Thomas Davies 2024 grant to support nine marine, soil and plant researchers

March 20, 2024

From the genetics of bacteria that help legumes thrive, to the impact of microplastics in coastal wetlands and the path of sulphur through the sea and beyond—the 2024 Thomas Davies Research Grant for Marine, Soil and Plant Biology is supporting the wide-ranging work of nine early- and mid-career researchers.

The grant of up to $20,000 is awarded annually and funded through a generous philanthropic bequest from the estate of the late Thomas Lewis Davies to the Australian Academy of Science.

(From left, top) Dr Tanveer Adyel, Dr Laura Burchill, Associate Professor Nicole Carnt, (middle) Dr Elena Colombi, Dr Florence Danila, Dr Pranali Deore, (bottom) Dr Paige Maroni, Dr Ricky Milne and Dr Megan Outram.

Awardees and their projects

Dr Tanveer Adyel, of the University of South Australia: Fate and consequences of microplastics in Australian coastal wetlands

Microplastics (plastic particles less than five millimetres in diameter) are everywhere—and a growing threat to the planet. And while coastal wetlands are globally significant carbon sinks, they also have an exceptional ability to trap plastics and microplastics from both land and sea, Dr Adyel says.

The grant will support his research into how exposure to microplastics in coastal wetlands influences greenhouse gas emissions and wetland ecology, using techniques from advanced analytical chemistry, biogeochemistry and environmental microbiology.

Dr Adyel says he is “thrilled” to receive the grant.

“The award will allow me to extend my collaboration and examine the ecological consequences, particularly ecology and carbon dynamics, of coastal wetlands under microplastics exposure.” 

Dr Laura Burchill, of the University of Melbourne: Discovery of the missing pathway for cysteinolic acid degradation in marine bacteria

Sulphur: it’s a requirement for life, plays a role in cloud formation, and is even partly responsible for the smell of the sea.

In the ocean, it’s transferred between ‘producers’ such as phytoplankton and ‘consumers’ such as bacteria via a group of specialised molecules containing a carbon-sulphur bond.

The grant will support Dr Burchill’s research into the breakdown of these organosulfur molecules, a process with far-reaching impacts.

“This support will contribute to crucial research in the understanding of chemical metabolites in the ocean. It will facilitate the discovery of new biochemical pathways, shedding light on the interconnected web of life beneath the waves and investigating how these networks support marine ecosystems,” Dr Burchill says.

Associate Professor Nicole Carnt of the University of New South Wales: Harnessing Acanthamoeba to control cyanobacteria blooms

Cases of algal bloom—caused by warm temperatures and high nutrient levels—are becoming more frequent in Australian waterways due to bushfires and climate change.

Associate Professor Carnt is investigating eco-friendly solutions, including looking to species of Acanthamoeba, which have been shown to prey on cyanobacteria—otherwise known as blue-green algae.

Using water samples from NSW dams and lagoons, she will identify and quantify the cyanobacterial communities and Acanthamoeba species in macroalgal blooms, investigating whether chemical and physical components of the environment alter the incidence of each. 

“In the soil and water that Acanthamoeba inhabits, it is a predator for bacteria,” Associate Professor Carnt says.

“This could be harnessed to control the increasing incidences of cyanobacteria in our waterways.”

Dr Elena Colombi, of the University of Melbourne: Functional integration of nitrogen-fixation in Australian indigenous rhizobia to improve soil fertility

Rhizobia are soil bacteria able to establish a nitrogen-fixing symbiosis with legumes. Dr Colombi is investigating the genetics required for the functional integration of nitrogen-fixation in bacterial genomes—and hopes to translate her work to practical outcomes for Australian farmers.

Between 2017-2022, Australia produced on average 2.8 million tonnes per year of pulse crops, and there is interest in further promoting legume cultivation. Strategies to improve nitrogen fixation in rhizobia are critical to maximise the expansion and the benefits of legume cultivation.

