlying genetic information encoded in the DNA was expressed. Millions of small molecules that tagged on to the genome acted as signposts to tell a cell to turn on or off nearby genes, he said.

The forum represented a telescoping view of agriculture, discussing the agricultural challenges and opportunities facing Australia and the world. Efforts to improve plant productivity at the molecular and cellular level were presented by Professor Murray Badger, Director of the Centre of Excellence in Translational Photosynthesis at ANU. At the agronomic and crop level, guest speaker Professor David Lobell of the Stanford University Centre on Food Security and Environment, discussed global agriculture yield sensitivity to climate change.

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Helping Australian farmers adapt their agricultural practices to climate change was discussed by Dr Mark Howden from the CSIRO, whilst Ms Mellissa Wood of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) presented Australia's efforts to spread agricultural know-how to developing-country farmers. Finally, Professor Robert Costanza of the Crawford School of Public Policy explained how ecosystem services are a major component of agricultural productivity and discussed ways of accounting for them.

Most significantly, forum speakers emphasised the need for agriculture to recognise and account for contributions ecosystem services make to farm productivity. Additionally, and to the surprise of some, it was noted how reformed agricultural practices can not only preserve but also remediate natural environments. For example, it was recently reported that, under the right conditions, Australian farms actually absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change (see:http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13376.html).

The 'big picture' view of the forum allowed attendees, from plant researchers to policy-makers, to see how their work contributed to improving Australian and world food security. By promoting such exchanges into the future, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology hopes to further refine its research priorities, leveraging plant productivity to address the twin challenges of food production and environmental regeneration.

More information regarding the "Food and Environmental Security: Australia's Contribution" forum, and videos of all forum presentations can be found at:



Green vaccination: boosting plant immunity without side effects

>>Tuesday, 29 April 2014<<

A team of international researchers has uncovered a mechanism by which plants are able to better defend themselves against disease causing pathogens.

The work led by Dr. Jurriaan Ton and Dr. Estrella Luna at the University of Sheffield in the UK and including scientists from The University of Western Australia, the University Jaume I in Spain and Utrecht University in The Netherlands, has been published in the international journal Nature Chemical Biology.

The scientists identified the key receptor binding a chemical called BABA (β-aminobutyric acid), which is boosting plant immunity.

BABA has long been known for its protective effects against devastating plant diseases, such as potato blight, but has so far not widely been used in crop protection because of undesirable side effects.

"We have found that the plant receptor binding BABA is an 'aspartyl tRNA synthetase' which we have called IBI1. This class of enzymes play a vital role in primary metabolism of all cells, but had never been linked to immune responses in plants. Binding of the chemical to this protein triggers a secondary function that 'primes' the plant immune system against future attacks by pests and diseases," Dr Luna said.

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Dr Oliver Berkowitz, a Research Associate in the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and the School of Plant Biology at UWA was also involved in the research.

"Importantly, our study also revealed that the undesirable side effect of this vaccination, a reduction in growth, can be uncoupled from the beneficial immune reaction," Dr Berkowitz said.

"Since plant immunisation by BABA is long-lasting, primed crops would require fewer applications of fungicides, thereby increasing sustainability of crop protection. Furthermore, immune priming boosts so-called 'multi-genic' resistance in plants. Plant immunity that is controlled by a single resistance gene, on which most conventional breeding programs are based, is comparably easy to overcome by a pathogen. By contrast, priming of multi-genic immunity by BABA is difficult to break, thus offering more durable crop protection," Dr Ton said.

Although their research has been performed in a weed called 'Arabidopsis thaliana', the work horse of plant geneticists, the team is confident that their discovery can be used for the protection of crops from their enemies. Proof-of-concept experiments have already shown that BABA is detected in a similar manner by tomato.

More information is available on the Ton lab blog and the journal website.

Media References:

  • Dr Oliver Berkowitz (ARC Center of Excellence for Plant Energy Biology) (+61 8) 6488 4468)
  • David Stacey (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 8) 32 637 716)
Ryan Lister

Epigenome researcher wins prestigious science medal

>>Press Release: Jan 2014<<

A genome biologist from The University of Western Australia who developed advanced techniques to accurately map millions of DNA modifications throughout the genome has won the Australian Academy of Science's Ruth Stephens Gani Medal for 2014.

Professor Ryan Lister, a Chief Investigator and Future Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at UWA, has been investigating the role of the epigenome throughout brain development and adulthood, focusing particularly on the major changes that occur in early childhood.

Professor Lister said the epigenome was like a layer of information superimposed upon the genome, which could control the way the underlying genetic information encoded in the DNA was expressed. Millions of small molecules that tagged on to the genome acted as signposts to tell a cell to turn on or off nearby genes, he said.

"We developed new genomics techniques that use large-scale DNA sequencing technologies to accurately map the exact location of these 'epigenetic' modifications of the DNA throughout the entire genome, which can be several billion letters long, whereas previously people could only study very small snippets of the genome at once," Professor Lister said.

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He said these new maps had revealed many surprises about the composition of the epigenome, how it varied in different tissues and cell types in the body, how it changed over development and how it was disrupted in disease.

Professor Lister and his collaborators at UWA and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies then decided to investigate the role of the epigenome throughout brain development and adulthood, focusing particularly on the dramatic changes that occur in early childhood. Their discoveries, published in the journal Science, provided exciting new insights into the influence of the epigenome on gene regulation during critical stages of childhood development.

It was this work which earned Professor Lister the Academy's Ruth Stephens Gani Medal, to be presented in May at "Science at the Shine Dome", an annual gathering of Australia's foremost scientists. The medal, one of the Australian Academy of Science's annual awards, recognises distinguished research in human genetics and honours the contribution to science in human cytogenetics by the late Ruth Stephens Gani.

"Our work represents a significant leap in the understanding of how and why DNA is modified along the genome and how these 'epigenetic' modifications relate to normal and disease states in humans and plants," Professor Lister said.

The award was valuable because it helped promote the research he and his team at the Lister Lab were undertaking, he said.

"This is critical for getting young new scientists involved in this exciting and rapidly evolving field, for establishing new collaborations, and for communicating to the public the science that we are doing, why it's important, and how it may affect their lives," he said.

Professor Lister and his colleagues are now pursuing new lines of research into how the complex patterns of the epigenome are established and altered in normal and disease states, how the epigenome is altered by the surrounding environment, and how cells decide which genes to turn on or off.

"We're also developing new molecular tools to precisely and deliberately modify the epigenome in order to study its basic properties and to correct it when it is disturbed in states of disease or stress," he said.

The Ruth Stephens Gani Award is the second major prize in recent months for Professor Lister - he was also recognised as Western Australia's brightest young scientist in the Young Tall Poppy Awards, announced in November.

Media References:

  • Professor Ryan Lister (ARC Center of Excellence for Plant Energy Biology) (+61 8) 6488 4407)
  • David Stacey (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 8) 32 637 716)

Biological scientist named State's Tall Poppy

>>Press Release: Wednesday 27 November 2013<<

Professor Ryan Lister, a genome biologist and Future Fellow in the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology has been recognised as Western Australia's brightest young scientist in the 2013 Tall Poppy Awards.

