20 October 2014

One of the most significant challenges of the next 50 years is to feed the world’s burgeoning population. By 2050 the global population is expected to exceed 9 billion people and food production will need to increase by an estimated 70% in order to meet demand.

Once fertile and productive regions are becoming increasingly dry and arid, and eventually they may become unsuitable for agriculture. Scientists across the globe are working hard trying to find new ways to secure our food future.

Enhancing photosynthesis in plants is one possible way to boost yields in essential food crops and this is the focus of ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) recipient, Dr Sandra Tanz.

Dr Tanz is a Research Assistant Professor at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology based at The University of Western Australia (UWA).

Dr Tanz received her DECRA in 2012, the inaugural round for the funding scheme, to investigate the photosynthetic mechanisms that exist in known high performing crops, for application in plants used in adverse climates.

“The principle aim of my research is to investigate the organellar structure in C4 plants to help further our understanding of the mechanisms involved in photosynthesis,” Dr Tanz said.

“C4 plants are especially adapted to thrive in hot and dry environments, present in much of Australia and Africa, and typically produce 50% more biomass and at a much faster rate than C3 plants.

“However, many significant global food crops, such as rice and wheat, contain the C3 photosynthetic variant. Therefore, the potential outcome of this research is to embed C4 photosynthetic traits into C3 crops, which could significantly boost C3 biomass in staple food crops around the globe.”

Dr Tanz is of German heritage and studied her undergraduate degree at University College London. She then worked for one year in Lausanne (Switzerland), before commencing her PhD in Sydney, and now as an Assistant Professor at UWA.

The ARC DECRA scheme provides support for more focus on research and creates more opportunities for early-career researchers in both teaching and research, and research-only positions.

Professor Tanz said her DECRA has been pivotal to the progress of her research career and has helped her to become a more independent researcher.

“It provides me the freedom and opportunity to link a research area that I’ve been fascinated with since my PhD, with one that I have become interested in during my time as a postdoctoral researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (CPEB).

“During my PhD, I have studied the molecular evolution of the C4 photosynthetic pathway from its ancestral C3 pathway—this has sparked my interest in C4 photosynthesis and instilled me with an excellent depth of knowledge in this research field.

“Part of my postdoctoral research at CPEB included the subcellular localisation of RNA binding proteins (key indicators of gene expression), which helped me to understand the specific function of these proteins in plants.

“Now, during my DECRA, I have combined these two research areas by studying differences in organellar gene expression in the two cell types involved in C4 photosynthesis, and in investigating whether or not RNA binding proteins could be key regulators of C4-specific genes.

“By investigating the photosynthetic mechanisms that exist in known high performing C4 plants, my ambition is to make the knowledge available for application in food crops used in adverse climates, and thereby contribute to feeding an increasing world population,” Dr Tanz said.

Dr Tanz is aware of the great opportunities she has been given through her position at CPEB, at UWA generally and also through support from the ARC.

“I am very grateful for the opportunities that I have been given at CPEB, as both a DECRA awardee and as a post-doctoral researcher—I believe that it has played an important role in attaining the ARC DECRA and in furthering my research career,” she said.

“CPEB is an exceptional environment for research, with a strong focus on mentoring and the provision of excellent research facilities.

“The multi-disciplinary research environment stimulates innovative research; it is an exceptionally productive environment with fruitful discussions that ensure the spreading of knowledge and expertise.

“The ARC DECRA has given me the opportunity to develop my own research interests and find my own niche. As such I have found it an instrumental scheme in assisting early-career researchers.

“I am more independent now and believe that without the award I would not have had this great opportunity. The award has also helped me to develop new ideas for future projects that I am very excited about and look forward to pursuing.”

Now in the final year of her three-year DECRA, Dr Tanz said the focus is to finalize some experimental milestones of the project and collate her findings for publication in high impact journals.

“I would also like to visit collaborators at Cambridge University (UK) to learn a plant transformation technique that I would like bring back and establish in Australia. And with exciting new ideas in the pipeline, I hope to get started working on these at the nearest opportunity!

“In the long term, I am planning on staying in research—it is an intensely competitive yet hugely rewarding environment, and I would like to establish myself as a leader in the research community.”

And for young students considering a career in research, Dr Tanz’s message is simple.

“A career in research brings many opportunities—being able to make a discovery and knowing that this has never been found or seen by anyone before is an extremely satisfying experience.

“The day-to-day life as a research scientist is always varied and diverse, from planning and conducting different experiments, to analyzing results, reading the literature, and writing publications and grant applications—it is never boring!

“In addition, research requires collaboration with scientists from around the world—travelling to attend conferences and visit collaborators in different parts of the world is an important part of a research career, interesting and rewarding.

“You need to be determined and prepared to work hard, but for those that do, the rewards are a career full of discoveries, travel, and a sense of real satisfaction in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge,” Dr Tanz said.

For more information about Dr Tanz’s research or the research of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, please contact CPEB.


Image:Dr Sandra Tanz in the lab.
Image courtesy: 
Matt Galligan.