Exploiting natural variation to understand the molecular evolution of C4 photosynthesis

Understanding how plants survive hot, dry, high light and saline environments

This research project aims to understand the molecular events responsible for the evolution of C4 photosynthesis from the ancestral C3 photosynthetic pathway using closely related species demonstrating C3, C4 and intermediate C3-C4 photosynthesis.

C4 photosynthesis has evolved more than 60 independent times from the ancestral C3 pathway among flowering plants. C4 plants outperform C3 species in hot, dry, high light and/or saline environments, as the pathway concentrates atmospheric carbon dioxide in leaf tissues to produce carbohydrates, which are used for growth.

Several plant lineages contain closely related species that perform C3 or C4 photosynthesis and some of these groups also contain species that exhibit intermediate photosynthetic biochemistry. These C3-C4 intermediates are valuable as they represent transitional stages along the C3 to C4 evolutionary continuum.

The project takes advantage of the natural photosynthetic diversity in the dicot genus Flaveria and the monocotyledonous Neurachne to identify changes that occurred in coding and regulatory regions of ancestral C3 orthologues that are responsible for the specific expression patterns of the C4 orthologues.

Importantly, Neurachne, which is endemic to Australia, is the only known monocot group with distinct, closely related C3, C4 and C3-C4 species.

A focus of the C4 plant community is to introduce a C4 pathway into C3 crop plants to improve yield. Since many crop plants are C3 monocots, Neurachne offers a unique and powerful opportunity to develop crop improvement strategies.

For more background information, see the suggested readings below.

Suggested readings

Project goals

Identify the molecular changes responsible for converting C3 photosynthetic proteins into the C4 pathway

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Determine the commonalities and differences in the molecular evolution of the C4 syndrome in various plant lineages

Determine the interactome of C4 leaf cells

Research team leader: Professor Martha Ludwig

I am a plant biochemist and cell and molecular biologist in the School of Molecular Sciences at UWA. My research focuses on the molecular evolution of C4 photosynthesis. I use closely related species (congeners) that perform C3, C4 or C3-C4 intermediate photosynthesis along with comparative genomics, and biochemical and cell and molecular approaches to understand how the genes coding for C4 enzymes evolved from the more ancestral C3 and C3-C4 orthologues.

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.

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.


Domestic students

All domestic students may apply for Research Training Program and University Postgraduate Awards (UPA) scholarships

International students

A range of scholarships are available from international organisations and governments. The full list, organised by country, is available on the Future Students website.

In addition, all international students may apply for International Research Training Program scholarships.

Indigenous students
Indigenous students are encouraged to apply for Indigenous Postgraduate Research Supplementary Scholarships.
Forrest Foundation scholarships
All international and Australian students who wish to study towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at The University of Western Australia may apply for Forrest Scholarships.

External collaborators

  • Professor Gudrun Kadereit, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
  • Dr John Lunn, Max Planck Institute for Plant Molecular Physiology
  • Dr Terry Macfarlane, Western Australian Herbarium, Biodiversity and Conservation Science, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions
  • Professor Rowan Sage, University of Toronto
  • Associate Professor Tammy Sage, University of Toronto
  • Professor Mark Stitt, Max Planck Institute for Plant Molecular
  • Professor Andreas Weber, Heinrich Heine University, Duesseldorf
  • Professor Peter Westhoff, Heinrich Heine University, Duesseldorf Physiology



Australian Research Council Discovery Program

  • Neurachninae – an Australian endemic grass subtribe offering unique opportunities to resolve the earliest steps in the evolution of C4 photosynthesis, explore parallel evolution, and assist in crop improvement
  • Associate Professor Martha Ludwig, Professor Andreas Weber


Australian Research Council Discovery Program

  • Exploiting natural variation to discover tools to increase crop plant yields
  • Associate Professor Martha Ludwig, Associate Professor Brian Atwell, Dr John Lunn, Professor Mark Stitt


Australian Research Council Discovery Program

  • The Australian endemic grass tribe Neurachninae: a new paradigm to investigate the evolution of C4 photosynthesis
  • Associate Professor Martha Ludwig, Professor Rowan Sage, Associate Professor Tammy Sage

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