Hi! I’m the sole Chief Investigator at the Western Sydney University (WSU) Node of the Centre – but I am far from alone! Our Node draws together Associate Investigators from my current workplace at WSU’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE) (Rachael Gallagher, Brendan Choat, Jonathan Plett), and from my former place of work, Macquarie University (Brian Atwell, Hendrik Poorter, Michelle Leishman, Andrea Westerband, Yuki Tsujii, Shubham Chhajed). Shifting institutions from Macquarie to HIE has been slow, but over the last few months it’s been wonderful to finally get postdocs Vin Jacob, Trav Britton, and Emma Sumner in place and projects underway.
I’m writing these words from the Hawkesbury campus of WSU, which from 1891-1989 was Hawkesbury Agricultural College, the first agricultural college in New South Wales. Every day on campus I get to see horses, cattle and sheep, and old groves of fruit trees. But this is just recent history, of course. The Hawkesbury campus is located on Dharug Country for which the Boorooberongal People are the traditional custodians. Traditional Owners have huge amounts of knowledge about ecological and physiological adaptations to temperature and water stress in native plant species (i.e., our research agenda at the HIE/MU node). In a recent conversation, Colleen MacMillan (CSIRO Ag&Food) passed on some sage advice that, in turn, Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe passed on to Colleen and CSIRO colleagues – which was: in research, we should aim to codesign with Traditional Owner collaborators and perspectives “in the first hour, not the last”. This is timely advice for our Centre Node, given our focus on eucalypts and native grass species.
The eucalypts work is a collaboration with Centre members from the UTAS Node and focuses on coordination between plant hydraulic and photosynthetic traits. Eucalypts (Eucalyptus and Corymbia) are a great group to work with as there are hundreds of species covering just about all Australian climate zones, and a well understood phylogeny will help us place the work into an evolutionary context. Australia has more than 15 species of native sorghum, i.e., wild relatives of S. bicolor, a globally-important crop and a key focus of Centre research, especially at the UQ Node. These native species cover a substantial range of climates and soils; some are annuals, some are perennials; some are fast-growing, others far slower. Understanding their biology is important in its own right but also has potential for generating knowledge translatable to agricultural sorghum, and potentially even other C4 crops such as maize and sugar cane. Kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) is a fascinating species as it has such broad environmental tolerance, its distribution running from tropical northern Australia all the way down to chilly Tasmania. We have plants from about 20 different populations/climates growing in the Plant Growth Facility at Macquarie and will soon begin work on trait characterisation, both for “happy” plants growing in benign conditions and for plants faced with experimental “challenges” such as heatwaves and drought.
There has been lots of enthusiasm from researchers at other Nodes of the Centre to use our Themeda “experimental platform” for exploring responses at the genetic level (via transcriptomics), and for studying what’s happening belowground – e.g., in relation to root physiology, root symbionts and more broadly the root microbiome. Indeed, at the HIE/MU Node we’re seeking to develop cross-Node collaborations as part of every project. Right from the beginning that’s what has excited me about being part of this Centre: the potential for forging new understanding of plant form and function by drawing together knowledge and approaches from very different research domains. Of course, this isn’t at all straightforward! Even settling on a shared language can be challenging to start off. But the more we spend time discussing potential projects, identifying and refining research questions, and launching into preliminary studies, the more real this will all become. They say a Centre of Excellence that’s working really well is one where cross-Node and cross-domain collaborations are first and forefront. I’d say 2022 is the year where many projects of this type begin to take shape and 2023 will be the year they start falling into place, right across the Centre – watch this space!
Distinguished Professor Ian Wright
Chief Investigator and Node Leader, Western Sydney University