A scientist whose work unlocks the secret life of plants is one of five University of Queensland academics recognised with a Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science.

Professor Christine Beveridge from UQ’s School of Biological Sciences and the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a world leader in the hormonal control of plant development and shoot architecture, which underpins the yield, productivity or ornamental value of crops, trees and shrubs.

Her discovery of strigolactone as a novel plant hormone involved in shoot branching could assist in crop production and the propagation of endangered plant species.

The prestigious fellowships are awarded to a select group of scientists each year, recognising leading and innovative research.

Twenty-one fellowships have been awarded nationally this year.

Head of School Professor Mark Blows congratulated Professor Beveridge on the prestigious honour. 

“This is a recognition of the significance of Christine’s work and the importance of her studies and those of her colleagues to fundamental plant development and food security,” he said.

Professor Beveridge and her colleagues are studying the mechanism of branching - what the signals are and how they affect the plant - and how small changes in genes lead to big changes in branching.

“We have discovered a new signal ­‑ a plant hormone, strigolactone - and we are working out how it works and how it is regulated,” she said.

Professor Beveridge said the research was important because it addressed fundamental questions about how plants formed their shape and therefore how they managed yield.

The study has overturned the long-held belief that plant hormones control the shape of plant growth, and shown instead that this process starts with sugar.

Shoot branching in plants is a vital process in agriculture and this finding will contribute toward the Queensland Government’s goal to double agricultural production by 2040 and the global need to increase food production.

 “The growth of shoots and number of branches are very important to productivity and profitability, particularly in crops like avocado, macadamia and mango,” Professor Beveridge said.

“We discovered that this process is initiated by sugar rather than hormones as previously believed.

“This discovery is so simple yet it has been overlooked for nearly a century.”

A self-confessed lateral thinker, Professor Beveridge decided to become a scientist because she loves discovering things.

She started on her research path when she was given 19 or so bags of branching, mutant seeds and asked if she would like to study them for a PhD thesis.

“It was an awesome opportunity which I was too naive to fully appreciate at the time, but I said yes please,” she said.

 “I’m inspired by the art, creativity, and the ability of the many people in science to think outside the box and create something really new and novel to make major steps forward based on a new and often simple idea.

“I love to be challenged by students and colleagues.”

Professor Beveridge believes her branch of science in 50 years will see scientists using mathematical and computer models to capture the huge complexity and magnitude of knowledge being obtained for biological systems.

“We will still be doing basic experiments and making surprising discoveries about plants,” she said.

“I assume funding to plant research will increase to address upcoming inevitable food shortages due to global population growth and the complex effects of climate change.

“This means we will be able to answer the important fundamental questions in a more strategic way.”

Professor Beveridge is working with the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), Horticulture Innovation Australia (HIA), NSW Department of Primary Industries and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF).

Her research is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and HIA.

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