Professor Lister, an expert in using advanced DNA sequencing technologies and computational biology to understand how the genomes of complex biological organisms work, was last night presented with his award at a reception held at Curtin University.

The Tall Poppy Awards recognise individuals who combine world-class research with a passionate commitment to communicating science and who demonstrate great leadership potential.

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Other Tall Poppy Award winners included Dr Jean-Paul Hobbs, from UWA's Oceans Institute, Dr Louise Naylor from the UWA School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health and Adjunct Associate Professor Graeme Zosky and Dr Hannah Moore from the UWA-affiliated Telethon Institute for Child Health Research as well as Dr James Miller-Jones from Curtin University.

Professor Lister's research focuses on epigenetics and genomics. The epigenome - a molecular code superimposed upon the genome that controls how our genes are turned on and off - plays a pivotal role in normal development and disease/stress states in animals and plants.

Researchers had previously only been able to glimpse small snippets of this epigenetic information, but by developing new techniques utilizing cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology, Professor Lister was able to generate the first accurate whole epigenome maps for humans and plants.

His research is giving scientists critical insights into how the epigenome regulates gene expression and is perturbed in disease or stress, providing great leaps forward in our understanding of the epigenome will provide benefits to human health, regenerative medicine and agriculture.



>>Press Release: Friday 22 November 2013<<

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (ARC PEB) is the proud winner of the Chevron Science Engagement Initiative of the Year last night at the 2013 Western Australian (WA) Science Awards.

The WA Science Awards recognise and celebrate the achievements of the State's science community and highlight the important role of science in WA.

The Premier and Minister for Science, Colin Barnett, presented the award which recognises that the Science Engagement Initiative of the Year has made an outstanding contribution to community awareness, interest and/or participation in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Thanks to sponsorship by Chevron, the award comes with prize money of $10,000.

The ARC PEB outreach and educational programs include a variety of strategies to engage the community with plant science. These programs are advocating the importance of science with the aim to increase understanding of the significance of plants and their ability to capture, process and covert energy, focussing on engaging the general public, students, farmers and industry professionals. The programs also create a dialogue between scientists, growers and the general public.

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"We would like to thank the Premier and Chevron for the award, it's an honour to be recognised for the hard work, commitment and innovation of our team" said Professor Harvey Millar. "The Centre is filled with staff who are passionate about science education and the many possibilities of science. Funding from the Australian Research Council has allowed us to develop truly innovative outreach programs, which have now been recognised by the Government of Western Australia."

"We would also like to thank our fantastic education and outreach collaborators, including the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG), Dairy Futures Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), UWA Science Communication, Soxon Inflatables, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and Scitech."

The ARC PEB outreach programs include Bio-Bounce - the world's biggest (10 metre by 13 metre inflated structure) and bounciest cell, incorporating all the elements needed for the molecular function of plants. Plant science workshops and experiments for students and the general public, such as, Get into Genes - highlight the application of biotechnology to crop improvement. This program is a collaboration with ACPFG and Dairy Futures CRC.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology is one of the world's top plant energy research centres, combining the expertise of more than 100 scientists from the University of Western Australia, the Australian National University and the University of Adelaide. This award is a recognition of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology's commitment to delivering excellent and engaging outreach and education programs.


ASPB Shull Award for Centre Deputy Director

>>Press Release: 2013<<

Prof Harvey Millar from the Centre has been awarded the Charles Albert Shull Award by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB). This USA award for plant science was created in 1971 to honour the Society's founding father and the first editor-in-chief of Plant Physiology. The award is designed to recognize outstanding investigations in the field of plant biology by a scientist who is under 45 years of age. The award is open to both USA and international researchers of plant biology. This is the first time it has been awarded to an Australian researcher.

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ASPB president Peggy Lemaux said "The Shull Award recognizes outstanding investigations in the field of plant biology and is being given this year to Harvey Millar (University of Western Australia) for his impressive body of research on plant mitochondria and bioinformatics. Harvey's work on the purification, proteomics, and metabolomics of mitochondria, and on the effects of oxidative stress on mitochondrial proteins, has provided important new insights into plant mitochondrial composition and function. In addition, the genome browser developed initially in his research group for proteo-genomic mapping has facilitated collaborative studies that resulted in publication of single-base resolution methylomes for Arabidopsis and humans. Harvey will address the Society at the annual meeting in 2014."

Click here to view the official ASPB Awards announcement.



>>Press Release: September 11, 2013<<

An international team of scientists led by the UK's John Innes Centre and including scientists from Australia, Japan, the US and France has perfected a way of watching genes move within a living plant cell. Using this technique scientists watched glowing spots, which marked the position of the genes, huddle together in the cold as the genes were switched "off".

The results, published in the international journal Genes & Development, reveal how genes respond to environmental changes in living organisms where previously plant genes were studied by cutting up plants, killing the cells and fixing them to glass slides.

"What is remarkable about this finding is that we saw genes move within the nucleus in response to changes in the environment, and that this movement seems to be involved in genetic control," Associate Professor Josh Mylne said.

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"The gene we studied (FLC) allows plants to respond to changes in the season. When FLC gets turned off (by cold), the plant starts to make flowers instead of leaves. We knew FLC was switched off by cold, but we had no idea that FLC genes would congregate as they get switched off."

"Studying gene motion could improve our understanding of how environmental cues and nurture impact on nature and gene expression," said first author Dr Stefanie Rosa from the John Innes Centre.

The study Physical clustering of FLC alleles during Polycomb-mediated epigenetic silencing in vernalization was supported in part by the Australian Research Council.

Associate Professor Mylne initiated the scientific approach almost a decade ago as he embarked on his career in the UK. He is an ARC Future Fellow at The University of Western Australia's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

"What we want to know now is what is happening at these sites where the genes are congregating," Associate Professor Mylne said. "Are the genes going somewhere special inside the cell? What takes them there and how do the chromosomes move and let the genes congregate? How many other genes congregate like this when they get turned off? There are so many new questions this discovery will help us answer."



>>Press Release: July 3, 2013<<

ICAR Conference Highlights

Last week, the International Conference on Arabidopsis Research was chaired by Centre Chief Investigator Barry Pogson in Sydney, Australia.

At the conference, scientists revealed that plants are able tell the time to manage how much "food" they eat at night, so that they never get the night time munchies.

Mark Stitt, from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, showed that plants use an inbuilt biological clock to set the rate at which they breakdown starch at night.

Starch is plant food made and stored during the day. At night, the starch is broken down and used for plant growth and yield. Research by Alison Smith and Alex Graf at the John Innes Centre, Norwich UK and Mark Stitt revealed that the plant's clock dictates how fast the starch stores are broken down, so that it meets the rising sun with an empty stomach. Remarkably, they time this so precisely that they never run out of starch early or have too much left over.

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"This goes to show that plants have an unexpected ability to measure how much starch they have made during the day by photosynthesis and then set a rate to use it for growth during the night." said Mark Stitt.

Prof Barry Pogson from the ANU and the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology said that, "The way plants tell time is similar to the mechanism in humans that results in us getting jetlag when we change time-zones, something a number of the scientists who travelled from 26 countries have felt at this meeting."

"By being able to understand the relationship between plants and their environment, we can decode the control systems which regulate plant growth and energy use. This kind of information helps scientists get the most out of plants in order to produce more food from the same amount of land."



