In a career which began before anyone had a computer and no plant gene had been isolated, I have graduated from, or been employed by, six universities and four research institutes on four continents, and have witnessed some truly staggering advances in plant science during that time. But I have never before encountered anything like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Plant Success. The traditional dogma has been for scientists with similar expertise to work together in Departments, Centres or Programs, to pool their knowledge and to share resources to address challenges in particular disciplines. Critical mass and capacity are often cited as resources that enable significant progress to be made in research. Increasingly research programs in research institutes have become multidisciplinary, and Centres of Excellence have been established to bring together researchers with complementary expertise.
The Centre for Plant Success is different because it goes beyond multidisciplinary. It brings together molecular biologists, ecologists, physiologists, mathematicians and crop scientists into one team to tackle the grand challenges of trying to boost future crop production and of safeguarding terrestrial ecosystems. Each team member brings different expertise but it is not simply a collaborative approach or shared tasks. Instead, it aims to change the way of thinking of each of the scientists involved. It aims to bring each team member out of their traditional silo, to learn new skills, new approaches and even a new language. We challenge each researcher to ask what their expertise can bring to bear on someone else’s problem and what each person can teach others. We have experts who understand the behaviour of individual plants in rapidly changing microenvironments and others who understand global scale vegetation dynamics. We also have experts in the evolution of land plants from their beginnings 500 million years ago, and others specialising in the adaptation that can occur in a single generation. Others can understand how tens of thousands of genes can work together to make an individual organism while another can craft an individual gene for a function that might never have been possible before. We have investigators who know how to breed and select superior crop varieties, and others have the knowledge to navigate the legal challenges and ethical responsibilities required to deliver the benefits of these endeavours to society.
While the more established researchers seek to re-educate and to challenge each other, for the early career scientists it represents an opportunity to ‘tool up’ for a more holistic approach to plant science. This is what we need in the future. I have conducted research on numerous different topics because this provides me with new challenges to which I can bring fresh ideas. I have ventured from cloning the first plant genes to discovering new pathways of plant energy metabolism, and recently, deciphering the modes of action of karrikins from wildfires and of endogenous plant hormones. I now look forward to learning from our experts how I can use my knowledge to understand some of the control systems by which plants effectively manage their energy and resources under varied and challenging conditions. Together we strive to understand how plants succeed in nature so that we can create new ways to manage plants for success in agriculture.
Emeritus Professor Steve Smith
Chief Investigator, University of Tasmania