Some top news from the New Zealand Society of Plant Biology

Roger Slack Award 2021 – Dr Kathy Schwinn

Dr Kathy Schwinn is awarded the 2021 Roger Slack Award by NZSPB President Richard Macknight.

The New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists (NZSPB) Roger Slack Award in Plant Biology 2021 was awarded to Dr Kathy Schwinn of Plant & Food Research Ltd. This is the highest research award given by the NZSPB, recognising research excellence in an area of plant biology, and is named after the plant physiologist Dr Roger Slack.

The award and medal were presented to Dr Schwinn during the ‘Plant Science Central’ conference held in Palmerston North, July 2021. In her address, Kathy presented highlights from her research into the regulation, biosynthesis and physiological roles of red pigments in plants. This included elegant examples of flower colouration and patterning for pollinator attraction in model systems such as Antirrhinum, the role of polyphenol oxidases for generating red auronidin pigments in liverworts, and roles for betalain pigments contributing saline tolerance in an indigenous ice plant Horokaka (Disphyma australe). Dr Schwinn’s work has given us a greater understanding of how plants use plant pigments to interact with their abiotic and biotic environment.

Michael McManus Awards 2021 – Dr Samarth and Dr Rongmei Wu

The 2021 New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists (NZSPB) Michael McManus award for best student paper was awarded to not one, but two excellent recipients – Dr Samarth and Dr Rongmei Wu. Dr Samarth was recognised for his paper published in Molecular Ecology entitled ‘Molecular control of the floral transition in the mast seeding plant Celmisia lyallii (Asteraceae)’ from his PhD studies, untaken at the University of Canterbury. Dr Rongmei Wu completed her PhD studies at Plant & Food Research Ltd and the University of Otago was recognised for her paper published in Frontiers in Plant Science “SVP-like MADS Box Genes Control Dormancy and Budbreak in Apple”.

Assoc. Prof. Paul Dijkwel awarding 2021 Michael McManus Award for the best student paper to joint winners Dr Rongmei Wu (left) and Dr Samarth (right).

The award is in honour of Professor Michael McManus, a wonderful mentor and teacher who supported and encouraged students. It is therefore fitting that this award recognises student achievements, for a published peer-reviewed paper resulting from PhD studies. Both Dr Samarth and Dr Rongmei Wu presented highlights from their published work at the Plant Science Central conference and were presented with their award by Assoc. Prof. Paul Dijkwel.

Dr Rongmei Wu investigated mechanisms that contribute to winter dormancy and conditions necessary for subsequence bud-break and flowering in spring. Warming climates threaten our crops because many of these require winter chilling for bud-break and synchronised flowering. Her work identified key dormancy associated transcription factors, SVP and DAM, which play pivot roles in the regulation of bud dormancy, bud break and flowering. Understanding how dormancy and bud-break are controlled will help find new ways to develop crops that are more resilient to a warming climate.

Dr Samarth described mast flowering, which is when perennial plants flower synchronously, yet at highly variable intervals. It had previously been proposed that mast flowering was triggered by differences in annual temperatures plants were exposed to, with larger differences initiating flowering. Samarth tested this hypothesis by transferring C. lyallii (Tikumu) plants to and from different altitudes within the Canterbury region. He identified key genes (floral promoters and epigenetic regulators) regulating the process of flowering in C. lyallii (Tikumu), a masting, alpine, herbaceous perennial.

Student travel awards

The NZSPB supported three of our student members to attend and present their research at the Plant Science Central 2021 conference in Palmerston North.  The NZSPB has a strong emphasis on supporting student involvement and activity within the research community, and these awards are one way we can assist. Our three recipients are students at the University of Otago. Tyler McCourt presented a poster and 3 minute poster-talk “The role of DUF247 in ryegrass self-incompatibility”, Caitlin Harris also presented a poster/poster-talk “Assessing the impact of self-fertility in ryegrass”, while Liam Le Lievre gave an oral presentation “Understanding pollen abortion in female kiwifruit”.

Technicians Award

Two NZSPB Technician Career Development Awards were given this year to support attendance at the Plant Science Central conference (2021). These awards are available for research technicians/research associates to develop their careers through the attendance of conferences, workshops or training courses, or to visit another laboratory, institute or related business to gain further technical skills. The recipients were Shiny Varghese from the University of Otago and Paul Pidakala from Plant & Food Research Ltd. Shiny presented a poster, “Genetic technologies for developing F1 hybrid ryegrass”, and Paul gave an oral presentation, “Effects of phosphine on fruit quality and target pest mortality of ‘Hass’ avocado fruit”. Congratulations to you both.

Member achievements

The NZSPB also congratulates three of it members for their recognition and prestigious awards.

Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit – Professor Emerita Paula Jameson

Photo Credit – University of Canterbury

The NZSPB was thrilled to hear the wonderful news that Paula Jameson had her contribution to Plant Biology recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, joining the New Zealand Order of Merit (NZOM). Paula is well known for her years of service teaching in NZ universities and has supervised >135 postgraduate students – an incredible legacy. Paula’s research has often focussed on the plant hormone cytokinins and their roles in plant development. Her research has included numerous native flowering plants of Aotearoa, including Pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), Kōwhai (Sophora teraptera), Kōwhai ngutu-kākā/kaka beak (Clianthus maximus), and more recently Tikumu(Celmisia lyallii). Paula officially retired from the University of Canterbury in 2019, but is still active in the plant biology community, supervising students and publishing. Congratulations Paula, thoroughly deserved!

James Cook Research Fellowship – Dr Kevin Davies

Dr Kevin Davies from Plant & Food Research Ltd was awarded the 2020 James Cook Research Fellowship, awarded to researchers demonstrated to have national and international recognition in their research disciplines. The fellowship provides a rare opportunity for senior researchers to step back from administration or teaching responsibilities and focus on their research for two years. Kevin is known internationally as a leading expert in the biosynthesis and regulation of flavonoids, a class of plant secondary metabolites that include pigments, sunscreens and plant defence compounds. Kevin is investigating the evolution of stress-response adaptation in land plants, with a particular interest in the roles of secondary metabolites in bryophytes such as liverworts, hornworts and mosses.

Te Apārangi Hamilton Award – Dr Nick Albert

Dr Nick Albert (Plant & Food Research Ltd) was awarded the 2020 Hamilton Award from Royal Society Te Apārangi. This recognises research excellence conducted in New Zealand by early-career researchers, and was awarded to Nick for “his contributions to understanding the compounds responsible for making different colours in plants, their origins and how they are controlled”.  His research has included identifying genes responsible for regulating where and when red/purple/blue anthocyanin pigments are formed, using model systems like petunia and snapdragon, and translating this into fruits, vegetables and forage. The award was presented at Government House by Dame Patsy Reddy and included an enormous colourful bouquet – complete with snapdragons!