10 May 2013

One of the world's most highly cited plant scientists in recent years, Winthrop Professor Harvey Millar has received the 2013 Charles Albert Shull Award, and is the first Australian to receive the prestigious American award, now in its 42nd year.

The Charles Albert Shull Award recognises outstanding investigations in the field of plant biology by a scientist younger than 45. The Award was created in 1971 to honour a founding father of the American Society of Plant Biologists.

Professor Millar, who is Deputy Director at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia, has a passion for proteins and how they work, a passion that was sparked in high school.

“I had a dedicated chemistry teacher who was convinced that biochemistry was the new chemistry," he said.

"Discovering the role of enzymes and cells and learning about the chemistry of the reactions inside them brought together two interests for me: firstly, I had an interest in chemistry; and secondly, I was interested in plants because I had a father and grandfather passionate about their gardens."

Beyond the classroom, working with dedicated plant scientists at the CSIRO, exposure to university laboratories and a postdoctoral period in Oxford cemented his love for plant science.

"This period also gave me experience in communicating science beyond the lecture room and the conference hall.

"The focus and passion for me in science today are a mix of a desire to know things I don’t know (uncertainty bothers me), a need to know it first (competitive spirit), and finally a real enjoyment from seeing other people learn, grow in their science and collaborate to do things I could never achieve alone,” Professor Millar said.

Professor Millar holds an ARC Future Fellowship and has won many awards, including the 2012 Fenner Medal awarded by the Australian Academy of Science to recognise distinguished research in biology.

The internationally recognised plant scientist said being the first Australian to receive the Charles Albert Shull Award was a great honour.

"We have such a long history of excellent plant science and plant scientists in Australia who have contributed in fundamental ways to our understanding of how plants work and how to protect them in harsh environments.

“This award is a great endorsement of all the hard work and creative ideas of the team of people I lead in undertaking proteomics research in plants at the University of Western Australia. Science is a team sport!"

Professor Millar was recognised for his impressive body of research on plant mitochondria which allow respiration to occur in plants.

According to the Society's award citation, his work on the purification, proteomics, and metabolomics of mitochondria, and on the effects of oxidative stress on mitochondrial proteins, has provided important new insights into plant mitochondrial composition and function.

Professor Millar said the award was not just recognition of his work, but his entire team and their research field

“Proteomics involves a complicated mix of having creative ideas about how to study the proteins that define the function of plant cells, keeping mass spectrometry systems working, and thinking about new ways to analyse peptides and their properties.

"Keeping it all together takes lots of different skill sets and I am very glad to have such a committed team of people working with me to achieve this.

"I'm passionate about the potential of mitochondria as energy organelles in plants, so it is great to see my field get a moment in the limelight through this award."

The work of Professor Millar is vital if we are to learn more about our environment and how it copes with changing environmental conditions such as drought and flood, and to find solutions to problems such as salinity or pest tolerance in plants.

“My team’s work is focused on how the metabolism of plants can be used to fuel cellular function in new ways," he said.

"Respiration by mitochondria is sometimes thought of as a waste (as it is losing carbon from plants as CO2) but really it’s the process that turns sugars into the power to take up nutrients, make things in cells, and defend against environmental damage.

“My ARC Future Fellowship is trying to untangle what mitochondria do in the birth, life and death of plant cells.

"If we can make the use of plant metabolism more efficient for us, then we can discover new ways for plants to supply the increasing food, feed and fuel needs of humanity in coming years.

"Right now we are looking at how quickly proteins are being turned over inside mitochondria and what the role of different proteases is in assembling and degrading the machinery of respiration in cells.

“Working together in groups of scientists allows these types of questions to be tackled. Our ARC Centre of Excellence groups together teams of researchers and asks them to sit back and ask: what needs to be tackled next to really understand this system and to make a difference?

"Making new discoveries in how mitochondria function is the real joy of my research—it is where good planning, clever people and some moments of inspiration meet to find something new in plant respiration that could alter how we think or what we all do in the future,”said Professor Millar.

For more information on this article please email Winthrop Professor Harvey Millar at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, The University of Western Australia.