Bio-Bounce, the Giant Inflatable Plant Cell

Jump into the plant cell!

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology is the proud developer of the world's biggest and bounciest cell: a 10 metre by 13 metre inflated structure which incorporates all the elements needed for the molecular function of plants.

To create the giant inflatable, a plant cell has been enlarged one million times. "A picture in a book just can't demonstrate the extraordinary level of activity that goes on in a cell," said developer Alice Trend. "It's a really exciting place! We have managed to turn the theoretical - something you could only try to picture in your head - into something that you can climb inside and get immersed in."

One of the main drivers behind Bio-Bounce, the Giant Plant Cell is to create an educational tool that helps the community better understand how cells work and why researchers study them. We believe this will help the community make informed choices on new technologies in biology. Getting people excited about science is also a major aim of the Giant Cell.

"Bio-Bounce" will be on display and open to the public on the 24th and 25th of June at Palm Grove, Darling Harbour to coincide with the 24th International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR) at the Sydney Convention Centre.

View image slideshow...


plant cellHide




Inside the nucleus

Using props inside the nucleus, visitors learn how genes work.


Ribosome, ER and people products!Hide

A close up shot of the ribosome and endoplasmic reticulum.

Here, visitors can learn about how proteins are made.




Visitors learn about photosynthesis in the chloroplast.


Inside cellHide

A bouncy approach to education.

Some examples of where you can see Bio-Bounce in 2013:

Darling Harbour, Sydney

  • 24-25th June, 2013.
  • Palm Grove, Darling Harbour Sydney.
  • Coincides with the ICAR conference, Sydney Convention Centre.
  • http://www.sallyjayconferences.com.au/icar2013/

Perth, WA

  • 11th August, 2013
  • UWA Open Day, UWA
  • http://www.openday.uwa.edu.au/
  • 35 Stirling Hwy, Crawley, WA

Bunbury, WA

  • 17th August, 2013
  • South West Super Science Spectacular
  • http://www.scienceweek.net.au/southwest-super-science-spectacular/
  • Ocean Forest Lutheran College, 133 Norton Promenade, Dalyellup, WA, 6230

Canberra, ACT

  • 4-6th October, 2013
  • Floriade
  • http://www.floriadeaustralia.com/
  • Minimise

Corporate Triathlon Triumph - 3 years running

>>Press Release: 2/5/13<<

Once again, Perth has been left reeling in the wake of ARC Plant Energy Biology's energetic scientists.

The 2013 Nissan Corporate Triathlon ladies division was taken out for the third year running by our super team of Kate Howell, Cathie Colas des Francs-Small and Sandra Tanz. To our delight, the surprise package of Dori Hahne, Xu Lin and Peter Kindgren won the mixed team category and placed SECOND overall in a field of thousands.

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Our all-male team of Olivier Van Aken, John Bussell and Jens also worked well to place 29th overall. Congratulations everyone, you did us proud.

Image credit: Joanna Melonek


Aaron Yap on ABC Science Show!

>>Press Release: 22/2/13<<

Interview on cellular processes governing production of proteins from DNA

Following his talk's success at COMBIO, Aaron has been interviewed by Robyn Williams for ABC's Science Show.

In the interview, Aaron describes the cellular processes governing production of proteins from DNA and explains his role in the recent PLOS Genetics publication: A Combinatorial Amino Acid Code for RNA Recognition by Pentatricopeptide Repeat Proteins.http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.1002910

To listen to the interview, please visit the ABC website: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/quality-control-in-protein-production/4428470

Tiago Tomaz: Fulbright Scholar

>>Press Release: 22/3/13<<

Last night, recent PhD graduate Dr Tiago Tomaz was presented with a Fulbright Scholarship at Parliament House.

Tiago, who currently works at the Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia, will go to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from January 2014.

While a student at the UWA-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, Tiago's thesis investigated the way plants "breathe" and produce energy in a process called respiration. "A key finding from his research was that removing two proteins involved in plant respiration can increase levels of Vitamin C and have big effects on plant growth" said Professor Harvey Millar, Tiago's PhD supervisor from ARC Plant Energy Biology at UWA.

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The ability to increase a plant's Vitamin C content - a natural antioxidant - has many implications for improving the current approach to dietary vitamin supplements and developing antioxidant-rich foods. This knowledge may also help create plants better able to withstand environmental stressors associated with climate change.

"My time as an undergraduate student at UWA, and postgraduate researcher at ARC Plant Energy Biology gave me a clear route to pursuing my passion for the environment," said Tiago. "I'm now looking to build upon the knowledge and techniques learnt at UWA, by applying these outside the laboratory in field-based research on crop plants." He currently works in a team seeking to develop the drought and cold tolerance of popular Australian wheat varieties.

In the US, Tiago will be using his Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholarship to join a research team to enhance ozone tolerance capabilities of maize, one of the world's major cereals, and a key crop for agriculture in a hotter, drier climate.

'Elevated ground level ozone concentrations, the result of ever increasing air pollutants, pose a significant threat to the productivity of major cereal crops' said Tiago, 'I will be screening for ozone-tolerant maize plants for use in future breeding programs.'


Kai Xun Chan - winner!

>>Press Release: 19/3/13<<

ANU Hiro Naora Award

The stage was set and the competition was stiff. There were 54 talks by aspiring plant science PhD's at the ANU Research School of Biology PhD Student Conference.

Second year PhD student Kai Xun Chan took the stage and gave an excellent talk on his research into signalling between the chloroplast and the nucleus (cellular control centre) under stress conditions such as high light and drought.

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There are 700 changes in gene expression (mRNA) after one hour of stress conditions in the chloroplast, making it an excellent environmental sensor for the cell.

For his clear and informative talk into his findings on how a gene called SAL1 is regulated during stress, Kai took home the Hiro Naora Award for Plant Science. This award recognises the best speaker in their field at the event.

Kai is a member of Barry Pogson's group, who are particularly interested in secondary sulphur metabolism in cells during stress (see Chan et al 2013 Trends in Plant Science for review). This is important because secondary sulphur metabolism is responsible for the production of stress-responsive retrograde signals such as PAP (Estavillo et al 2011 Plant Cell). In fact, the group recently found that mutating a gene called SAL1 results in a build-up of the small molecule PAP in the nucleus, closing the leaf stomata and creating drought resistance in the cell.

From his training with the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the ANU, Kai describes the most important skills he has learnt while so far are critical thinking and effective communication with a general audience. Indeed! Well done Kai!


Welcome Josh Mylne!

>>Press Release: 1/2/13<<

ARC PEB and the UWA School of Chemistry and Biochemisty have officially welcomed 2012 Goldacre Medal Winner and ARC Future Fellow Josh Mylne on board.

His new lab, which focuses on a blend of genetics and biochemistry, will collaborate closely with PEB research teams.

Let's get to know Josh a little better:

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What Got You Interested In Biology, And Specifically, Plants?

I had an awesome high school biology teacher, Ted Brambleby. I vividly remember the classroom full of bubbling fish tanks, pickled specimens (mostly marine) and the reek of formaldehyde. At university I started with a general biology degree. I'm not entirely sure why I gradually whittled away zoology in favour of botany, but I went on and did my PhD on Arabidopsis with my favourite university lecturer Jimmy Botella who had recently joined UQ from Spain.

