Trace element hyperaccumulator plants

I work in the fields of ecophysiology and biogeochemistry and my research focuses on trace element regulation in plants. More specifically, my research concentrates on trace element hyperaccumulator plants (especially those occurring in tropical regions), and the use of advanced analytical techniques based on X-rays for characterising the in situ metallome of plants. With my research, I aim to support the development of novel phytotechnologies that make use of the unique properties of hyperaccumulator plants, including phytoremediation and agromining.

My research bridges systematics, ecology and physiology of plants and is highly collaborative in nature. I work closely with plant taxonomists, ecologists, agronomists and X-ray physicists in order to advance understanding of the regulation of trace elements in plants. I have developed expertise in the application of cutting-edge synchrotron and microprobe techniques to probe the distribution and coordination chemistry of plants. I have successfully used these synchrotron and laboratory-based X-ray fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF) methods not only to hyperaccumulator plants, but also to crop plants, such as sunflower and soybean.

I am currently the principal advisor for three PhD students and associate advisor for another three PhD students at The University of Queensland (UQ). Furthermore, I am associate advisor of one PhD student based at the Université de Lorraine (France) and one at the University of Vienna (Austria). I have supervised three PhD students through to successful completion. I have also supervised nine visiting PhD research students, including four from Europe and China who spent 6–12 months in my group at UQ.

I have had the opportunity to study metallophytes and hyperaccumulator plants on five continents including in the Chilean Andes, the Copperbelt of Northern Zambia, Broken Hill in Australia, Borneo, Sulawesi, Halmahera and New Guinea in the Asia-Pacific Region, South Africa, New Caledonia and various countries in Europe.

Since October 2014, I have been leading research on hyperaccumulator plants at the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation (CMLR) at The University of Queensland (UQ). I have project managed a number of other programs, including an International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC)-funded research project on copper-cobalt hyperaccumulator plants in Zambia, and industry-funded research projects on nickel hyperaccumulator plants in Indonesia (Weda Bay nickel on Halmahera Island), and in Australia on metallophytes in Queensland (Lucknow scandium deposit and Dugald river zinc-lead deposit), and New South Wales (Broken Hill zinc-lead mine workings, and Mole River historic arsenic mine).

My work has led to major discoveries yielding significant advances in knowledge in the field, including pioneering work on tropical nickel hyperaccumulator plants leading to the discovery of 400 new hyperaccumulator species and 16 plant species new to science.

Currently I am section editor for the leading journal Plant and Soil, associate editor for the Australian Journal of Botany and a member of the Advisory Board of Metallomics. I was guest editor of a special issue entitled “Plant-soil interactions in global biodiversity hotspots” that appeared in Plant and Soil in 2016. I have also edited two double special issues (‘Global research on ultramafic (serpentine) ecosystems’) for the Australian Journal of Botany that appeared in 2015.

I was guest editor for a virtual issue in New Phytologist (‘Hyperaccumulator Plants’) that has appeared in 2018. I was editor of a special issue in the journal Ecological Research that also appeared in 2018 (‘Ultramafic Ecosystems”), and guest editor of a special issue in the Journal of Geochemical Exploration (‘Nickel laterites’) which appared in 2019. Furthermore, I am editing a special issue in the journal Metallomics on ‘Phytometallomics’ to appear in early 2020. I was editor of an edited research book entitled “Agromining: extracting unconventional resources from plants” that was commissioned by SpringerNature and published in 2017. SpringerNature commissioned a second expanded edition to appear in 2020.

My work has been widely covered by the media, including features in The Times, The Guardian, AusIMM Bulletin, New Scientist, The Conversation, Süddeutsche Zeitung, BBC World News, Fox News, ABC Australia, Australasian Science magazine and The New York Times. The French-German television production company ARTE filmed a full-length documentary (entitled ‘Superplants’) about my research that was broadcast internationally in 2017. More recently, in 2019 the ABC featured my research on native Australian hyperaccumulator plants in a segment on Gardening Australia.

I have been the recipient of an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) with research focussed on the biopathways of nickel in hyperaccumulator plants. I have also been awarded a UQ Early Career Researcher award in 2017 to support my research. I am a visiting postdoctoral research fellow at the Laboratoire Sols et Environnement (LABEX Ressources21) of the Université de Lorraine in France. Currently, I am UQ Amplify Fellow at The University of Queensland.

Industry

  • Metallophyte plant species and ecotypes at Dugald River – A forgotten resource. MMG Ltd. 2017–2018.
  • The potential of Zambian copper-cobalt hyperaccumulator plants for phytoremediation of polluted (mining/smelter) soils. International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC) 2014–2015.
  • Development of Nickel Phytomining at Weda Bay, Eramet 2015.
  • Scandium biogeochemistry at the Lucknow Laterite Plateau, Queensland, Australia. Metallica Minerals Ltd 2014.
  • Metallophytes at the Operations of Perilya Broken Hill, NSW. Perilya Ltd. 2010.

Collaborations

I maintain a strong network of active collaborations across Australia and internationally and this is evidenced in my publications with collaborators.

Funding

  • Selenium distribution and chemistry in the hyperaccumulator Neptunia amplexicaulis (2020) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Distribution and chemical form of manganese in Macadamia integrifolia (2020) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Advanced Brightfield and Fluorescent High Speed and Throughput Slide Scanner for biological, medical, materials science, and agricultural applications (2019) UQ Major Equipment and Infrastructure.
  • Biotransformation of selenium in the Australian hyperaccumulator Neptunia amplexicaulis.  (2019) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Distribution and translocation of foliar applied nickel in soybean (2019) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Biotransformation of selenium in the Australian hyperaccumulator Neptunia amplexicaulis (2019) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Aluminium detection in Symplocos stawelli (White Hazelwood) (2019) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Assessing the effects of sample state and radiation exposure on elemental distribution in plants (2019) Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
  • Advanced micro-X-ray Fluorescence facility for biological, medical, materials science and geochemistry (2018–2019) UQ Major Equipment and Infrastructure.
  • Metallophyte plant species and ecotypes at Dugald River - A forgotten resource (2018–2019) MMG Australia Limited
  • Analysis of the distribution and translocation of foliar-applied Zn in leaf tissues (2017) Australian Synchrotron Access Program (ANSTO).
  • Translating ecophysiological insights into application of nickel phytomining in Australia (2017) UQ Early Career Researcher.
  • Unravelling nickel biopathways in tropical hyperaccumulator plants (2016–2018) ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA).
  • Confocal volumetric XANES to reveal As chemical state and distribution in different cell types within intact Pteris vittata fronds (2016) Australian Synchrotron Access Program (ANSTO).
  • Elucidating the Ni and Zn biopathways during seed germination in differential ecotypes of Noccaea caerulescens (2016) Australian Synchrotron Access Program (ANSTO).
  • Revealing nickel biopathways in the roots of hyperaccumulating and nonhyperaccumulating genotypes of Senecio coronatus with μXRF tomography and confocal XAS (2016) Australian Synchrotron Access Program (ANSTO).

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