Top rank for plant scientists

Wednesday 5 February 2014
Graham receiving his Rank Prize

Distinguished ANU Professor Graham Farquhar AO and CSIRO Fellow Dr Richard Richards have won a coveted international science prize for their ground-breaking research into more water efficient wheat.

They received the 2014 UK-based Rank Prize in human and animal nutrition and crop husbandry.

The award relates to a discovery in the 1980’s, where they found a way to predict the amount of water needed to best grow different types of wheat.

Their findings have formed the backbone of ongoing research into the understanding of carbon isotopes in wheat, and how to breed varieties of wheat and other crops that are more water efficient.

“On a global scale, water limitation is probably the biggest limitation to agriculture production, so we think there’s probably quite a wide applicability to other crops as well,” Professor Farquhar says.

Dr Richards said the discoveries, first published in 1984 in the Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, now known as Functional Plant Biology, remained relevant today as the world grapples with food security and water shortages.

“It is critical Australia maintains a significant research investment in agricultural sciences as food security and depleted water shortages for agriculture are two of the most important issues we face globally,” Dr Richards said.

Their discovery involved comparing the water efficiency of wheat plants with two types of carbon produced in the plant.

Using their method, now known as the Delta Technique, Professor Farquhar and Dr Richards were able to predict the ratio of growth to water-use in different wheat crops.

Since their discovery, CSIRO has released several wheats including the Drysdale variety, bred using the Delta Technique and which needs less water. Researchers at CSIRO and ANU are continuing to look at ways to improve wheat production.  “New rusts are evolving all the time so there’s a continual upgrading of wheats required to overcome these fungal pests and other diseases,” Professor Farquhar says.

ANU Deputy–Vice Chancellor (Research), Professor Margaret Harding, said the award demonstrated the close collaboration between the University and the CSIRO.

“This highly prestigious award is independent international recognition of the world-class research in plant sciences being conducted in partnership by ANU and CSIRO in Canberra,” Professor Harding says.

Only one other Australian has won the Rank Prize. In 1981, CSIRO Plant Industry’s Hal Hatch was awarded the prestigious honour for his work on photosynthesis in sugar cane and corn.

The Rank Prize was presented to Professor Farquhar and Dr Richards in London on 10 February.

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