What Are Your Career Highlights?

I loved the concentration of plant biologists at the John Innes Centre (2001-2005) and have come to miss being savaged by the Dean bulldog (an affectionate term for the repartee that followed the Dean lab talks). Other highlights were the two days (in 2007 and 2012) when I scrolled down the PDF list to see I had my QEII then Future Fellowships - each marked the beginning of new chapters. The first secured a career in science, the second meant I would have my own lab at UWA in Perth.

What research projects will you be pursuing in the Centre?

I'm quite keen to understand how new proteins evolve and how easily they 'appear'. We're doing some very practical things too, but this what I'm most curious about. We're looking at these questions initially by studying the genetic events that created drug-like proteins found in plants.

In Your Opinion, What Will Be The Most Important Discoveries Of The 21st Century?

Globally, I'd like to think big advances in the technology for solar energy capture and storage will reduce the footprint we leave on the planet. Personally, I'd like someone to make sub-dermal implants that replace wallets, keys and phones.

Where Can People Find Out About Doing Science In Your Team? www.mylne.org


Gates foundation funds research into photosynthesis for improvement of crops

>>Press Release: 14/12/12<<

Ask plant scientists their worst fear about the future, and they might tell you that it's a meltdown in world food production.

The Earth's population is expected to increase 50% by 2050 and the UN predicts that we will need to increase our crop yields by 70% to feed everyone.

Professor Murray Badger, co-recipient of a breakthrough grant from the Gates Foundation explains, "This increase in food supply is a massive ask of agriculture. Conventional breeding techniques simply cannot deliver this increase in food. In this collaborative effort, we are seeking to understand the fundamental reaction at the centre of all life on Earth - photosynthesis - to help feed the world."

"I believe that photosynthesis is the remaining yield increase frontier to be exploited for world crop improvement."

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Professor Badger, Deputy Director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at Australian National University will contribute to this international project by focusing on importing algal mechanisms for carbon dioxide concentration into crop plants.

How does this work? There is a small enzyme - or working protein - called "Rubisco" at the heart of plant cells which is responsible for the first step of photosynthesis - taking carbon dioxide out of the air. A current limitation with crop production is that Rubisco fails at high temperatures (over 25 degrees C). This leads to lower crop yields and potentially, higher use of fertilisers and water to compensate.

However, there is a subset of plants which have evolved to be better operators in these conditions. "C4" plants increase the concentration of carbon dioxide available to Rubisco in plant cells and therefore speeds up photosynthesis and crop yield, even at hotter temperatures. Natural examples of C4 plants include maize, sugarcane, some native Australian species and some unicellular algae, which show C-4 like photosynthesis supercharging characteristics.

One mechanism of particular interest to Professor Badger is a bicarbonate transporter in algae which actively carries CO2 into the photosynthetic cells and force feeds CO2 to Rubisco. The group's aim is to engineer these transporters into crop plants, resulting in greater growth rates and higher crop yields. The group will also screen a variety of plants to identify more efficient natural forms of Rubisco for future work.

The importance of this work has been recognised by a $7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which will see researchers from the University of Illinois, the Universities of Essex, Berkley, Louisiana State, Shanghai and Rothamsted Research and ANU working in collaboration. The interdisciplinary, international team brings together several different approaches and a lot of expertise towards supercharging crop plants.

Congratulations Murray, these leaps forward in our understanding of the inner workings of plant cells will be critical for our food and fuel future.

More here: http://phys.org/wire-news/116567482/university-of-illinois-to-improve-crop-yield-through-photosynthe.html


When plants get hungry

>>Press Release: 10/12/12<<

The effect of low phosphate supply on the proteome of Arabidopsis thaliana suspension culture cells

When Sandra Kerbler picked up one of fifteen Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships in the world from the American Society of Plant Biologists, little did she know her undergraduate work would not only compete with PhD student work from Western Australian universities, but go on to win the "Proteomics" section of the Biomics Student Poster Presentation.

During her undergraduate project, Sandra was co-supervised by Plant Biology and ARC Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia. Sandra was interested in how plants use phosphate, a macronutrient that often limits plant growth, development and productivity.

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Phosphate plays a pivotal structural and regulatory role linking photosynthesis, carbon metabolism and energy conservation, however low phosphate availability and/or mobility are common in soil. To overcome this, plants have evolved a variety of morphological, physiological, biochemical and molecular responses.

As phosphate fertilisers are both crucial to plant production and declining in availability worldwide, increasing studies have discovered physiological responses to phosphate limitation. However, the molecular events that monitor, transmit and respond to the internal and external plant phosphate levels are yet to be fully characterized.

Sandra used a "proteomics" approach to investigate whole cell changes in protein abundance and phosphorylation status associated with decreased phosphate supply in Arabidopsis cells grown in suspension culture. Proteins which changed significantly included those involved in intermediary carbon metabolism, energy production, protein degradation, stress (heat-shock proteins), amino acid synthesis, translation and cell signaling.

Together, these results are expected to provide vital insights into the workings of the phosphate-signaling pathway and provide protein candidates for further analysis. Well done Sandra!


WA termite guts could be a valuable resource of novel bacterial species

>>Press Release: 29/11/12<<

Poster winner at Biomics

Ghislaine Small was foraging for termite gold this year. She was searching for bacteria inside termite guts which allow them to break down cellulose - or plant material. Understanding how bacteria break down cellulose could have a great impact on our ability to produce biofuels, among many other things.

For her Honours project, Ghislaine collected termites from 6 colonies across two sites in WA. By analysing the contents of the termites' guts using a powerful MiSeq DNA sequencer to do "metagenomics", Ghislaine found that the gut communities of two separate termite species (Tumulitermes westraliensis, found only in WA and Coptotermes acinaciformis, the worst pest species in Australia), were significantly different in the abundance and diversity of the bacterial species present.

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In fact, over half of the gut bacteria from T. westraliensis, a species only found in WA, have never been identified before.

Ghislaine presented her findings at the Biomics student poster session last week where Honours and PhD students representing all WA universities presented their research, where she won second prize in the "Genomics" section. The prize included free attendance to the OMICS Australasia Symposium in Fremantle this week.

This work is exciting as many abundant bacteria are potential cellulose degraders, so endemic termite species could be a source of novel bacterial species and enzymes. Congratulations Ghislaine!


Plant Energy Photo Competition Winners

>>Press Release: Oct 11th, 2012<<

Beautiful Science!

Dear Competitors and Judges,

We are really grateful for another year of fantastic images from our staff, their families and our valued collaborators. A huge thank you to the judges for helping us to make this happen. Congratulations to the winners - their beautiful images can be seen in the slideshow below. Please note, the portrait orientation images will not display as well in this format, and can be better viewed on our facebook page: www.facebook.com/PlantEnergy.

