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International researcher commences as head of Southern Cross Plant Science


Jane Munro
7 February 2011
The new head of Southern Cross University’s special research centre Southern Cross Plant Science, Professor of Plant Biology and Pharmacognosy Michael Heinrich, describes plant science as a crucial area of research in today’s fast changing world.

Professor Heinrich, who commenced this week, most recently held the position of head of the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy in the School of Pharmacy at the University of London. He said plant science was important because the world’s growing population was putting increasing pressure on the environment leading to the degradation of essential resources at an unprecedented rate.

“Humans rely completely on plants for our survival but all too often we forget this. Theoretical and applied research in plant sciences is like a plinth that can be used to develop sustainable models of resource use and of protecting, and sustainably using, Australia’s unique biodiversity,” Professor Heinrich said.

“The research expertise at Southern Cross Plant Science will enable us to do research on how to improve crops; how to develop novel crops (crops that have been bred to have improved qualities) and how this can be done in a sustainable way. This is a key contribution that plant science can make and Southern Cross University is in an ideal position to deliver it.

“I am looking forward to leading this team because while Southern Cross University is small, it has a good international reputation in some key areas of natural science. If the regional focus of the University is combined with a much stronger international network, I foresee excellent opportunities to develop high-impact science.

“As head of Southern Cross Plant Science my overall aim is to build on the University’s reputation and develop a multidisciplinary research centre that is internationally significant and contributes to plant sciences by helping us to understand the living world and how we can make a more sustainable use of our environment.

“A large part of my academic legacy is shaped by work I have completed in Mexico and Spain in identifying plant species and the medicinal and dietary properties of those plants. I am certainly very interested to continue this work here in Australia and to explore plant identification and plant properties with Indigenous communities with the aim of facilitating the collection of the invaluable knowledge that exists within those communities and to ensure that knowledge is not lost to future generations.”

Southern Cross Plant Science joined a major initiative last year with the Wound Management Co-operative Research Centre which is a collaborative research body that is looking at key challenges in the area of wound healing. Professor Heinrich said that traditional plant knowledge could offer an excellent starting point to develop new wound management products.

“Wound management is a complex therapeutic intervention and it is often not successful in the case of chronic wounds, for example in cases of severe diabetes,” he said.

“Those wounds are highly debilitating and the patients suffer tremendously, so we are exploring novel therapeutic approaches on the basis of plant extracts. We will be investigating existing traditional knowledge in this process. We hope to be able to develop products that can reduce suffering by reducing the time a wound needs in order to heal.”

Another international researcher will be joining the Southern Cross Plant Science team early this year with Professor Graham King being appointed as scientific director for plant conservation genetics. Professor King is currently the deputy scientific director of Rothamsted Centre for Crop Genetic Improvement, Rothamsted Research, the largest agricultural research centre in the United Kingdom. Professor Heinrich said he is looking forward to Professor King joining the team.

“Whilst we have both been working in the UK, we have not yet had the chance to work together, but we have had detailed discussion over the last few months about the future opportunities that exist for Southern Cross Plant Science and we are looking forward to developing science – particularly in the areas of genomics, epigenomics and in medicinal plant research,” Professor Heinrich said.

Southern Cross University Pro Vice Chancellor (Arts and Sciences) Professor Deborah Saltman is delighted with the new appointments to the Southern Cross Plant Science special research centre.

"We are very pleased that an academic of Professor Heinrich's calibre is joining us to head up Plant Science. He will certainly be inheriting a great team of researchers and with Professor Graham King joining him shortly, we are sure Plant Sciences will continue to grow as a world class research centre,” Professor Saltman said.

Professor Heinrich is a pharmacognosist, biologist and anthropologist specialising in medicinal and food plant research, specifically bioactive natural products as well as food and medicinal plant usage (ethnopharmacology), particularly in Mexico and the Mediterranean. He was the head of the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy in the School of Pharmacy at the University of London for 11 years and prior to that role he was the Associate Professor in the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Freiburg (Germany).

Photo: Head of Southern Cross University’s special research centre Southern Cross Plant Science, Professor of Plant Biology and Pharmacognosy Michael Heinrich.