Captivated by carnivorous plants from a young age, Francois Barbier never doubted that he would one day become a plant scientist.
Years later, with a PhD on the role of sugars in triggering shoot branching in the rose, he had a chance encounter with Prof. Christine Beveridge in Paris, which led to him taking up a post-doctoral position in 2015 at the Plant Development Lab in the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Queensland.
Never straying from his dream, the young Frenchman is now a plant molecular physiologist.
Understanding shoot branching is a big deal
At the lab, which Christine leads (as well as being Director of the Centre of Excellence), Francois is continuing his research on shoot branching—the process whereby buds are triggered to grow into branches.
His research is funded by the 5-year Australian Laureate Fellowship which Christine was awarded in 2018 by the Australian Research Council, and which she has built on to create the Centre of Excellence.
“Shoot branching is one of the main drivers of crop yield in most crops,” says Francois.
“Branching dramatically affects productivity. Maize, for instance, is just a stick which doesn’t branch. But it wasn’t always like that. Thousands of years ago, people selected maize plants without branches because they had more resistance to lodging [where the stalk breaks below the ear] and had big kernels. Maize is a great example of plant domestication.”
Francois is trying to identify the sugar signalling mechanisms involved in controlling shoot branching and how molecular components interact with hormones to trigger the branching.
“Plants tightly control their reserves so that they don’t die. They anticipate! I’m deciphering how plants can sense the energy and the nutrients that they have.”
If we understand this, he says, we may be able to manipulate the process to not only increase yields but also to reduce the amount of fertiliser needed.
“If we know how a plant senses nitrate, which is bad for the environment, we can make it more efficient and productive, and also reduce its footprint in the environment. This links sustainable agriculture with food security. So it’s a big deal.”
How the UQ lab and the Centre are working together
All research conducted under Christine’s Laureate funding (by Francois and others) is feeding directly into our research here at the Centre of Excellence.
“At the Centre, we are trying to improve crop productivity while moving towards sustainable agriculture and taking inspiration from nature,” says Francois. “Everything the lab does is relevant to the Centre.”
Given the multidisciplinary nature of the Centre’s research, the UQ lab has had to be restructured and expanded to accommodate Dr Daniel Oriz-Barrientos and his team of evolutionary biologists alongside the plant physiologists.
“This multi-approach using maths, quantitative genetics, evolution etc to tackle one problem, it’s not unusual but Christine has taken this to an extreme level, with people in law, societal impacts, even gender equity among the team.”
The mingling of disciplines is bringing opportunities for learning and collaboration to everyone in the lab.
“Since the Centre was established, we have been having online seminars every week—2, 3, soon to be 4 a week—to talk about diverse aspects with people from the Centre’s other nodes in Melbourne, Adelaide, Tasmania. There are a lot more people and everyone is keen to collaborate. For me, it’s a chance to learn and to collaborate with other postdocs.”
The challenge and power of bridging two disciplines
Working with quantitative geneticist Owen Powell, who is also part of the Centre, is proving to be both challenging and enlightening for Francois.
“I am connecting my work on shoot branching with Owen’s work on predictive algorithms in crop breeding, so we can understand how to improve plant performance many plant generations into the future.”
The challenge is that they speak different languages—not French and English, rather the different scientific jargon that has necessarily evolved in each discipline.
“A quantitative geneticist focuses on theory, not necessarily particular details of a plant—Owen is also working on cattle—so we have to learn to communicate. But this is where it gets powerful—the fields have evolved separately but we are bringing them together. It’s like being on a journey, discovering new work.
“We have people working with mathematicians, with law—it’s a big learning curve and it’s one of the strengths of the Centre. People here are going to learn a lot, way more than is commonly done.”
A secret passion for Selaginella
As an early-career researcher, Francois is clearly realising his dream career.
“It’s outstanding to be able to work closely with Tim Brodribb, Steve Smith, John Bowman, who are very famous in the scientific community.”
Yet, one aspect is yet to be fulfilled, and it’s not about carnivorous plants.
“I’m really passionate about the genus Selaginella. In evolution, they came before ferns and after mosses but they’re neither a fern nor a moss, although they may look like either. There are more than 700 species, all different, fascinating, beautiful. Some are blue but it’s not a pigment, it’s iridescence. They are one of the first plants to have a vasculature and they can teach us a lot about plant evolution.
“My secret dream is to one day work on Selaginella.”