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1st Place "General" Category

Photo: Devon Ward (CIBER, UWA)

A star is born

A star is bornHide

2nd Place "General" Category

Photo: Catherine Colas des Francs-Small (PEB, UWA)

Death Trap

Death TrapHide

3rd Place "General" Category

Photo: Catherine Colas des Francs-Small (PEB, UWA)

Arrested Development

Arrested DevelopmentHide

1st Place "Sciecne" Category

Photo: Kai Xun Chan (PEB, ANU)



2nd Place "Science" Category

Photo: Ali Smith

Alexander Stain

Alexander StainHide

3rd Place "Science" Category

Photo: Szymon Kubiszewski-Jakubiak (PEB, UWA)

Out Bush

Out BushHide

1st Place "Scientists" Category

Photo: Devon Ward (CIBER, UWA)

DNA extraction

DNA extractionHide

2nd Place "Scientists" Category

Photo: Alice Trend (PEB, ANU)

What DNA looks like

What DNA looks likeHide

3rd Place "Scientists" Category

Photo: Rachel Shingaki-Wells (PEB, UWA)


Winners in category:


  • 1st Kai Xun Chan (Pogson Lab, ANU)
  • 2nd Ali Smith (Smith Lab, UWA)
  • 3rd Szymon Kubiszewski-Jakubiak (Whelan Lab, UWA)


  • 1st Devon Ward (CIBER/SymbioticA UWA)
  • 2nd Catherine Colas des Francs (Small Lab, UWA)
  • 3rd Catherine Colas des Francs (Small Lab, UWA)


  • 1st Devon Ward (CIBER/SymbioticA UWA)
  • 2nd Alice Trend (Trend Lab (?), UWA)
  • 3rd Rachel Shingaki-Wells (Millar Lab, UWA)

Congratulations for Conny Hooper at CBSM

>>Press Release: 28th August, 2012<<

Winner of the Human Genetics Society of Australasia Poster Prize

New Centre scientist Conny Hooper is only a recent convert to plant science.

In fact, just last week she took home the Human Genetics Society of Australasia poster prize at the Combined Biological Sciences Meeting for her PhD work profiling childhood brain tumours.

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By comparing the transcript profiles (gene-products) from healthy and cancerous samples in the developing brain, Conny identified surprising "signatures" representing different stages of brain development. The differences between healthy cells and brain tumour cells suggested that the cell types originated from distinct areas and time periods in the brain. She also found several genes that may have contributed to the cancer development and may be useful as clinical markers.

These fantastic results were described in her poster "Developmental-Intersect-Analysis using human Neural Stem and Precursor Cells identifies Candidate Genes involved in Childhood Medulloblastoma Pathogenesis".

Computational biology is a powerful and relatively new tool that is applicable across all fields of biology. We are delighted to welcome Dr Hooper into our ranks to help us uncover how plant genes and their products are matched to overall plant performance and yield.


Student Success at the Combined Biological Sciences Meeting

>>Press Release: 27th August, 2012<<

Prizes for Aaron Yap and Clement Boussardon

Each year COMBIO brings together scientists from multiple disciplines across Western Australia to share ideas and science, so we were delighted with 2 wins for plant energy biology from the 15 student categories.

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Aaron Yap won the State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre Student Oral Presentation Prize for his intriguing talk on finding the mechanism behind how pentatricopeptide repeat proteins (PPR) bind to RNA molecules - a discovery with significant promise for future agriculture and medicine.

The Annals of Botany Student Poster Prize was taken home by Clement for his poster titled "Characterizing the role of the DYW1 protein in the chloroplast RNA editing machinery". Clement's poster showed important evidence for an enzyme called DYW1's involvement in the editing process carried out by PPRs.

Congratulations to both of you! COMBIO website

South Australian Tall Poppy Award

>>Press Release: 24th August, 2012<<

Awarded to Matthew Gilliham

As both a clever scientist and creative communicator, Matthew Gilliham has won a South Australian Tall Poppy award this week.

Tall Poppy Awards recognise scientists who are not only able to deliver scientific breakthroughs, but can effectively promote their science in the wider community.

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Earlier this year, Matt had success with a Nature paper describing a salt tolerance gene in wheat capable of delivering a 25% increase in yields on salty soils. His ability and interest in talking to the media about his research in a clear and engaging manner was obviously noted by the judges!

This year Matt has also been awarded the Viticulture & Oenology 2012 Science and Innovation Award for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and a fellowship by the GO8 Australia-China Young Researchers Exchange Program. Congratulations Dr Gilliham!

For more information, please visit



Molecular Code Cracked

>>Press Release: 17th August 2012 <<

Potential for future treatments of genetic disease

Our scientists have cracked a code underlying recognition of RNA molecules by a superfamily of RNA-binding proteins called pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) proteins. This opens the way to destroying or correcting defective gene products, such as those that cause genetic disorders in humans.

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Professor Ian Small Photo: Centre Director, Professor Ian Small

When a gene is switched on, it is copied into RNA. This RNA is then used to make proteins that are required by the organism for all of its vital functions. If a gene is defective, its RNA copy and the proteins made from this will also be defective. This forms the basis of many terrible genetic disorders in humans.

RNA-binding PPR proteins could revolutionise the way we treat disease. Their secret is their versatility - they can find and bind a specific RNA molecule, and have the capacity to correct it if it is defective, or destroy it if it is detrimental. They can also help ramp up production of proteins required for growth and development.

The new paper in PLOS Genetics describes for the first time how PPR proteins recognise their RNA targets via an easy-to-understand code. This mechanism mimics the simplicity and predictability of the pairing between DNA strands described by Watson and Crick 60 years ago, but at a protein/RNA interface.

This exceptional breakthrough comes from an international, interdisciplinary research team including UWA researchers Ian Small and Aaron Yap from the ARC for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and Charlie Bond and Yee Seng Chong from UWA's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, along with Alice Barkan's team at the University of Oregon. This research was publicly funded by the ARC and the WA State Government in Australia and the NSF in the USA.

"Many PPR proteins are vitally important, but we don't know what they do. Now we've cracked the code, we can find out," stated Ian Small. "What's more, we can now design our own synthetic proteins to target any RNA sequence we choose - this should allow us to control the expression of genes in new ways that just weren't available before. The potential is really exciting."

"This discovery was made in plants but is applicable across many species as PPR proteins are found in humans and animals too," says Charlie Bond.

Media References:


"Epic" Genetics

>>Press Release: 1st August 2012<<

Ryan Lister joins Centre

The University of Western Australia has released a statement celebrating the appointment of Professor Ryan Lister to our team at ARC Plant Energy Biology.

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Originally trained by the Centre's Chief Investigators, Ryan has carved out a sterling career at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies by studying the factors that regulate the information stored in the genome - the entire set of genes in a cell. This field of genome regulation, called "epigenetics", investigates how chemical tags can be attached to the genome to affect the way that genes are expressed, without changing the underlying DNA sequence.

The field is gathering momentum as possibilities such as switching off disease-causing genes in humans or increasing the amount of energy-producing or stress-tolerating proteins in plants are beginning to be realised.

Professor Lister, who published seminal papers in Nature and Cell with Julian Tonti-Fillipini, is continuing to work on exciting epigenetics and genomics projects in the Centre and is looking for new students to join and become involved with the research.

Visit http://listerlab.org/ for details.


Dinkum Science for Dunny Doors

>>Press Release: 30th July, 2012<<

Scientific Posters for National Science Week

Did you know that Uranus contains fart gases? That Australia's wheat feeds 100 million people a year? Or that the inside of a cell looks strangely like an image from outer space?

