Smoke alarm: Discovering new signalling compounds that operate in plants

Developing new methods for detecting hormone-like signalling compounds that affect plant development

The burning of vegetation during bushfires releases many chemical compounds into the environment. Some of these, called karrikins, stimulate the germination of seed and affect the development of seedlings. Using plant genetics, the Waters group at UWA has pioneered research into a receptor protein called KARRIKIN INSENSITIVE 2 (KAI2). It is now clear KAI2-dependent signalling is essential for normal plant development, because KAI2 mutants have defective seed germination, seedling development and leaf shape.

All land plants possess KAI2-like genes, but most never experience fire. This suggested that KAI2 is used for sensing other compounds that are either made by plants or derived from the local environment (perhaps from microbiological sources). To identify these compounds, we need to develop smart, sensitive and specific assays by making use of what we have learned to date in plants. Some of these assays will be plant-based, while others will use synthetic biology approaches.

The specific aims of this project are to:

  • Investigate diverse sources of biological material (plants, soil bacteria, plant extracts) for karrikin-like activity using existing bioassays.
  • Develop new bioassays in plants, yeast and in vitro, and characterise them with karrikins to determine their performance.
  • Use these assays to identify new compounds and potential new plant hormones with diverse impacts on plant development.

To assist with this project, in-house expertise in chemical analysis will be provided by Dr Gavin Flematti (School of Molecular Sciences), while bioassay development will be conducted in consultation with our international collaborator.

For more background information, see the suggested readings below.

Suggested readings

Research team leader: Dr Mark Waters

I am a Senior Research Fellow/Senior Lecturer in the School of Molecular Sciences. I joined in 2016 as an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow. My interests lie in the mechanisms by which plants make decisions and modulate their growth according to their environment. Prior to this, I worked at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, which is housed in the same building as the School and specialises in plant molecular research. My lab is affiliated with Plant Energy Biology and has access to its world-class expertise and facilities in molecular plant science.

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.

Necessary training in specific techniques will be provided, but ideally you would have:

  • Hands-on laboratory experience in molecular biology and/or biochemistry
  • Familiarity with basic microbiological techniques and genetic manipulation
  • Familiarity with chemical separation and analytical techniques

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.

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