March update from CEAT Director

Over the past three months, CEAT has been working with our partners at the University of Adelaide and University of Western Australia to increase awareness among government, industry stakeholders and producers of our proposal for a ‘National Mission for Future Crop and Community Resilience’.  The National Mission document outlines an initiative to create a step change in the productivity growth of Australia’s crops and managed pastures. The National Mission will be built around four ‘Pillars’, the first of which is ‘Smart Plants for New Cropping Systems’. An example would be the ability of farmers to switch – mid-season – what an already-planted crop produces. This might include switching production to high value alternative commodities such as oils and proteins in response to changes in the weather and/or market conditions. But how, you might ask? While the idea of changing what a crop produces mid-season might seem like futuristic science fiction, in reality the future is fast approaching. Last month, a paper by Stefano Torti and co-authors was published in Nature Plants showing how application of foliar sprays (containing a viral vector) can be used to transiently change gene expression within a range of crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and peas. The authors used the technology to make a plant flower early – something that a farmer may want to do in response to changes in weather forecasts. They also used it to improve drought tolerance, plant height and vernalisation requirements of selected crops. A next step will be to use the technology to switch production from carbohydrates to other commodities, such as oils. Also, because the spray is transient and does not alter a crop’s genome, the approach may provide a tool that side-steps the limitations imposed by GMO regulations. All exciting stuff – and just a taste of how increased investment in fundamental plant technology research that is industry facing would provide the tools farmers need when faced with uncertain environments. You can read more about the approach in a PNAS Journal Club article by Carolyn Beans and a News and Views article by three researchers from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Innovation at UQ. 

The technology used in the Nature Plants article has arisen from research that harnesses the power of agrobacteria (bacteria that are good at inserting genes into plant cells) to get plants to produce proteins that the plant would not normally produce. There are applications of this technology in a range of systems, including the production of pharmaceuticals by plants. An example is the production of vaccines by Medicago R&D Inc, including a vaccine for COVID-19. As noted in October last year, researchers from the ANU are working with Medicago to develop advanced phenotyping technologies and deep-learning models that will help improve production of vaccines from plants. It was pleasing, therefore, to see the start of Phase 3 clinical testing of Medicago’s plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate. 

Last week, I had a meeting with representatives of the World Bank to discuss how digital technologies can support the transformation of agri-food systems, especially in developing countries. They were particularly interested in CEAT’s mission and vision, and what lessons we have learned over the past two years as we have built our programs. It was great to connect them to a range of other initiatives emerging from the wider Australian agri-tech ecosystem, and to provide them with access to CEAT operational documents for them to share with emerging ecosystems overseas. 

I also want to welcome some new members of the CEAT Governance Committee. The first is Sally-Ann Williams – CEO of Cicada Innovations. Sally-Ann brings a deep understanding of innovation and entrepreneurship, having worked for 12 years at Google in their engineering team, helping shape R&D collaborations with universities, start-ups and computer science/STEM education initiatives. We also have two new members from CSIRO: Brent Henderson and Lynne McIntyre. Brent is Acting Research Director for Analytics and Decision Sciences in CSIRO Data 61 – a unit of CSIRO that uses modern analytics, including statistics, machine learning, computational modelling and software engineering to help government and industry make informed and risk-based decisions. Lynne is a Research Director in CSIRO Agriculture and Food, with a long standing interest in genetics and genomics for crop improvement. She is also leading discussions to create new strategic links between CSIRO and universities across Australia. Brent and Lynne replace Jen Taylor and Steve Swain as CSIRO members of the Governance Committee; our thanks to Jen and Steve for all their hard work over the past few years – their support and input has been crucial to the formation of CEAT. Finally, it is great have the new Director of the Research School of Biology, Craig Moritz, join the Governance Committee. Craig is a strong advocate for using the interdisciplinary capabilities of universities to address complex challenges – including challenges facing the agricultural sector. Craig is also Director of the ANU-CSIRO-UC Centre for Biodiversity Analysis. Our thanks to Scott Keogh for his contribution to the Governance Committee through 2020 in his capacity as Interim Director of RSB.

Make sure you read the articles in this month’s newsletter.

Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT.

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