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International researcher arrives to head up Plant Genomics


Sharlene King
27 June 2011
Understanding the detailed composition and interactions between plant genetic information and the local and global environment can help address some of the major issues confronting the planet, such as climate change, food security and ecosystem sustainability, according to Professor of Plant Genomics and Epigenetics Graham King, the new Director of Plant Genomics at Southern Cross University’s special research centre Southern Cross Plant Science.

Professor King, who arrived in Lismore this month, most recently held the position of deputy scientific director of the Centre for Crop Genetic Improvement at Rothamsted Research in the UK. He has led major international and UK efforts to transfer basic genetic knowledge to underpin research leading to crop genetic improvement. This has included working with plant breeders on fruit trees and vegetables, and more recently with the oilseed canola.

“Since a brief working visit nearly 20 years ago carrying out research on horticultural crops in Sydney, I have followed developments in Australian agriculture with active interest,” Professor King said. “My move here was also motivated by the range of opportunities for developing diversity in food supply and the wider engagement of Australians in the environment and human health.

“The combination of expertise within Southern Cross Plant Science, spanning plant genomics and a deep understanding of a wide range of crops, through to phytochemistry and enthnopharmacology, enables us to investigate and improve existing crops, as well as developing innovative medicinal and food plants and associated high value plant products.”

Over the past decade the field of plant genomics (the study of the genetic information and its function) has moved progressively from a focus on ‘model’ species to mainstream crops such as rice, as well as tomato, grape and eucalypts. Sequencing the complete genome of worldwide staple cereal crops, such as wheat, is currently being tackled but remains a computational challenge, given it is five times the size of the human genome.

Recent advances in DNA sequencing technology, such as those available within Southern Cross Plant Science, are enabling such endeavours to proceed at a fraction of the cost available even five years ago. The group at Lismore has already accumulated valuable datasets associated not only with major food crops but also with commodities such as coffee and a range of species native to Australia.

Professor King said this opened up huge potential for understanding the range of plants in their natural habitat and understanding the extent of processes affecting erosion of genetic diversity.

“I am particularly excited about the opportunities for plant research in Australia, which is one of the 12 megadiverse countries in the world with more than 20,000 plant species.”

However, the unique genetic diversity associated with many of Australia's natural habitats is under threat, with species facing potential extinction. Increased pressures from modern agricultural practices, industry, recreational pursuits and an expanding population has seen Australia's native flora decline at an alarming rate.

Professor King is working with his predecessor, Professor Robert Henry, now at the University of Queensland, to revitalise and extend the scope of the Australian Plant DNA Bank to capitalise on the opportunities presented by new DNA sequencing and computing technologies.

“This unique infrastructure provides a repository for DNA samples as a resource to be utilised in plant research by current and future generations,” Professor King said.

“Southern Cross University is well-placed to extend the scope of research associated with the Plant DNA Bank and the Australian Living Atlas, in particular by combining datasets that characterise plant properties such as phytochemicals alongside mineral content of plant and the soils in which they grow.”

Analysis and management of the vast amounts of data generated by such studies is a particular priority for Professor King, who aims to increase the research activities and training opportunities within the discipline of bioinformatics, which involves the application of information technology, computer science and statistics to the fields of molecular and other aspects of biology.

“We are particularly interested in attracting postgraduate students and experienced researchers from any discipline with the informatics skills and drive to understand complex biological systems.”

Professor King has two decades of experience in designing and integrating databases to facilitate plant genetics research, as well as working with mathematicians and computer scientists to understand the complex patterns and properties of plants and their chromosomes.

A key target for the team at Southern Cross Plant Science is to understand the molecular basis of interactions between plants and their environments. As well as the challenge of addressing the regional consequences of global climate change, there is a pressing need to understand constraints on productivity and maintenance of ecosystem diversity for Australian soils.

“I see great opportunities to build new collaborations with Southern Cross GeoScience, which has established itself as a world leader in understanding land and water resources with particular reference to the impact of human activity. There are also specific opportunities to apply genomic approaches to increase persistent carbon sequestration in crops such as wheat.”

Professor King is due to present a plenary lecture entitled ‘The role of epigenomics for understanding and manipulating crop plants’ in August at the 2nd International Symposium on Genomics and Crop Genetic Improvement that will be held in Wuhan, China, where he has established long term research collaborations.

Since the completion of the Human Genome DNA sequencing project, the research field of ‘epigenetics’ has emerged as a key tool to help understand many key aspects of development and response to environment in plants and animals. Epigenetics is the study of changes in the heritable status of cells or organism by mechanisms other than those determined by the underlying DNA sequence. Epigenetic marks provide a means by which cells interact with their environment and regulate the activity of individual or sets of genes. In humans, epigenetic variation is now known to be responsible for a large number of diseases and cancers, ageing, obesity, psychiatric and autoimmune disorders.

“In plants we have found similar mechanisms affecting processes such as fruit ripening, seed and grain development, flowering time and response to temperature. What we can now see is that establishing the DNA sequence of an organism is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the ‘software’ of organisms such as plants.

“This level of complexity allows plants and other organisms to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, but poses huge challenges for research. When we start looking at the pattern of epigenetic variation in plants we observe levels of subtlety and interaction at a whole-system level that affect the hardware and software of genetic regulation.”

Professor King was educated in the UK, gaining his first degree from the University of Manchester and PhD from the University of London. Since then he has worked in various incarnations of Horticulture Research International, at the University of Warwick and at Rothamsted Research. Graham is accompanied by his wife Jo, who has a background in linguistics and psychology and is interested in developing research associated with Indigenous mental health.
Photo: Professor Graham King is the new Director of Plant Genomics at Southern Cross University’s special research centre, Southern Cross Plant Science. Media opportunity: Professor Graham King is available for interview.