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All these facts and more will be on display on the back of toilet doors across Darwin and Perth leading up to National Science Week in August.

Look out for posters at shopping centres and several pubs that explain your evolution, guess which image comes from inside a cell or space, ponder the power of plants and find amazing similarities between Uranus and your anus.

"Our science posters aim to inspire people towards a curiosity and amazement about science, all in the comfort of their own cubicle," says Alice Trend, Science Communications Officer at the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

"Australia really is a clever country and we want to spark more of an interest in the incredible work our scientists are conducting in a wide variety of fields," says Kirsten Gottschalk, Outreach and Education Officer at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).

The posters are a collaboration between science communicators from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and ICRAR funded by a National Science Week grant.

The venues that will be showing the posters include: Perth Airport, Lakeside Joondalup Shopping Centre (SC), Armadale City SC, Floreat Forum SC, Casuarina Square, The Cavenagh, Squires Tavern, The Balcony Bar, Shennaningan's and Monsoons' Bar.

National Science Week runs from August 11-19 and you can get involved in many great events. If you would like exciting science posters to jazz up your school or business for National Science Week, you can download and distribute copies and images from here.

The initiative is supported by the Australian Government and The University of Western Australia as part of National Science Week.

Media References:


A New CI for the Centre!

>>Press Release: 1st July, 2013<<

Professor Steve Tyerman

We are delighted to announce that Professor Steve Tyerman of the University of Adelaide has joined the Centre as a Chief Investigator.

Professor Tyerman has researched nutrition, salinity and water relations in plants for some 25 years.

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Steve's expertise will bring an increased focus to water and nutrient transport, whole plant physiology and an ability functionally characterise transporter genes that may be of interest.

About Professor Tyerman: In 2001 Steve obtained the Wine Industry Chair of Viticulture at the University of Adelaide, which has provided opportunities to apply his research to grapevine root physiology. He has received several awards for his plant physiology research and was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2003. He has won a prestigious Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship to investigate the link between calcium transport and water transport in plants.


Annual Retreat 2012

>>Press Release: 24th Apr, 2012<<

April 30th to May 2nd, 2012

Every year in April, scientists across Australia travel to Perth to discuss the past, present and future of plant energy biology.

This year, the Centre's annual retreat will be held at the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle, Western Australia. The retreat will feature exciting talks from new Centre scientists, the usual suspects from within the Centre and a variety of external speakers. These external speakers include Josh Heazlewood (Plant Systems Biology, Joint BioEnergy Institute), Josh Mylne (Institute for Molecular Bioscience, UQ), Laurent Nussaume (Laboratory of Plant Development Biology, CEA), Per Gardestrom (Plant Physiology, Umeå University), Geoff Fincher (ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls) and Justin Borevitz (Research School of Biology, ANU).

The Winning Team!

>>Press Release: 28th March, 2012<<

Biologists Triumph Over Perth's Corporate Elite

What's faster than a speeding lawyer, more powerful than a mining magnate, and able to leap tall tradesman in a single bound? A sprint triathlon team from Plant Energy Biology of course!

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Congratulations too all the teams which took part in this year's Nissan Corporate Triathlon Series at the Perth foreshore, especially to our girls team: Green Energy 1 which was able to defend their winning title from last year. Dr's Sandra Tanz, Kate Howell and Cathie Colas des Francs-Small trained hard and were formidable on the day, blitzing the rest of the field.

Honourable mentions also go to Green Energy Team 2, 3 and 4 who took out 3rd, 27th and 21st places (respectively) in the males division and Green Energy 5 who were 52nd in the mixed division.

Olivier Van Aken has promised that, "Green Energy 3 will place in the top 10 next year or I will do the funky chicken."


Centre Author Recognised as Editor's Choice

>>Press Release: 19th March 2012<<

New information on the intriguing karrikin story

A recent paper in Development by Centre author Mark Waters has been picked as Editor's Choice this week in Science Signaling.

The research uncovers exciting new information on the intriguing karrikin story, which is becoming more interesting and complex the more it is unravelled.

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In this latest work, two related genes were found that are able to distinguish between the karrikin and strigolactone signalling molecules. Karrikins are plant growth regulatory molecules that derive from smoke, whereas strigolactones are made within the plant and are thought to play a role in controlling shoot branching as well as germination. The ability to differentiate between these molecules is important as they are very similar on a molecular level, but play very different roles in plant biology.

❝ It's like having two keys to open two different doors of the same control box. Each key has to match the correct lock but both get access to the controls ❞
Dr Waters

Researcher, Matthew Gilliham

Salt-tolerant Gene Found

>>Press Release: 15th March, 2012<<

Ancestral salt pump gene brought out of retirement

Years ago, careful physiological screening of ancient wheat varieties turned up an ancestral wheat relative that was able to survive on soils so salty that most crop plants would die. This week, Nature Biotechnology published research that successfully characterised the gene responsible for this salt tolerance trait. Furthermore, remarkable results were demonstrated when this gene was "bred" back into a common wheat variety, increasing its salinity survival 25% (Nature Biotechnology).

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The research, led by Dr Matthew Gilliham of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and the University of Adelaide, was an example of the power of a strong collaborative research effort that also involved researchers at CSIRO and the ACPFG.

Australia's salt-stricken wheat industry are taking notice of the 25% increase in grain yield shown in this study under saline conditions.

Over 20% of Australia's agriculture land is classified and saline and 69% of Australia's wheat belt is susceptible to salinity," explains Dr Matthew Gilliham. "There are many reasons for this, but as wheat has been bred for millennia in favourable conditions for traits like yield, many desirable traits like salt tolerance have been lost along the way.

Interestingly, the salt-tolerant ancestral gene was found in one of the first domesticated wheats, which yields very poorly compared to modern commercial varieties. Researchers at CSIRO used conventional breeding to selectively deliver the salt tolerance gene without also transferring the unfavourable characteristics, a process which took over ten years.

Dr Gilliham led the effort to discover the gene of interest, which encodes a salt transporter that pumps salt out of the vascular system of the plant. This transporter stops salt from accumulating in the leaves where it interferes with processes such as photosynthesis which impacts crop yield.

"What I like about this research," says Centre Director Ian Small, "is the marriage between the molecular biology in the lab that explains how the gene works, and the clever breeding techniques that have created a new variety which has been field-tested and proven effective. Normally scientists only get to cover a small aspect of this kind of research, so to see this through to fruition is very satisfying for Matt Gilliham and Steve Tyerman in our new Centre team in Adelaide. What a start they have made!"

❝Now that we have specific knowledge about the gene, its function and how it is inherited, we hope to transfer this knowledge to other crop plants of interest and to increase the salt tolerance of crop plants even further,❞ says Dr Gilliham.

❝We haven't solved the problem, we have just put one piece back in the puzzle. There are other aspects to the salt-tolerance story and more genes to identify and characterise. These are the next challenges we have set ourselves through our research,❞ adds Dr Gilliham.

click here for more news items

Winners of Plant Video Competition Announced!

>>Press Release: 14th June, 2012<<

Secondary students share in winnings.

The Fascination with Plants Day video competition attracted 42 entries from across Australia. The competition asked secondary students to put together a 3 minute video which showed Australians why they thought plants were fascinating. After much deliberation by judges, the winners have been announced!

