Table of contents school of plant biology introduction

Centromere mapping in Brassica interspecific hybrids (lead by Assist Prof Matthew Nelson)

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Centromere mapping in Brassica interspecific hybrids (lead by Assist Prof Matthew Nelson)

Every chromosome of every eukaryote species has one functioning centromere that is crucial for cell division. Little is known of the location of centromeres in the genetic maps of most species, including Brassica species (e.g. canola). We have developed a model system using the interspecific hybrid F1 of Brassica napus ´ B. carinata for mapping Brassica centromeres.

Characterisation of domestication genes in lupin (lead by Assist Prof Matthew Nelson)

We are investigating genes underlying domestication traits such as early flowering, pod shattering and alkaloid content in narrow-leafed lupin. This project will draw resources from the lupin genome sequencing project (a collaborative project between UWA and CSIRO) and prior genetic mapping work in the group.

The molecular role of a canola blackleg resistance gene in canola (with Assoc Prof Susan Barker)

We have located the region in the canola genome that contains a major resistance gene. Research within the group indicates that susceptibility to blackleg is an active response to the pathogen whereby plant cells die by programmed cell death. This project would define the function of the resistance gene in canola.


Director, Science, Kings Park and Botanic Garden, West Perth - Phone 9480 3614



Seed Biology ~ Restoration Ecophysiology ~ Cryogenics in conservation ~ Restoring degraded sites ~ Rehabilitate disturbed/mined lands ~ Rescuing our terrestrial orchids ~ Invasive weed research ~ Saving endangered flora from extinction ~ Climate change effects on native flora ~ and much more.
Based in the Science Laboratories at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, students would work alongside more than 45 research scientists and postgraduate students.
Kings Park and Botanic Garden enjoys an international reputation for excellence in biodiversity conservation science, undertaking integrated research focused on practical outcomes in native plant biology, rare plant conservation and bushland restoration.
For information about Prof Dixon and the research at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, please visit
Honour students can choose from a wide range of projects, or are welcome to suggest their own. Areas of supervision expertise include:
Seeds for life – research native plant biology, ecology and dormancy release. Research projects could include - using a recently discovered compound to investigate whether synchronized germination is possible, or seeking the optimum techniques to trigger germination of native plant seeds for effective propagation, or stimulating germination of exotic (weed) species for improved control, or the most effective way of storing seeds into the millennium, or how to improve the efficiency of seedling survival in bushland restoration.
Restoration Ecophysiology – research plant responses to abiotic (salinity, drought and heat) stress factors, and use plant signaling compounds to regulate stress responses. Research projects could include - seeking ways to enhance abiotic stress tolerance in native plant seeds/seedlings, or improving the use of native plants in mining and agricultural landscapes.
Propagation for conservation of our rarest species – biotechnological research is critical to the success of off-site conservation and translocation of endangered plant species. Research projects could include - in vitro technology (tissue culture, micropropagation, somatic embryogenesis), cryostorage and mass production of plants for restoration/translocation projects.
Bringing back the bush – involves undertaking innovative research and operations to enhance, rehabilitate and restore the conservation of degraded lands including urban bushland remnants, agricultural and post-mined lands. Research projects could include - the effects of changed site conditions such as topsoil in restoration success, or ways to optimize seed broadcast and seedling establishment, or why weeds are so invasive.
Rescuing our terrestrial orchids – 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 2.123 Agriculture Central 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, Prof. Martin Barbetti, Dr Stuart Pearse, Dr Oliver Berkowitz, Plant Biology, Assoc. Prof. Martha Ludwig, Biomedical, Biomolecular & Chemical Sciences, Assoc Prof Giles Hardy, Murdoch, W/Professor Harvey Millar, 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 plants such as Hakea and Grevillea produce cluster roots to actively mine for phosphate. 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.
2) 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. I am 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.
My philosophy. I 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 would be 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 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. Unravel the molecular mechanisms through which the ‘fungicide’ phosphite boosts plant defence mechanisms against Phytophthora dieback.

  3. Determine how phosphite interferes with phosphorus nutrition signalling networks in plants through identifying changes in metabolites, gene expression as well as protein modifications.

  4. 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.


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

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

A number of project ideas are listed below, however I would be pleased to discuss and develop any projects related to this general area of study.

  1. Improving soil with black diatomite – Adveco fertilisers

Adveco Fertilisers manufactures and supplies a suite of soil conditioners and fertilisers to agricultural and horticultural markets in Australia and New Zealand ( Diatomite is a chalk-like, soft, siliceous sedimentary rock. It is very porous and chemically inert. Diatomite has a number of uses including agriculture where it can be used to retain moisture, reduce compaction and help in the slow release of nutrients.

There are two projects available:

Project 1 - The soil amelioration potential of black diatomite.

