As one of the world’s most widely consumed staple foods, the humble cereal grain is inextricably tied to agriculture, biodiversity, population growth, resource use, water scarcity, climate change and human health, says the incoming Professor of Plant Genetics and Biochemistry at the University of Tasmania’s School of Biological Sciences.

“You can’t think about any of those things in isolation,” Professor Smith said. “I’m not an expert in energy, resources or economics, but I’m very aware of the need to understand their importance to something as fundamental as crop production.”

Professor Smith has worked for research institutes in the UK and Australia but spent most of his academic career at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was Head of the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences. Most recently, he was Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at UWA. Among his many global achievements, Professor Smith was part of the Australian plant genetics team that discovered the mode of action of “karrikins”, a family of germination-stimulating chemicals produced by bushfires. Scientists believe it is possible to harness some of those chemicals to control and improve germination in cultivated plants, such as those used widely in horticulture.

We hope that what we learn from rice will be applicable to other cereals, particularly maize and barley and then, in the longer term, to wheat.

Professor Smith said rice was particularly useful for gathering and applying this knowledge because “it is so important (as a food source) and so easy to work with genetically”.

As a Visiting Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Professor Smith is working with rice geneticists in China.

“They’re making some very significant progress; staggering progress, actually,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how they’re achieving that, and whether I can contribute something.”

Professor Smith’s work in China is focused on the molecular role of chemical compounds known as strigolactones. Also known as “witch hormones”, strigolactones are signalling chemicals that determine the extent of a plant’s shoot and root architecture. In phosphate-depleted soil, the hormones promote root growth but restrict shoot growth and put a brake on yield.

Scientists hope genetic control and fine-tuning of strigolactones may improve crop yields and reduce agriculture’s dependence on fertilisers derived from fossil fuels.

“If we can modify or somehow select for that signalling system to be less severe, we might be able to encourage more shoot growth, even in phosphate-deprived soils,” Professor Smith said.

The availability of nutrients for plants is a critical global problem that is only going to get bigger.

Professor Smith is impressed by the potential of Tasmanian agriculture and agrees niche and high-value products best serve the sector’s future.

“Tasmania is known for producing specialist products – dairy, fruit and vegetables – and there appears to be considerable scope for improvement and expansion in all of those areas,” he said.

Professor Smith was attracted to the University of Tasmania by what he called “very good signs” in the fields of education and research, and he hopes to capitalise on his Chinese connections.

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