Professor Steve Tyerman

Steve Tyerman

Professor Tyerman has researched nutrition, salinity and water relations in plants for some 25 years with a focus on roots. In 2001 he 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.

Professor Tyerman's research encompasses nutrient and water transport in plants using biophysical and physiological approaches. This has been complemented in the last decade with increasing use of molecular tools to identify the transporter genes underlying the physiological and biophysical phenomena, the characterization of which his group is internationally acclaimed. Significant discoveries on transport processes have been made involving abiotic stress (salinity, aluminium, boron, water), nutrition (potassium, phosphate, nitrogen, calcium, molybdenum and sulphur), nitrogen fixation, and seed and fruit growth.

Tyerman's group has developed state of the art facilities to functionally characterize genes encoding transport proteins and these facilities and his biophysical expertise have been widely used in long-term collaborations with Peter Ryan (malate transporters), Mark Tester (sodium transporters), Chunyuan Huang (phosphate transporters), Brent Kaiser (nitrogen transporters), Roger Leigh and Matt Gilliham (calcium transporters), John Patrick and Yongling Ruan (aquaporins). Tyerman's group in collaboration with Dr Chunyuan Huang have recently functionally characterized two phosphate transporters from barley, which has placed the group in the lead of such studies internationally and which has been recognized in the award of SuperScience Fellowships (with Whelan, Millar and Small) to examine phosphate- use efficiency in rice.

Water-relations of plants has been prominent in Tyerman's research and he is acknowledged as being the first to discover novel features of aquaporins in plants. In a recent major review (Maurel et al., 2008), Tyerman was cited as the first to draw attention to MIPs (aquaporins) being more than water channels as they..."transport substrates of great physiological significance..." Tyerman's group was the first to demonstrate that ammonia may permeate plant membranes via a channel pathway and a new class of aquaporin inhibitors was discovered that has impacted in the animal and medical arena. Recently water transport through grapevine aquaporins was characterized demonstrating that roots are tuned to the water use strategies of the shoots via regulation of PIP1 aquaporins.

Tyerman's contributions are unique in their characteristic of applying new technologies to answer physiological problems at functional levels from the cell to the whole plant and complements Kaiser's skills in molecular biology of transporters, and Millar's and Whelan's expertise in cellular and organelle-based proteomics and transcriptomics.

Current Research Interests:

I have three major research projects with various collaborators:

  • Phosphate use efficiency in rice
  • Nitrogen use efficiency in maize
  • Water use efficiency and water uptake mechanisms in a variety of plants including soybean grapevine and maize.

In each project we seek to understand how the molecular machinery at the single protein level (normally some kind of transporter) is linked to the control of transport of nutrients or water at the whole plant level. Basically we are trying to put together pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle by examining how things work at the molecular level and integrating this in to observations at the whole plant level.

To read an interview with Steve Tyerman, click here.

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

I always loved to escape to the Royal National Park in Sydney which was close to the family home and here discovered a vast diversity of habitats and types of plants that in combination with a fantastic group of lecturers at the Botany Department University of Sydney engendered a lifelong interest in how plants work.

What are your career highlights?

One of the most exciting moments was when I first achieved a very difficult patch clamp experiment on the symbiosome membrane surrounding nitrogen fixing bacteroids in legume root nodules. I saw something very novel and realised then and there that I had discovered something very significant. This was eventually published in Nature. I guess these discoveries only happen a few times in ones career and I still hope that there will be a few more of these cherished moments.

Why do you think plant energy biology is important?

Well apart from the obvious, that we derive our living from energy conversion in plants, I also think that we need to research this area so that we can obtain a much great energy conversion efficiency, water use efficiency and nutrient use efficiency for crop plants. The great and significant discoveries in the next decade will come in these areas of plant biology and in particular how we can get more yield with less inputs of water and nutrients.

What inspires you about science?

Discovering new things that nobody else has ever realised or seen before.

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

Often we tend to slip into the notion that all that has been discovered is all that there is to be discovered. But history tells us that we will continue to make major discoveries that will change humankind and how we do things. Our greatest challenge is human population pressure and protecting the global environment. Many of these problems are social, but we can help the situation by improving plant performance. In plant biology I expect that great advances will be made in understanding how networks of enzymes and transporters are controlled and that we will be more informed in how to modify systems in order to design plants for particular constraints, such as acid soils, salinity, drought, low phosphorus etc.

Where can people find out about doing science in your team?

I have a website, but the best way is to contact me directly via email, and then to have a conversation about the latest developments and potential mutual interests.

Click here for Steve's Publications