Carbon is considered an essential element for plant growth and is also known to positively affect soil. In recent years there has been a growing trend towards researching high C products such as biochar, as a means of increasing plant yield, improving fertiliser use efficiency, increasing water retention and beneficial soil microbes. Black diatomite is naturally high in C and may contribute significant benefits to plant growth and soil health. Adveco Fertilisers is interested in researching the potential of black diatomite to be used as a soil ameliorant and would like to quantify its effects on plant growth and soil characteristics.

Project 2 - The effect of black diatomite on the suppression of Crown Rot in wheat.

Adveco Fertilisers has been researching the potential of black diatomite to suppress the negative effects of Crown Rot (Fusarium pseudograminearum), a serious disease of wheat. The disease has estimated costs to growers of about $80 million per year in lost production. There are currently no chemical options registered for Crown Rot suppression. Field trials indicate that black diatomite may suppress the effects of Crown Rot by up to 30%. Adveco Fertilisers would like to conduct a research project to gather additional data on disease suppression and to possibly determine the mode of action responsible for the suppression of Crown Rot.

  1. Crop nutrition projects (Collaborator CSBP – James Easton )

  • Effect of Muriate of Potash (KCl) vs Sulphate of Potash on seedling establishment and growth

  • Comparison of Cu and/or Zn applied in Flexi-N banded vs incorporated in a NPS granule

  • Comparison of application methods (banded, foliar) and sources for Cu and/or Zn

  • Effects of ironstone gravel content on N and P uptake in wheat

  1. Improving wheat growth in the field by altering the quality of light

This project tests an interesting idea – that red coloured crop stubble (coloured using dyes) can improve the growth and yield of wheat. Background - quality of light has profound effects on the growth of plants. For instance red (plastic) mulch increases the growth and yield of many horticultural crops compared with black, clear or no mulch. Plastic mulch is expensive but colouring the stubble may have a similar effect and it may also reduce frost (darker colours absorb more radiation).

  1. Role of gravel in wheatbelt soils (Collaborator/s Dr Bill Bowden DAFWA)

Gravel is a largely ignored but important component of soils. Gravel, as an inert addition to a soil, has a diluting effect on the amount of stored water and nutrients.  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. This project will use an understanding of the gravel content of soils to re-investigate a range of soil processes with the objective of better managing the gravel soils of WA     The results will have relevance for the wide geographic distribution of gravelly and stony soils cropped in Australia. 


Room 2.16 Botany Building; Ph 6488 7926; Email

Do you like getting out in the bush? Getting hot and dirty (and sometimes wet)? Doing analytical work in the lab? Identifying plants and working collaboratively with DEC, CSIRO, forest and mining industries? Interested in applying science to better management of our natural environment? The Ecosystems Research Group (ERGo) has an extensive research programme focussed on key processes that determine the productivity and long-term sustainability of natural ecosystems. As process-based ecologists, we study:

  • impacts of bushfires on ecological processes and relationships between productivity and biodiversity

  • carbon and nutrient cycling in forests and semi-arid ecosystems, including the Pilbara

  • litter decomposition and ecosystem functioning, including organic matter inputs in to streams

  • constraints to water and nutrient acquisition and use by trees under a range of conditions

  • the ecological water requirements of riparian ecosystems

  • understanding vegetation response to climate change using tree rings to construct climates (dendroclimatology)

Most research that we undertake is strongly field-based, with study sites across much of WA. We complement our field studies with comprehensive analytical work in the laboratory and in the glasshouse.
Project ideas for 2009 - please feel free to discuss any other ideas that you may want to pursue with Pauline, Matthias or Greg

How low can you go?: Vulnerability to cavitation in Australian conifers & shrubs (with Dr Tim Bleby & Dr Jochen Schenk)

Vulnerability or resistance to cavitation (the development of ‘air bubbles’ in xylem) is an important trait of drought tolerance. This project would examine vulnerability to cavitation in a range of species across a rainfall gradient and within an evolutionary context and explore whether lower vulnerability helps explain the ability of different genera to survive in arid environments.

Litter decomposition and root interactions under Allocasuarina fraseriana

Allocasuarina fraseriana is a fire-sensitive species in the understorey of jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) forest. Actinorhizal roots often proliferate through the litter and probably contribute to N acquisition and litter decomposition. This project will characterise aspects of litter quality and decomposition by looking at different chemical and biological indices including root-microbe associations and how these associations may affect nitrogen cycling processes.

