The recipients of the 2017 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry have been announced at the ABARES Outlook 2017 conference dinner on 7 March. The Science Awards recognise big ideas from young rural innovators that contribute to the success of Australia’s agriculture sector.
Recipients have each been granted funding to undertake a project on an emerging scientific issue or innovative activity over the next twelve months. The Awards aim to encourage science, innovation and technology in rural industries and help to advance the careers of young scientists and innovators through national recognition of their research ideas.
This year, the recipients of two of the eleven Awards are researchers right here at the Waite.
Food loving plant biologist Caitlin Byrt is stealing the traits of weeds to make cereal crops more successful in salty or drought-affected soils.
Caitlin will study the roots of the wild relatives of barley crops to see what makes them so tolerant to stress. These traits could then be crossed into modern cultivars, resulting in higher grain yields.
The University of Adelaide graduate, says the real challenge is to figure out which traits are actually useful for modern agriculture. “Mangroves grow in seawater, so obviously they’re really tolerant to salinity,” she says.
“But it’s not like mangroves necessarily have traits that are useful to growing a cereal crop. We can’t have cereal crops that have ginormous mangrove-like roots.”
Luckily Caitlin has already had success in this area with a similar project looking at a wild relative of wheat. She was able to identify two key genes making a wild wheat variety more salt tolerant, which were crossed into modern cereal varieties. The project achieved a 25 per cent increase in durum wheat grain yield in saline soils, and the traits and genes were distributed to more than 18 countries.
Caitlin says the barley project offers access to an amazing collection of plants with huge genetic diversity. Amidst this collection she’s very likely to find a trait that’s beneficial, boosting not just Australian farmers but food supplies around the world.
“Food security is something that really concerns me and always has done,” Caitlin says. “I enjoy good, fresh, high-quality food— that’s a priority for me—and so I would like to see a situation where we can continue to enjoy that into the future.”
Dr Caitlin Byrt is a DECRA fellow with the School of Agriculture, food and Wine and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology
How many components can you taste in a glass of wine? Blackberries? Plums? Maybe some oak? But what about less desirable components like smoke taint? Chemist Natoiya Lloyd is able to examine hundreds of compounds in wine with a single chemical screening.
Natoiya’s Science and Innovation Award project uses cutting edge analytical chemistry techniques to detect smoke taint in wine, and give winemakers better information to ensure the quality of their product.
“Around the world controlled burns and wildfires can lead to unavoidable smoke drift into vineyards,” Natoiya says.
“This can cause the formation of taint compounds in grapes and significant economic losses if the quality of the finished wine is affected.”
Natoiya is set to analyse wine using metabolomics, an innovative screening technique using high-end analytical instrumentation and bioinformatics tools. It aims to measure as much of the chemical composition of a sample as possible in the one analysis.
“At the moment winemakers can get their samples screened for specific compounds that we know are associated with smoke taint in wine,” she says.
“But it’s not a full, complete picture of all the components that are contributing to smoke taint because of the diverse range of fuel sources for fires.
“For industry to access such a screen gives them a much broader understanding of the effects, if any, of a particular smoke event.”
Not one to shy away from thorough research, Natoiya can often be found in vineyards helping with grape picking or pruning. She’s even part of a small group that has their own batch of wine on the go.
“It’s good to get out in industry and understand the whole process so you can contribute and add more value,” Natoiya says.
Dr Natoiya Lloyd is a Research Scientist at the Australian Wine Research Institute