Steven Smith believes some of the most important scientific questions of our time can be boiled down to one thing ­­– rice.

As one of the world’s most widely consumed staple foods, the humble cereal grain is inextricably tied to agriculture, biodiversity, population growth, resource use, water scarcity, climate change and human health, says the new Professor of Plant Genetics and Biochemistry at the University of Tasmania’s School of Biological Sciences.

“You can’t think about any of those things in isolation,’’ Professor Smith says. “I’m not an expert in energy, resources or economics, but I’m very aware of the need to understand their importance to something as fundamental as crop production.’’

Professor Smith has worked for research institutes in the United Kingdom and Australia but spent most of his academic career at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was Head of the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences. Most recently, he was Professor of Plant Genomics at the University of Western Australia.

Among his many global achievements, Professor Smith was part of the Australian plant genetics team who discovered the mode of action of “karrikins”, a family of germination-stimulating chemicals produced by bushfires. Scientists believe it is possible to harness some of those chemicals to control and improve germination in cultivated plants, such as those used widely in horticulture.

Rice, says Professor Smith, is particularly useful for gathering and applying this knowledge because “it is so important (as a food source) and so easy to work with genetically’’. “We hope that what we learn from rice will be applicable to other cereals, particularly maize and barley and then, in the longer term, to wheat,’’ he says.

As a Visiting Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Professor Smith is working with rice geneticists in China. “They’re making some very significant progress; staggering progress actually,’’ he says. “I’m trying to figure out how they’re achieving that, and whether I can contribute something. We are collectively trying to make an impact on rice production; then we can apply those same types of approaches to other crops.’’

Professor Smith’s work in China is focused on the molecular role of chemical compounds known as strigolactones. Also known as “witch hormones’’, strigolactones are signalling chemicals that determine the extent of a plant’s shoot and root architecture. In phosphate-depleted soil, the hormones promote root growth but restrict shoot growth and so put a brake on yield. Scientists hope that genetic control and fine-tuning of strigolactones may improve crop yields and reduce agriculture’s dependence on fertilizers derived from phosphate and natural gas.

“If we can modify or somehow select for that signalling system to be less severe, we might be able to encourage more shoot growth, even in phosphate-deprived soils,’’ Professor Smith says. “The availability of nutrients for plants is a critical global problem that is only going to get bigger. Agriculture depends on phosphate from mines, but there’s only a limited amount of such phosphate. The other industrial component for fertilisers is ammonia, which is produced from natural gas. We need to learn how to get crops to grow without those inputs.’’

Professor Smith is impressed by the potential of Tasmanian agriculture and agrees that niche and high-value products best serve the sector’s future. “Tasmania is known for producing specialist products – dairy, fruit and vegies – and there appears to be considerable scope for improvement and expansion in all of those areas,’’ he says.

Professor Smith was attracted to the University of Tasmania by what he calls “some very good signs’’ in the fields of education and research. He to hopes capitalise on his Chinese connections to build a foundation for new research at the University of Tasmania.

“One of the things I want to do is … to stimulate new research projects and find new opportunities to boost the connections with China and exchange for researchers, including students,’’ he says. “Research and student connections provide credibility and technological connection, which then encourage trade and business.’’

Are you interested in Plant Science? The University of Tasmania offers a range of degrees including Master of Applied Science (Specialisation) and Bachelor of Applied Science (Food Science Innovation).