The Plant Ecophysiology group is testing the effect of climate change (CO2, drought, temperature) on toxicity. This research, in collaboration with Dr Tim Cavagnaro at the School of Biological Sciences, is being conducted in field sites in Mozambique and Fiji.
The Plant Ecophysiology Group has used genetic technologies to generate new sorghum strains that are completely non-toxic but, importantly for public acceptance, are not genetically modified. We are studying these strains to understand how cyanogenesis is regulated at the molecular level and how they can be used as a tool to test plant defence theories. It is hoped that these strains will be used as non-toxic livestock feed in the future, a huge boon for Australian farmers.
Recently our research into the important crop sorghum has expanded to include wild relatives. Sorghum bicolor is the fifth most important global cereal, a highly versatile and resilient crop, grown in semi-arid and arid regions world-wide and used for grain, forage and biofuels. However, domestication of sorghum has resulted in reduced genetic diversity limiting the options available to plant breeders to increase stress resilience and productivity. Crop wild relatives (CWR) are wild plants closely related to the domesticated crop species, which can be used to address this problem.
There are 17 wild sorghum species in Australia, with a wide geographic distribution, growing in arid far north regions of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland but also into the alpine area of Victoria. The ability to successfully grow under such diverse conditions suggests that there is significant genetic diversity and plasticity present in these species.
A successful ARC Discovery Grant has allowed us to collaborate with the groups of Prof. Robert Henry at the University of Queensland, Prof. Birger Lindberg Moller at Copenhagen University (Denmark) and Dr Sally Norton (Dillon) at Australian Grains Genebank (Horsham, Victoria). To fully utilise CWR for plant breeding it is important to define the level of genetic diversity across the populations. The identification of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) using molecular markers and sequencing of conserved ribosomal and chloroplast genes has defined the phylogenetic relationship between domesticated and wild sorghum species (Dillon et al 2005, 2007).
These techniques have been very valuable but with advances in sequencing technologies it is now possible to efficiently and cost-effectively sequence the genomes of species of interest. We have recently established a collaboration with the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) where we hope to do whole-genome sequencing for many of the wild sorghums native to Australia which will help to answer these questions.