“The use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers in agricultural and pasture systems causes pollution of soil, air and water, disturbs soil fertility, and affects human health. Rhizobial inoculants in legume cultivation are a sustainable alternative to the use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers,” Dr Colombi says.

Dr Florence Danila of the Australian National University: Targeted approach to map the genetic switches of plasmodesmata formation in C4 leaves to improve crops

Plasmodesmata are plant-unique nanochannels that facilitate regulated cell-to-cell transport essential for plant growth and development, as well as photosynthesis and plant defence. In grasses, more photosynthetically efficient C4 species like corn and sorghum have more plasmodesmata in their leaves than their C3 relatives rice, wheat, and barley.

Understanding the genetic mechanisms governing plasmodesmata formation in leaves of C4 species could lead to new opportunities to improve crop photosynthesis, Dr Danila says.

“This should benefit improved crop yield and plant performance in the face of climate change, contributing towards global food security and plant biosecurity.” 

Dr Pranali Deore of the University of Melbourne: The ‘accumulation body’: an understudied autofluorescent organelle of marine microalgae

Dr Deore is diving deep into the mutually beneficial relationship between the microalgae and bacteria that are crucial for healthy functioning of corals—in the hope of discovering more about what happens when that relationship breaks down under stressful conditions, such as warming ocean temperatures.

Using state-of-the-art advanced microscopy capable of correlative fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy and coherent anti-Stokes Raman in collaboration with colleagues at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical sciences at Monash University, Dr Deore will investigate a subcellular structure inside microalgae cells called the accumulation body.

“My research will explore if the accumulation body contributes to the capture of light energy, which will help us understand how microalgae may cope with climate change driven stress conditions,” Dr Deore says.

Dr Paige Maroni of the University of Western Australia: The deep sea and a deep phylogeny: reconstructing the backbone of deep-sea Amphipoda using phylogenomics

Little is known about deep-sea organisms—from the diversity and demography of species, their life-history traits, or the levels of connectivity within or between deep-sea features across groups.

But species that are only found in—and isolated by—the deepest trenches of the ocean offer an ideal opportunity to investigate evolution and speciation on unprecedented scales, Dr Maroni says.

By combining data from existing amphipod (a type of crustacean) specimens with amphipods collected using baited autonomous lander vehicles, she aims to resolve the phylogenetic ‘backbone’ of deep-sea Amphipoda.

“Robust phylogenies allow us to explore questions of evolution, connectivity, dispersal, and demography, however due to the challenges associated with sampling at depth, this part of our world remains understudied,” Dr Maroni says.

Dr Ricky Milne of CSIRO: Furthering understanding of crop multi-pathogen resistance

‘Rust’ diseases caused by fungal pathogens pose a major threat to wheat and other cereal crops globally. And while plant genes can be harnessed to help protect crops, they tend to confer either strong resistance to single pathogen species, or partial resistance to multiple species.

Dr Milne is researching how these defenses work—in particular, the mechanism behind a wheat gene that confers resistance to multiple crop diseases, and whether this type of multi-pathogen resistance remains effective under future predicted climate conditions.

“A better understanding of multi-pathogen resistance genes has the potential for improving future disease resistance across many crops,” Dr Milne says.

Dr Megan Outram of CSIRO: Engineering plant immunity receptors to combat rust phytopathogens

Dr Outram hopes to combat rust fungi that cause disease in crop plants by using data-driven structural biology to customise ‘resistance genes’ to evolving threats.

Combining deep learning and protein design approaches, she plans to design new immunity receptors that can directly target common surface properties of identified pathogen-produced effector proteins, so that multiple rust pathogens can be detected by a single resistance gene.

“This is an important proof-of-concept study to facilitate further engineering studies to improve disease resistance in crops,” Dr Outram says.

More information

Applications for the 2025 round are now open. 

Learn more about the Thomas Davies Research Grant, the 2023 recipients, and other funding opportunities

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