A researcher who focuses on understanding how plants grow under stressful environmental conditions - work that is vital for world food production and protection of biodiversity - is one of three finalists in the 2011 Annual Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.
Winthrop Professor Steven Smith is a lead researcher in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at The University of Western Australia.
"I look at how plants grow in challenging environmental conditions such as heat, drought and salinity, how they recover after bushfires and how we can improve reforestation after mining," he said.
Among the recent discoveries he has made with colleagues includes a new molecular mechanism by which plants deal with stress.
"In a ‘eureka moment' we discovered that a plant does not just succumb to whatever the weather serves up: it responds positively by putting energy into continued growth even under difficult circumstances. This finding opens a new door to find ways to identify or select plants that perform better in difficult conditions," he said.
Other ground-breaking team-work in which Professor Smith has been involved includes the discovery of a gene that allows dormant seeds buried in the soil to detect germination stimulants in bushfire smoke called karrikins.
The same gene has also been found to provide the means for plants to respond to a growth hormone called strigolactone, which controls shoot branching and the formation of fungal associations helping plants to take up nutrients from the soil.
Professor Smith said: "Climate change and habitat loss present major challenges for the future, and my goal is not only to understand how plants will respond, but to communicate to society the importance of our responses to these challenges."
Professor Smith is a finalist in this year's Eureka Prizes that reward excellence in the fields of scientific research and innovation, science leadership, school science and science journalism and communication. Prize money of more than $240,000 will be awarded to the winners announced at the largest national celebration of Australian science, a gala dinner on 6 September in Sydney's Hordern Pavillion.