20 October 2014

Plant biologists from across the globe recently converged on Australia for the 5th International Conference on Plant Cell Wall Biology (PCWB2014).

This was the first time Australia has held the event and it was hosted by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.

An important component of the conference was the announcement of the 2014 BA Stone Award. The award recognises an individual or individuals who have made significant contributions to cell wall and carbohydrate research.

There were two recipients of the award for 2014. Assistant Professor Jochen Zimmer, from the University of Virginia, USA, received one of the awards for his ground-breaking work on the structural analysis of enzymes involved in cellulose synthesis. The second award—a surprise from the sponsor Megazyme International—was presented to the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls, Professor Geoff Fincher, for his long list of outstanding career achievements.

Throughout his career, Professor Fincher has produced over 200 peer reviewed papers covering the genetics, synthesis and structures of cell wall components and their applications in areas such as human nutrition, biofuels and food security.

This recognition follows Professor Fincher’s award of the prestigious Thomas Burr Osborne Medal last year, which recognises distinguished contributions in the field of cereal chemistry.

Professor Fincher said he was honoured to receive the BA Stone Award. He recalled the exciting moments and his early frustrations as a PhD student, but assured the young scientists at the meeting that the excitement of this research discipline always ‘won the day’ and encouraged them to work hard in pursuit of their careers in biology.

The International Conference, held at Palm Cove in Queensland’s far north, attracted 144 delegates from 21 countries and showcased the latest developments in plant cell wall science.

Presentations during the conference featured breakthrough science that ranged from: the refining of the 3D structures of plant wall enzymes; the mechanisms and benefits of dietary fibre utilisation by the microbiome of the human large intestine; and the latest in lignin biochemistry. These advances in fundamental cell wall science have important applications in many areas of human endeavour and, more particularly in the production of renewable biofuels from non-food producing plants or crop residues, and in the improvement of human health through the beneficial effects of dietary fibre.

Professor Fincher said it was a coup for Australia to host the conference, which is an important event on the calendar for the plant cell wall community.

“The international cell wall community meets once a year and we were able to attract a fantastic group of internationally renowned speakers,” he said.

“Not only did the meeting enable us to consolidate and extend our international collaborative networks, but it enabled our postgraduate students and postdoctoral scientists to hear the latest developments first-hand and to discuss their own projects with high profile scientists in the field.”

One of the Centre’s PhD students, Grace Dolan, is looking at the physical interactions between specific cell wall components. Her research will help improve our understanding of properties like lubrication of cell wall polymers and future use in industrial applications.

Ms Dolan said presenting at the conference was a valuable experience.

“As a PhD student it was an amazing opportunity to present my work to such a large and international audience at the PCWB2014 conference,” she said.  

“The diversity of backgrounds across attendees and the shared enthusiasm for new insights and perspectives on plant cell wall biology gave a large scope for useful feedback, discussions and collaborations.”

For more information about the conference or the work of the Centre, please contact the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.


Image: Professor Fincher receiving his 2014 BA Stone Award from Professor Vincent Bulone, representing award sponsor, Megazyme.
Image credit: Natalie Kibble, ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls