Deciphering chemical signaling processes during plant development

Understanding the signals that help plants grow

Using advanced molecular and genetic techniques, this project seeks to understand how plants use chemical signals, including those from smoke, to control their growth and development in response to different environments.

As the global population grows, securing a sustainable food supply is becoming a more pressing issue. Understanding how plants grow and develop is central to designing strategies for crop improvement. Plants use chemical signals, or hormones, to coordinate their growth. We have discovered a new hormone signalling system in plants, on the basis of their response to chemicals found in smoke. This system regulates seed germination, seedling growth, leaf development and response to stress, such as drought. However, much of the molecular details about this pathway are unknown. Specifically, we do not understand the steps by which molecular perception of the hormone is translated into a response. Furthermore, the chemical identity of this hormone is not fully known.

This is a collaborative project that will use genetics to understand the genes involved in the regulation of plant development through this hormone pathway. By identifying and studying mutants, we will establish the steps from signal perception through to response. We will use synthetic biology approaches to simplify our search for unknown signalling compounds produced by plants. Putting this knowledge together, we will work towards a design for modifying the outputs of this hormone system to make plants more stress tolerant and thus more productive.

Prospective PhD applicants could work on several aspects of the project, broadly assigned to one of the three main project goals (see below). Applicants are invited to discuss their interests and experience to find a project that best appeals.

For more background information, see the suggested readings below.

Suggested readings


Understand the molecular mechanisms by which plants perceive environmental and internal chemical signals

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Develop tools to discover new chemical compounds produced by plants to control their growth

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Exploit this knowledge to develop strategies for enhancing plant performance and boosting crop yields

Research team leader: Dr Mark Waters

I am a molecular plant geneticist in the School of Molecular Sciences and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology. My interests lie in the mechanisms by which plants make decisions and modulate their growth according to their environment. My current research focuses on the synthesis, perception and response of plant and bacterial chemicals with hormone-like activity. Read more about my research.

Project collaborators

Interested in playing a part in this project? We always like to hear from people with ideas and expertise that could complement our own. Contact the research team leader for more information.

How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Requirements specific to this project:

  • A passion for discovery
  • Experience in molecular biology techniques, in particular: PCR, molecular cloning, nucleic acid and protein extraction; quantitative PCR
  • A background in biological sciences, ideally with a genetics component

Desirable knowledge:

  • Growth and handling of plants
  • Heterologous protein expression and purification
  • Analytical separation methods (e.g. HPLC)
  • Bioinformatics (including phylogenetics) and analysis of NGS data
  • Basic statistical analysis and principles of experimental design

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an application. Different application procedures apply to domestic and international students.

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