Designing better crops for more people

Inspirational research by Marilyn Anderson and her laboratory helped establish the Australian biotechnology company, Hexima, of which she is a founding scientist and Chief Science Officer.

A specialist in molecules produced by plants for protection against insect pests and pathogens, Professor Anderson also helped pioneer detailed studies into small, circular proteins known as cyclotides. Exceptionally stable because of their shape, they can be used to design anti-cancer drugs, agricultural pesticides and pest-resistant plants.

Biochemist Nicole van der Weerden revealed that a protein from an ornamental tobacco plant can kill fungal cells that cause major disease and crop losses in plants worldwide, especially in the cotton industry. The discovery is now being used by Hexima to design transgenic crops resistant to fungal attack. Further work on this protein, led by Mark Hulett and Marc Kvnasakul, has revealed its potential for attacking human cancer cells.

Internationally, Hexima also collaborates with leading plant genetics company Pioneer DuPont to make corn, an extremely valuable crop worldwide, more resistant to fungal diseases.

Hay fever sufferers may one day benefit from a new type of ryegrass, reducing the sneezing and itching effects of existing varieties. In an experimental world first, plant scientists led by German Spangenberg produced grass plants that ‘switched off’ the gene that causes hay fever.

Roger Parish has led important work to boost productivity of agricultural crops. Research in his lab has identified genetic pathways regulating pollen growth and developed new technology to produce higher yielding hybrid crops. Related technology, which has also been patented worldwide, can help inhibit and reactivate specific plant genes.

Crops that flower at times most convenient for growers and markets are significantly closer, thanks to studies by plant geneticist Tony Gendall. The La Trobe research helped British scientists discover the regulatory effects of cold weather on the flowering time of plants. Now extended to identify similar genes and processes in agricultural crops – this work is helping design frost tolerant plants.

Studies in these and many related fields are today carried out at the new $288m joint State Government research facility, AgriBio. Testament to decades of trail-blazing agricultural and biochemical research at La Trobe, AgriBio was opened on the Melbourne campus in 2013.

The impetus for a lot of this expertise came from foundation Professor of Biochemistry, Bruce Stone, who carried out valuable agricultural research to improve nutritional value of grasses and cereals. He and his laboratory revealed much about the structure of complex carbohydrates, especially lignin, and how this affects digestion by livestock.

His book on beta-glucans, a sugar found in plant cell walls, was written with former student, University of Melbourne botanist Adrienne Clarke. It remains a definitive work on the subject. Emeritus Professor Clarke is now Chancellor of La Trobe University and co-founder of Hexima.