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First Prize Dominic Hill, Canberra Grammar School

Second Prize Anthony Rositano and Douglas Gerard, Prince Alfred College

Merit Award Esmy Fabry, Heathfield High School

Merit Award Harmony Knill, Glenunga International High School

Merit Award Lily Kerr, Bunbury Catholic College


First Prize Kathryn Law, Investigator College

Second Prize Isabella Rositano, Pembroke School

Merit Award Emily McEvoy, Investigator College

Merit Award Senior Class, Lajamanu Community Education Centre

Merit Award Rose Kerr, Bunbury Catholic College

"This video competition has shown that students are indeed, fascinated by plants, and have some great ideas about how to vocalise this interest," said Alice Trend, one of the judges of the competition. "Congratulations to everyone that took part."

To see the winning entries and find out why these students think plants are fascinating, follow the link http://www.acpfg.com.au/videocomp/index.php?id=16

Media References:

Plant emerging from seed

Celebrating Life On Earth With Fascination Of Plants Day

>>Press Release: 16th May 2012<<

Friday May 18th!

Without plants, life on earth as we know it would simply not exist. They make the food we eat, create the oxygen we breathe and remove our waste carbon dioxide from the air. This Friday May 18th, the world celebrates plants with Fascination of Plants Day.

So why are plants fascinating?

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Did you know that each year, a family of four survives on the oxygen produced by two trees? That the world's plants produce six times more energy than humans consume? That a colony of bees has to fly 177,500 km and pollinate 4 million flowers to make one kilogram of honey?

There are 9 billion people predicted by 2050, which will effectively double the demand for food, feed and fibre. Scientists around the world are working together to solve this critical problem by improving plant yields, while minimising the environmental footprint of growing crop plants.

Australian scientists are making amazing progress towards plants with higher salt and pest tolerance, greater yields and higher nutritive value. Just as importantly, they are also investigating crops which require less water and fertiliser, and even crops that can access the billions of tonnes of unusable forms of fertiliser that are currently locked in our soils.

Ian Small, Director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia commented that, "May 18th is a great day to think about what plants mean to human survival, and the importance of research into plants, food and agriculture."

Events such as national plant video and photography competitions for students; tours and workshops at plant research facilities including Monash University, The University of Western Australia and CSIRO Plant Industries and wine tours at Penfolds Magill Estate will highlight the importance of plants this week.

To find out what Fascination of Plants Day events are happening near you, visit http://www.plantday12.eu/australia.htm

Parched Earth


>>Press Release: Jan 11, 2011<<

Finding new signals for plant cells

Scientists have found a signal in plants which may act as a drought alarm, allowing them to adapt to drought conditions. The signal was discovered while trying to understand how different parts of the cell "talk" to each other under drought conditions in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a relative of canola.

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Inside every animal and plant cell there are a series of connected pathways, like the production lines of a factory. For it to work efficiently, each department must be able to communicate product shortages, adverse conditions or breakdowns. In cells, the production lines, or pathways, are regulated by chemical signals and inputs, which can come from many sources.

Scientists have proposed for a while that chemical signals must be sent by a particular "plant department", or organelle, to the nucleus - the cell's control centre - for plants to become aware of and adapt to harsh conditions.

"The chloroplast is the plant organelle that converts light into food. The nucleus directs assembly and function of the chloroplast and this requires cross-talk between the two", Dr Estavillo said.

Despite these signals being proposed, they have been greatly debated and the signalling mechanisms for "talk" remain unclear.

But now, research on a mutant variety of Arabidopsis has lead to the discovery of a signal to the nucleus which is important in the plant response to drought. This research was lead by Dr Gonzalo Estavillo and Prof. Barry Pogson at the Australian National University node of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (Estavillo et al. (2011) The Plant Cell).

The Arabidopsis mutant plant lacked a protein called SAL1, which breaks down a small molecule further down the production line called "PAP". As the protein was absent, the production line was broken, so "PAP", which is usually found in the chloroplast, ended up building up in the nucleus. Surprisingly, this became a kind of drought alarm, telling the plant to save water. Consequently these mutant plants survived 50% longer in drought conditions.

More importantly, the researchers found that normal plants also accumulated PAP during drought conditions and that the PAP molecule was able to move between the chloroplast and the nucleus.

"We intend to fully investigate the potential of this remarkable PAP signal", says Dr Estavillo.

❝ It's a great time to be a plant scientist. We have the technology to decipher tiny and crucial molecular pathways in cells and use this knowledge to improve plant breeding and genetics. After all, plants are our food and fuel future. ❞

Harvey Millar

Early Career Excellence

>>Press Release: 20th Dec 2011<<

Putting the 'pro' in proteomics

Professor Harvey Millar has been awarded the 2012 Fenner Medal by the Australian Academy of Science. This award recognises distinguished research in biology by a scientist under 40.

Professor Millar has built a remarkable career in the 14 years since he graduated from The Australian National University with a PhD in biochemistry. Now based at the University of Western Australia, he is a Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and Director of the new UWA Centre for Comparative Analysis of Biomolecular Networks.

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Harvey 's passion is proteins and how they work. In the field of proteomics, scientists analyse the protein products made when genes are switched on and all the downstream modifications that make them work. This allows researchers to get meaningful information about how plants cope with changing environmental conditions and to find genes of interest for drought, flood, salinity or pest tolerance in plants. The proteomics laboratory he leads is ranked among the top 25 in the world.

Harvey's passion for science is apparent. "I vividly remember Harvey describing the molecular sciences to me as an Honours student in 2002," says Science Communications Officer Alice Trend. "He described us as modern explorers, finding out things no one has ever known before, seeing things that no one has ever seen. That will continue to have an impact on my interest in science for the rest of my life."

Still committed to this vision of discovery, Harvey's research group has recently uncovered a potential mechanism for rescuing wheat seedlings from flooding, a new role for free radical molecules in pathogen sensing, and are working to keep honeybees healthy to maintain pollination. Over the past decade his research has focused on respiration, energy production in cells, and its response to environmental stress.

❝To have my research recognised in this way is exciting" said Prof Millar. "Finding out how plants work at a molecular level is of critical importance right now, in a world faced with dwindling resources and climate change. Research in biology is very much a team effort, so I want to acknowledge that any award recognises not just my efforts, but the work of many researchers in my laboratory over the past decade❞

"We are very fortunate to have such an excellent scientist leading our young scientists, inspiring our students and working collaboratively on important Centre projects all over the world," commented Centre Director Prof Ian Small.

The Fenner Medal will be presented at The Shine Dome in Canberra on the morning of Thursday 3 May 2012.

Kate's Award

Intercontinental Race Award

>>Press Release: 2011<<

She swam for love, she swam for glory

Dr Kate Howell recently took a quick diversion from plant science to cross the Dardanelles Strait, which connects Europe and Asia. Did she do this by boat? Or plane?

No, she swam.

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Kate placed third female in the 5km inter-continental race across the Dardanelles in a field of 500. A delighted Kate explains the historical significance of the race.

