School of plant biology research Project ideas for Prospective 4th

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Orchid Biology – orchids have a complex ecological relationship with fungi which provide essential nutrients. They are a flagship species for investigating changes in natural ecosystems. Research projects could include - pollination ecology and natural vs artificial pollination, or how climate changes impact on mycorrhizal interactions, growth, flowering and reproductive success.
More detailed project information can be found in the Kings Park and Botanic Garden section of this booklet, or by telephoning Prof Kingsley Dixon on 9480 3614.


Room 1.027 Agriculture North Wing; Ph 6488 8546; Email:
Research Interests

Every plant cell contains at least 30,000 genes! We are working to understand how each cell determines which subset of these genes will be expressed into proteins at any given time in the life cycle of a plant. We know that the specific sub-set of genes that are expressed is tailored to cell function for example, leaves make photosynthetic enzymes, roots do not but the mechanisms of the decision making process are very murky and few of the genes involved have been identified. To better understand these complex mechanisms, we are researching molecular physiological questions within two broad areas of plant biology in collaboration with W/Prof. Hans Lambers, W/Prof. Martin Barbetti, W/Prof Tim Colmer from the School of Plant Biology and W/Professor Harvey Millar, Prof Ian Small and Dr Nic Taylor, ARC CoE Plant Energy Biology.

  1. Plant nutrient acquisition. We add chemical fertilizers to our gardens and agricultural land because plant growth and productivity requires the acquisition of inorganic nutrients from the soil. In the absence of phosphate, most plants increase the expression of the proteins that transport phosphate from the soil into the plant cell. In addition, some plants produce specialized root structures to enhance nutrient acquisition. For example, Australian native Proteaceae such as Hakea and Grevillea produce cluster roots to actively mine phosphate from the soil. There is also the fascinating possibility of a link between phosphorus nutrition and the susceptibility of some native plants to dieback disease caused by the phytopathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi. With the assistance of research students, and using native and model plants, we are identifying the genes that control the up-take and transport of phosphate around the plant and are possibly responsible for linking phosphorus nutrition with dieback susceptibility.

  1. Plant mitochondrial biogenesis and function. As in animals, mitochondrial respiration in plants is necessary for the production of usable chemical energy (ATP). Plant mitochondria are also responsible for many other vital biochemical functions and so are critical for successful plant growth and reproduction. Generally, plant cells die if they are unable to produce the correct mitochondrial proteins at the correct time. Therefore, the appropriate patterns of gene expression are absolutely crucial to plant cell viability. We are keen to identify and characterize the activity of the proteins that are responsible for controlling mitochondrial protein expression. We are also interested in how these proteins are activated by cell development or in the plant’s response to stress, such as a change in the environment, wounding or exposure to chemicals.

Our philosophy. We believe it is absolutely essential for a research student to investigate a research question that they are truly interested in answering. While we have listed some project ideas below, we are pleased to discuss any other ideas that fall within the two general areas presented above. This collaborative approach will allow interested students to formulate a project that best serves their career goals.
Ideas for possible projects

  1. Identify the proteins that bind to and control the function of mitochondrial DNA in plants.

  2. Track the movement of selected fluorescently-labelled proteins through plant cells to determine if the proteins are destined for the mitochondria.

With W/Prof Hans Lambers and Research Assistant Professor Ricarda Jost:

  1. Mine hakea transcriptome data to identify candidate genes for cluster root development and other unique features that enable these plants to thrive on extremely nutrient-impoverished soils.

  2. Investigate the role of individual phosphate transporter proteins and how their activity is regulated to adapt to differences in soil phosphorus availability and optimize the plant’s phosphorus use efficiency.

  3. Investigate the roles of genes involved in photosynthesis, respiration, lipid metabolism or protein synthesis in providing Proteaceae with unique mechanisms for the high P use efficiency we would want to be present in crop plants.


Teleconference room; 1st Floor Agriculture Central Wing; Ph 6488 4576; Email:

My work involves agronomy and farming systems, with an emphasis on no-tillage.

  1. Understanding the impact of gravel in Western Australian soils (Collaborator Dr Bill Bowden, DAFWA)

Gravel is a largely ignored but important component of soils, particularly in the high rainfall zone (HRZ) of WA. Some classes of gravels are not necessarily inert and can absorb water and nutrients. Gravels introduce heterogeneity into soils which can have positive and negative effects on crop production. The results will have relevance for the wide geographic distribution of gravelly and stony soils cropped in Australia.

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