Professor Ian Small

Ian Small

Ian Small's PhD at Edinburgh University (awarded in 1988) was followed by a career with France's National Agriculture Research Institute (INRA), where he was vice-director at the Plant Genetics & Breeding Station in Versailles and the Plant Genomics Unit in Evry. In 2005 he was awarded a WA State Premier's Research Fellowship and moved to Perth.

Ian's early work on plant mitochondrial genomes and mitochondrial genes involved in cytoplasmic male sterility contributed significantly to the development, patenting and commercialisation of INRA's technology for male-sterile brassicas used in the breeding of elite hybrid lines. Much of the canola grown globally is now produced using this technology.

His research interests evolved rapidly to take advantage of the functional genomics technology emerging from the sequencing of the Arabidopsis nuclear genome. He coordinated a European Union Framework project, AGRIKOLA, which provided unparalleled tools to the scientific community for analysing gene function in Arabidopsis by RNA interference. He is perhaps best known for the discovery and characterisation of the pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) family of proteins, a huge family of 450 proteins involved in controlling gene expression in mitochondria and chloroplasts.

Ian runs the associated Centre for Excellence in Computational Systems Biology funded by the WA State Government.

Current Research Interests:

Our group is studying the RNA world within the energy organelles of plants - the mitochondria and chloroplasts. These organelles contain the genes that code for the most important and abundant proteins on Earth, those that drive photosynthesis, the basis for most biological productivity. The regulation of the expression of these genes is crucial, yet still only poorly understood mechanistically. Our aim is to understand how the biogenesis and function of chloroplasts and mitochondria are controlled through alterations in gene expression, with the goal of making discoveries relevant to optimal use of plants in agricultural and environmental applications.

Gene regulation in plant organelles primarily occurs through changes in RNA processing, which makes these expression systems unique. Much of our research builds upon the discovery of the PPR protein family, novel sequence-specific RNA-binding proteins found in all eukaryotes, but particularly prevalent in plants (Schmitz-Linneweber and Small, Trends Plant Sci, 13, 663-670). The experiments mostly involve the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana to make use of the full range of international collections and databases on the "lab rat" of the plant kingdom.

To read an interview with Ian Small, click here.

What got you interested in biology, and specifically, plants?

I've always been interested in plants; as a youngster I earned my pocket money working in a nursery growing garden plants. Plants have to be supremely adaptable to changes in the environment; they can't just move if the conditions get nasty. They have more genes, more enzymes and more metabolites than we do. As a result, at the molecular level they are fascinatingly complicated, able to do things in so many different ways.

Why do you think plant energy biology is important?

So much that we take for granted depends on energy metabolism in plants. Most of our food is directly or indirectly derived from it. The oxygen we breathe comes from it. The building blocks that plants use to make wood and fibre come from it, as do biofuels. The fossil fuels we use (coal, oil and gas) are derived from the energy metabolism of plants that died millions of years ago. Even now, energy flows through plants still dwarf our own energy usage. I think it's important that we understand these flows and how to make best use of them.

In your opinion, what will be the most important discoveries of the 21st Century?

I think (as many others do) that biology will be the science that sees the most spectacular advances in this century. Technological advances have made it possible to dream of addressing the biggest challenges in biology, such as identifying the major causes of disease and aging, characterising the major determinants of plant performance and productivity or cataloguing biodiversity across the globe. Synthetic biology also offers a lot of promise and will be an exciting area to work in.

Click here for Ian's Publications