❝ Greek legend recounts the story of lovers Leander and Hero. Leander used to swim across the Dardanelles every night to visit his lover guided by a lamp that she burned in her tower to mark the way. Legend has it that on the night of a storm the lamp blew out. Leander lost his bearings and drowned. Upon learning of her lover's tragic end, Hero then threw herself from her tower to her death. In 1810, the famous English poet, Lord Byron, inspired by Leander's feat ("And he swam for Love, as I for Glory") successfully swam across the Dardenelles strait. This accomplishment is often credited as the beginning of the modern sport of open water swimming.❞

After her salty sea voyage, Dr Howell continued to Croatia to attend the Plant Organellar Signaling conference, made possible through a travel grant she was awarded from the Federation of European Biochemical Societies. Her conference talk focussed on the characterisation of the "flv" mutant. This plant has a mutation in a PPR protein which results in a single base change in the nucleotide sequence of a subunit of the plastid-encoded RNA polymerase. This results in a striking phenotype due to delayed chloroplast biogenesis in the leaf margins.

UWA's Deep Sequencer

UWA Launches DNA Deep Sequencer

>>Press Release: Oct 14, 2011<<

Next generation sequencing now at UWA

Imagine capturing the entire human genome in a single day, for a few thousand dollars.

Now researchers at the University of Western Australia will be able to do just that, with the launch of its first Hi-Seq Illumina Deep Sequencer, the most powerful platform worldwide for next generation sequencing. In a single day of use, this new technology will allow researchers to obtain the sequence equivalent of the entire human genome project, which took 4 billion dollars and 10 years to complete over a decade ago.

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To put that in perspective, it would take a person typing 60 words per minute, eight hours a day, around 50 years to type the 3 billion letters, or base pairs, that make up the human genome.

Deep sequencers provide powerful information by reading every base pair of DNA that makes up an organism, and sorting this data into meaningful genetic maps. Using this information, researchers are making incredible breakthroughs as they discover the genes responsible for diseases in plants and animals, find brand new species and map our evolutionary past.

"A genome sequence is the ultimate genetic map", says Professor Jim Whelan.

❝ The availability of this technology opens up the sequencing field to ecologists, evolutionary biologists, environmental scientists and a variety of cellular and genetic disciplines. We are no longer tied to just studying model species like mice or the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. It develops our potential to cheaply sequence individuals in a population, varieties, mutants or clones in a variety of organisms, and study how they respond to the environment under WA conditions. This will greatly increase our ability to fight disease and to breed a variety of crop species for desired traits, such as increased drought, heat, pest or salinity tolerance, thus allowing producers to respond to environmental change or disease in a rapid manner.❞
--Jim Whelan


Plant Energy Photo Competition Winners!

>>Press Release: Oct 17th, 2011<<

Science at its finest

Dear Competitors and Judges,

Thanks so much for all your wonderful entries into this years photo competition and your involvement in making it happen. Congratulations to the winners - their beautiful images are in the slideshow below.

View image slideshow...

Room with a view

Room with a viewHide

1st Place "Science" Category

Photo: Barbara Baer (UWA)

Arabidopsis root systems

Arabidopsis Root SystemsHide

2nd Place "Science" Category

Photo: John Bussell (UWA)

rice growing underwater

Rice Growing UnderwaterHide

3rd Place "Science" Category

Photo: Rachel Shingaki-Wells (UWA)

Eucalypt Sperm

Eucalypt SpermHide

1st Place "Plants" Category

Photo: Michael Whitehead (School Biol., ANU)

Salinity Field Trial Wheat

Salinity Field Trial WheatHide

2nd Place "Plants" Category

Photo: Richard Jacoby (UWA)

Carpet of Flowers

Carpet of FlowersHide

3rd Place "Plants" Category

Photo: Cathie Colas des Francs-Small (UWA)



1st Place "Scientists" Category

Photo: Ricarda Fenske (UWA)

The Matchmaker

The MatchmakerHide

2nd Place "Scientists" Category

Photo: Su Yin Phua (ANU)


Andy 4Hide

3rd Place "Scientists" Category

Photo: Simon Law (UWA)


Winners in category:


  • 1st Barbara Baer (UWA)
  • 2nd John Bussell (Smith Lab UWA)
  • 3rd Rachel Shingaki-Wells (Millar Lab UWA)


  • 1st Michael Whitehead (School Biol., ANU)
  • 2nd Richard Jacoby (Millar Lab UWA)
  • 3rd Cathie Colas des Francs-Small (Small Lab UWA)


  • 1st Ricarda Fenske (Metabolomics, UWA)
  • 2nd Su Yin Phua (Pogson Lab, ANU)
  • 3rd Simon Law (Whelan Lab, UWA)
Wheat Plant

Amino acids for wheat

>>Press Release: 24 June, 2011<<

Giving wheat a better chance of surviving floods

What do liver cells have in common with wheat seedlings? The University of Western Australia's PhD student Rachel Shingaki-Wells has found that both cope with oxygen starvation better when fed three amino acids: glycine, serine and alanine. The research has been published in the leading international plant journal Plant Physiology, and is leading to better understanding of how to maintain the seedling health of wheat when floods become a threat.


Respiratory Reactive Oxygen Species

>>Press Release: DATE<<

Plant defense against pathogens

Researchers from Plant Energy Biology in collaboration with scientists at CSIRO Plant Industry have made a discovery that will change the way scientists look at the role of respiration in regulating plant responses to disease. Every minute as we breathe our bodies make "reactive oxygen species", which are toxic oxygen-based chemicals. Our bodies have inbuilt defence systems which rapidly degrade these chemicals using antioxidant vitamins, therefore preventing cell damage which can lead to cancer and aging. But our research has found that in plants, while reactive oxygen species are also produced during respiration, they play a positive role in plant defence if properly controlled.

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The research, which was co-funded by CSIRO, the Australian Research Council and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (Gleason et al 2011, June 13).

The research, led by Winthrop Professor Karam Singh (CSIRO and UWA) and Winthrop Professor Harvey Millar (UWA), focused on a respiration gene in the mitochondria, which is essential for energy production in plants, yeast and animals. In humans, a mutation in this gene leads to a range of neurological disorders.

Remarkably, the research found that plants with a mutation in this gene grew normally in good conditions, but under pathogen attack, could not form the reactive oxygen chemicals required to properly activate plant defence against fungal and bacterial pathogens.

❝ We show that chemicals commonly considered to be 'bad' can sometimes be 'very good', said co-first author Dr Shaobai Huang from Plant Energy Biology. Despite their potential for damage, without the ability to generate these toxic chemicals from the mitochondria, plants are unable to coordinate an attack response. ❞

Karrikin Molecule

The Smoke Detector Gene

>>Press Release: 13 May, 2011<<

Deadly smoke stimulates new life

Bushfires are an ever-present threat worldwide with potentially devastating consequences. In a fascinating twist from nature, however, the deadly smoke from bushfires also stimulates new life and vigorous plant growth with the following rains.

Previous work by chemists at UWA established the growth-stimulant in smoke to be a chemical called "karrikin" (Flematti et al, 2004).

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Now for the first time, researchers in PEB have teamed up with these chemists to discover a gene which allows dormant seeds to sense and respond to karrikin. The icing on the cake, however, was the fact that this gene, called MAX2, also proved crucial to strigolactone signalling, an important plant growth hormone with a highly similar chemical structure.

Read more about lead researcher Dr David Nelson's "eureka moment" that lead to the publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America here.

Past News