Discovering how plants capture, store and release energy will be the focus of research at the new ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, based at UWA. Globally, energy fluxes through plants dwarf humans' use of fossil fuels, but scientists are not sure how plants control their energy metabolism. The Australian Research Council Centre has a five-year budget of $25 million and its projects will include community education programs as well as research.
Centre director Professor Ian Small, a molecular biologist, said researchers would study how plants work 'inside'. He said agricultural improvements in WA's harsh environment would depend largely on the creation of new plant varieties better adapted to the local climate and soils, more efficient at using water and nutrients and less dependent on fertilisers.
"The best hope for significant progress towards this goal is to invest in basic research at understanding how plants function," Professor Small said. "We understand very little about how plants control their energy organelles, although they must be regulating them all day, every day, depending on the surrounding environment – such as light, shade or heat," he said. Research will focus on the genes, proteins and small molecules that define the health, growth and productivity of plants.
PhD student Owen Duncan explains some of the research to Julie Bishop"The development of productive, sustainable agricultural practices is important world-wide, but particularly in WA where the agricultural industry is dominant but the environmental conditions are especially harsh and the native ecosystems especially fragile," Professor Small said.
Professor Small, a WA Premier's Research Fellow, said the Centre would help increase the international visibility of plant science in WA.
The Plant Energy Biology Centre, which was opened in April by Federal Science Minister Julie Bishop, is the first Federal Government Centre of Excellence in WA.
Professor Steven Smith, an ARC Federation Fellow, Professor Harvey Millar, winner of the Science Minister's Prize for Australian Life Scientist of the Year 2005 and Professor Jim Whelan also have laboratories at the Centre.
Photo of Professor Ian Small (above): Paul Ricketts-DUIT Multimedia