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Researchers look to native grass as new food source


Brigid Veale
25 June 2007
Native Australian grasses could provide an environmentally-sustainable alternative to traditional food and fodder crops such as wheat and rice, according to one of the world’s leading researchers in plant genetics.

Professor Robert Henry, the director of Southern Cross University’s Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics, is leading a new research project which aims to accelerate the domestication of native Australian grass species.

The Centre, together with Native Seeds Pty Ltd, has received a $403,000 Australian Research Council grant for the three-year project, which will have a total value of close to $1million.

Professor Henry said the project had the potential to develop Australian wild grasses as alternatives to traditional crop species, such as wheat, rice and maize, which currently provided the bulk of all human food.

“The project targets the accelerated domestication of native species which have lower tillage and fertiliser requirements, and increased salt, shade, frost and or drought tolerances than the current introduced cereal and fodder crops,” Professor Henry said.

“We would expect that all of these species will allow production with less water than conventional crops and that will be an enormous advantage for the environment.

“There is also the potential that these crops could be grown in areas in Australia where you can’t grow traditional crops.”

Professor Henry said while major agricultural crops, such as barley, were domesticated more than 10,000 years ago there had not been any significant domestication of the Australian native grass species.

“Now we have a scientific understanding of that domestication process, we can look at how to accelerate that process using DNA technology,” he said

“We are certainly looking for crops that would be more compatible with production in Australia and in a changing climate.”

Around 10 per cent of the 10,000 species of grasses around the world are native to Australia, and some of those are closely related to species such as rice and sorghum.

“We have some wild relatives of rice that have real potential,” Professor Henry said.

“One of the key attributes of domestication is bigger seeds and seeds that don’t fall off the plant, allowing for them to be harvested. That’s a recurring theme in plants such as wheat and barley and has occurred partly through a process of self-selection.

“We can deliberately speed up that process. We would hope that within three years we will have small to moderate plantings of these native species which could be used for pasture. That will be the first impact.”

The next step of the project will look at the use of these crops for food.

“We would like to think these species could enter the human food chain, but that is dependant on taste and palatability. There would certainly be ecological advantages and there could be nutritional advantages over traditional crops,” he said.

Professor Henry said he was in the process of recruiting key researchers for the project, which would be conducted at the University’s Lismore campus and at Native Seeds’ research farms.

Photo: PhD candidate Fran Shapter inspects the native grasses in the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics greenhouse.