Hydraulic structure and function of deep roots of tall trees

Deep roots are the key to success for many large tree species that grow in seasonally dry environments, yet we know next to nothing about how deep roots are constructed or how they work. This project would examine the structural and functional characteristics of deep roots that allow tall trees to efficiently uptake and transport water from deep in the soil profile. The project would include sampling deep roots of karri trees via cave systems in the southwest of WA. Root segments would be measured in the laboratory for (1) xylem anatomy using microscopy techniques (xylem vessels are the microscopic 'pipes' plants use to transport water), (2) how efficiently they conduct water, and (3) how vulnerable they are to cavitation (the development of 'air bubbles' in xylem). The aim of the project would be to compare deep and shallow roots and assess how the number and width of xylem vessels relates to the amount of water that can be transported (hydraulic efficiency) and the likelihood that water transport may break down due to cavitation under drought conditions (hydraulic safety). This project would be co-supervised by Dr Tim Bleby, Research Associate in the School of Plant Biology (

Other possible research topics:

  • Oxygen isotopes of sediments as records of environmental change

  • Plant species effects on organic matter cycling in freshwater bodies in WA (with CSIRO Land & Water)

  • Predicting canopy leaf area in plantations and native forest

  • Nutrient cycling in termite mounds and ant nests


Room 1.12 Botany Building Link; Ph 6488 2416; Email

Euan Harvey's main research interest is in the processes which influence the structure and distribution of marine fish across a broad range of habitats and depths. He has research programs investigating the effects of fishing on the structure of Western Australian demersal fish. He is also interested in how, and why algal disturbance influences the structure of reef fishes. Euan is also supervising research on sponge ecology and has a research collaboration with the Australian Institute of Marine Science investigating natural products from marine invertebrates and the potential for aquaculture of sessile marine invertebrates. Many of these projects use underwater photogrammetry as a sampling technique.
Project Ideas

1. Physical factors influencing the structure of demersal fish assemblages at Ningaloo Reef.

Supervisors: Drs Euan Harvey, Jessica Meeuwig and Howard Choat.
2. Why does marine algal assemblages in temperate Western Australia affect the abundance and species composition of reef fish assemblages? (Applicant should be a competent and experienced SCUBA diver).

Supervisor: Drs Euan Harvey and Gary Kendrick.

3. The effect of fishing closures on reef fish assemblages at the Ningaloo Reef (Applicant should be a competent SCUBA diver).

Supervisor: Drs Euan Harvey, Jessica Meeuwig and Howard Choat.

4. The influence of tidal flows on demersal fish assemblages in Shark Bay.

Supervisor: Drs Euan Harvey, Jessica Meeuwig and Stephen Newman.

If you have other ideas please talk to Gary Kendrick, Jessica Meeuwig or myself

Room G.33 Botany Building; Ph 6488 4691; Email:

South-western Australian ecosystems are remarkable on a global scale for their floristic diversity and the strong abiotic controls on ecosystem processes—nutrient-impoverished soils, summer drought, fire. For these reasons, they are valuable “end points” for understanding many of the key ecological theories that underpin ecological restoration. Yet our ability to restore these ecosystems is limited by the very qualities that make these ecosystems so unique. This means that south-western Australia is a very interesting and challenging place for a restoration ecologist to work!
Research in the Hobbs lab is grounded in theory but driven by an interest in developing practical outcomes for restoration in a rapidly changing world. We use an experimental approach to research that is informed by observations of what occurs in nature and we encourage students to do the same. We have listed some projects and co-supervisors below. These projects include a mix of fieldwork, lab work and/or glasshouse experiments. Also, we are happy to help students develop their own ideas as long as these fit within the broadly defined research interests we have described above.
Nurse plants in restoration

Pioneer shrubs often facilitate the establishment of later arrivals in woody ecosystems where environmental stress and low productivity would otherwise limit recruitment. These shrubs are often referred to as ‘nurse plants’. To date, the majority of evidence for nurse plants originates from the Mediterranean Basin. Nurse plants could also play an important role in the restoration of degraded landscapes in south-west Australia. The aim of this project is to determine if there is evidence of facilitation between nearest neighbours in restoration plantings. It would include fieldwork and computer-based modelling, and would be supervised by Dr Rachel Standish and Dr Michael Renton (School of Plant Biology).

Ridgefield multiple ecosystem services experiment (RiMESE)

The Ecosystem Restoration Lab group has planted 14,000 plants across 21 hectares at the UWA Ridgefield Farm under an experimental design of 10 replicates of 10 different treatments that vary in plant diversity and plant nutrient-acquisition strategy. Our primary aim is to investigate trade-offs between carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services such as resistance to weed invasion and the maintenance of biodiversity. There are numerous opportunities for students to develop projects or build on existing lines of research within this large experiment. These could include projects comparing the different treatments in terms of: the relationships between insects and plants, their resident soil fauna associated with leaf litter decomposition, their suitability for symbiotic rhizobia and mycorrhizal fungi, and links between belowground and aboveground mutualists. These would be supervised by one or more of Drs Rachel Standish, Lori Lach, and Mike Perring.

What pollinates our native plants?

Approximately 50% of the plants in the Southwest Australian Floristic Region are found nowhere else in the world. For most of them we know very little of their pollination ecology, though some 70% are believed to be insect pollinated. Many are likely pollinated by the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), but it is unknown how effective this introduced pollinator is at transferring pollen and whether the original native pollinators remain. Research on this project would involve field observations and pollinator exclusion experiments on a select number of insect-pollinated native plant species in urban bushlands around Perth. The project would be supervised by Dr. Lori Lach.

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