A wide range of student opportunities are available in the area of environmental plant physiology/physiological ecology, including those listed below and others listed on Owen Atkin's lab web page under 'Research'.
Projects can be tailored to the background and interests of individual students.
Please email Owen.Atkin@anu.edu.au for further details.
Below are some research areas where research projects are available to new students:
Establishing a process-based understanding of plant respiration in crop plants and model plant systems
Although we know that climate can substantially alter rates of plant respiration, and that rates of respiration vary among different plant species, little is known about the cellular and organelle-level modifications that underpin variations in respiration rates. As part of work in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, we are combining studies at the whole plant, organ, cellular and organelle levels to establish a process-based understanding of the factors that regulate genotypic and phenotypic variations in leaf respiraton rates. A range of student projects are available that explore this fascinating area of plant biology - here, the resources of model plant systems (e.g. Arabidopsis, Brachypodium) and crop plants (rice, barley, wheat) will be available.
Understanding why heat tolerance of photosynthetic and respiratory metabolism is greater in some species than others
It is now widely accepted that climate change will result in an increase in the duration and severity of heat-wave events. While the impact of such increases on plant energy metabolism remains poorly understood (both in terms of global distribution of risk and mechanisms underpinning plant responses), our recent field campaigns have shown that there are broad geographic seasonal patterns in heat tolerance of leaf energy metabolism (e.g. highest tolerance of photosynthesis and respiration in hot climates) and that plants growing in mid-latitude, inland regions are at most risk from extreme heat-wave events. We know less, however, about the underlying mechanisms responsible for genotypic and phenotypic variation in heat tolerance. Thus, there are opportunities for student projects that seek to better understand why it is that photosynthesis and respiration are more tolerant of heat in some genotypes/phenotypes than others. Projects dealing with this topic are available in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, with such projects using model plant systems (e.g. Arabidopsis, Brachypodium) and crop plants (rice, wheat).
The role of systemic temperature signaling in the thermal acclimation response of plants
The majority of the Earth’s land surface experiences annual minimum temperatures near or below freezing. Beyond equatorial regions, temperature typically follows pronounced seasonal trends and can vary considerably within seasons, potentially compromising plant growth and survival. Understanding how sustained and transient changes in temperature affect plant function is crucial, therefore, for predicting the productivity of crops, forests and natural ecosystems, both now and in a future, warmer world. Recently, we published a paper that provided evidence that the processes involved in cold acclimation in Arabidopsis are partially mediated by a signal that acts systemically (Gorsuch et al. 2010, Plant and Cell Physiology 51: 1488-1498). This has the potential to act as an early-warning system to enable developing leaves to better cope with the cold environment in which they are growing. Student projects are now available to assess the downstream consequences of the observed changes in gene expression (e.g. establishing whether freezing tolerance in increased in response to systemic cold signals) and/or determine whether systemic temperature signalling is widespread among other plant species.
Field work in natural ecosystems - respiratory responses to environmental gradients and consequences for carbon exchange
In recent years, the Atkin lab has conducted extensive field work across Australia and other countries – here, our aim has been to quantify variations in leaf respiration along global climatic gradients and among taxa within ecosystems, and to establish whether relationships between leaf respiration and associated leaf traits (e.g. photosynthetic capacity, leaf chemistry and structure) vary predictably among environments and plant functional types. Collectively, our fieldwork has highlighted how rates of leaf respiration differ markedly among co-existing taxa at any one site (i.e. genotypic variation), and how leaf respiration often adjusts/acclimates to changes in growth temperature and water availability. However, many questions remain regarding the impact this variabilty in respiration has on plant performance and modeling of ecosystem carbon fluxes. Future student projects are thus encouraged in this area, including further field work in Far North Queensland and elsewhere in Australia. For students with an interest in modeling, there are also opportunities to collaborate with climate modelers in the USA and UK.