Plant nutrition research ‘for the benefit of the Human Family’

Published 14 December 2010

rootsA University of New England researcher has won a highly-regarded award, against international competition, for work on plant nutrition and the management of crop nutrients that he hopes will contribute to global food security.

Richard Flavel, a member of UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science, picked up one of this year’s hotly contested International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) Scholar Awards for the research he is conducting towards a PhD degree.

His research concentrates on the way phosphorus, an important component of fertilisers worldwide, is used in cereal crops such as wheat, triticale and rye.  “Phosphorus is a limited resource, and there is a real concern about where it will come from in the future,” he said.  “That’s why we’re looking at how we can make the most efficient use of the fertiliser we apply in order to help ensure food security in the future.

“At the moment we’re using new technologies including micro-CT scanning, which is basically like a medical CAT scanner but with a higher resolution, and we’re using that to see what the roots are doing and how they respond to the fertiliser. We’re also using portable X-ray fluorescence technology to map where the phosphorus is in a soil profile and how the roots are taking it up.”

Mr Flavel hopes his research will have real-world applications in the way fertilisers are applied and in the breeding of plants to have more efficient root systems.

He is quick to thank his supervisors at UNE – Dr Chris Guppy and Professor Iain Young – but his project is very much a collaborative one, with supervisors and scholarships also coming from the CSIRO, the University of Adelaide, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

He did his undergraduate study at UNE and has returned, after working in agronomy, to conduct his PhD project titled Root Vigour of Cereal Genotypes in Response to Phosphorus Nutrition and Water Availability. He said he was enjoying research work and was very much looking forward to the future at the University. “There are great facilities here, and it’s going to be a great place to be in the next few years, with a lot more academics on the ground and some really ground-breaking research ahead that should improve our understanding of these systems dramatically,” he said.

The Scholar Award is open to graduate students in any country with an IPNI program and is assessed on the nature of the dissertation, letters of support from supervisors, and an evaluation of their research in terms of its relevance to IPNI’s mission, which is “… to develop and promote scientific information about the management of plant nutrition for the benefit of the human family”.

This year there were more applicants than usual, and 16 award winners were selected from more regions than ever. These included Australia and New Zealand, Africa, China, South East Asia, South Asia, Latin America, North America, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

A PHOTOGRAPH of Richard Flavel and UNE’s micro-CT scanner can be seen by clicking on the CT image of plant roots displayed here.