July Director’s message

July has been an exciting month for agri-food researchers at ANU. 

As part of a $64 million investment in industry-focused research, the Australian Research Council (ARC) has just announced a range of Industrial Transformation Training Centres and Research Hubs. One of the successful proposals – the ARC Training Centre in Plant Biosecurity – was led by ANU Professor Peter Solomon. Backed by a $5 million investment by the ARC, the Plant Biosecurity Training Centre will “facilitate outstanding [research] training to equip an industry-ready workforce, strengthening Australia’s wider research capability nationally and internationally” in an area widely acknowledged as being crucial to the future of Australia’s plant-based industries. I have lost count of the number of times ‘plant biosecurity’ has been raised as a ‘top-tier challenge’ facing the agricultural sector, be it by government ministers, industry peak bodies and producers. Underpinning those concerns is the never-ending nature of biotic threats – threats that sometime arrive from overseas, or ones that evolve within natural and managed ecosystems within Australia.  Meeting those threats will require that Australia invest in: (1) training the next generation of researchers capable of doing the research needed to protect plant-based industries; and (2) undertaking cutting-edge research to address today’s challenges. I am proud that ANU will lead an ARC Training Centre that targets these challenges.

Another win for ANU plant science was the announcement by the ARC that Associate Professor Danielle Way has been awarded a $1.1 million Future Fellowship. Future Fellowships are among the most prestigious awards available to Australia’s outstanding mid-career researchers – with the four-year cash investment enabling Future Fellows to “undertake world-leading research in areas of that provide benefit to Australia and the global community”.  For Danielle, the Fellowship will enable her to “identify the plant traits that promote wheat yield and nutritional quality in a warmer, high-CO2 world, which will ultimately help protect Australia’s national wheat production and export income, and enhance food security”.  Danielle is a recent hire to ANU, having recently moved from Canada. In that context, it is great to see Australia embrace her research in such an emphatic manner. 

Continuing on the theme of funding success, it was a pleasure to be involved in a recent ‘sandpit’ activity as part of the UK/Australia Earth Observation AgroClimate Programme (EO4AgroClimate). Funded by a £4.5 million investment by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), EO4AgroClimate is bringing together expertise in space-enabled data, technology and modelling capabilities on projects that address key agroclimatic challenges and which strengthen R&D and trade linkages between our two countries.

The sandpit process ran over three days with multi-disciplinary teams conceiving, designing, writing and pitching project proposals for projects to address: crop performance in a changing climate, biosecurity, and mitigating agricultural impacts on the environment. In my case, I partnered with an agrifood engineer Professor Simon Pearson (Director, Lincoln Institute of Agrifood Technology, UK), atmospheric physicist Dr Melina Zempila (RAL Space, UK) and multimedia computer scientist Dr Zhiyong Wang (School of Information Technologies, University of Sydney) to develop a project that would lay the foundations for next generation hyperspectral imaging for remote sensing of crops (i.e. using reflected light to predict chemical composition, structure and metabolic activity of leaves).

In recent years, researchers at ANU have made breakthroughs in applications of hyperspectral imaging of leaves to non-invasively quantify key crop performance traits such as photosynthesis and respiration. Such tools have potential to revolutionise the breeding of crops with improved yield potential and yield resilience. However, to fully exploit the potential of these tools, we need to move from scanning individual leaves to scanning canopies of plants growing in the field (e.g. using drone- and satellite-based imaging). Doing so won’t be easy, as a range of factors limit the accuracy of reflected light coming off crop canopies (e.g. atmospheric signal degradation). Together, Simon, Melina, Zhiyong and I developed a project to address these issues. And guess what, after three days of intense, hard work, our proposal was funded! Many thanks to Dr Hugh Mortimer and his UKRI team for designing such an innovative process through which novel projects could be developed. 

Finally, this month we welcome two new members to our Hub – Haizea and Future Swirl. Welcome to both teams, it’s great to have you on board! There is still space in our Hub. So, if you have a business with an agri-food focus that would benefit from unique access to ANU researchers and infrastructure to support your R&D and growth, please get in touch with the CEAT team at [email protected]. We also welcome interest from businesses headquartered outside Australia with an interest in being based at ANU, in our nation’s capital.



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