The challenge of feeding a world population set to hit nine billion by 2050 is driving University of Queensland research that could revolutionise cereal production.
Four female UQ scientists are tackling the problem by getting to the root of the issue – studying wheat and barley roots to improve crop quality and productivity in a changing environment.
The women have diverse backgrounds, but their wheat and barley research is complementary, allowing them to find new solutions.
PhD student Cecile Richard, originally from France, has developed a new research method that involves planting wheat in clear pots so the plants with better root system can be selected.
“Before, we were looking at the top of the plant because it was easier, but using this new method we can look below the ground and get useful information,” she said.
“With the clear pots we can see the root characteristics and look for the best ones – for example, deeper roots can mean more access to water and nutrients stored in the soil, so potentially a bigger yield of grain.
“Wheat is one of the most important sources of protein for most of the world’s population.
“There are many factors that can impact production – drought, frost, soil toxicity, disease, pests.
“It’s very important to us to develop new varieties that are very resilient to meet the demand in the future.”
Ms Richard works alongside PhD students Hannah Robinson (from Australia), Amy Watson (from New Zealand), and Honours student Anika Miller Cooper (originally from Argentina).
They each look at different aspects of the problem.
Ms Robinson investigates barley roots, and has identified a gene responsible for a deeper root system, leading to a yield increase.
Ms Watson is integrating DNA information for more efficient selection of wheat, while Ms Cooper examines roots in ancient wheat varieties to identify important genes that were lost during the process of domestication and selection.
Ms Richard said it was important to have women in science.
“Our team is a mix of cultures, generations and genders. The diversity brings together a new perspective,” she said.
“Women are just as capable as men. It’s about human talent: quality and productivity, just like wheat.”