Cotton biologist Demi Sargent was today announced as the CRDC-supported ABARES Science and Innovation Award winner for 2021, with a project that could help shield the cotton industry from the effects of climate change.
Demi was presented with her award at the ABARES Outlook virtual conference today, attended by CRDC's Executive Director Ian Taylor and the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, the Hon. David Littleproud MP.
Growing up on a small dairy farm in northern Victoria, Demi saw the impact of drought on farmers first-hand.
“My dad really struggled to grow crops that were plentiful enough and supply water to our cattle,” she says. “Trying to make enough money to sustain a family of six… that was really difficult.”
Now, Demi wants to help protect the cotton industry from the effects of climate change.
Her Science Award project will examine a process known as ‘mesophyll conductance’, which is a limiting step in photosynthesis.
“It’s one of the major gateways for CO2 to enter the plant,” Narrabri based Demi explains.
“Firstly, the CO2 will pass into little pores called stomata. Then once it’s inside those pores, the CO2 will diffuse through the cell walls. That process is called mesophyll conductance.”
In standard cotton cultivars, mesophyll conductance doesn’t change when the temperature rises.
But a chance discovery in Demi’s PhD research revealed an opportunity to boost mesophyll conductance in hot weather.
“What we found is that this could be increased substantially with increasing temperature,” she says.
Demi will use the award to measure the rate of mesophyll conductance under hot, dry conditions, in a cotton cultivar and other species. She’ll also use microscopy to study variations in the cell wall, cell membrane and chloroplasts of the plants.
Demi believes the results of these studies could potentially supercharge a plant’s ability to process CO2, greatly increasing its ability to tolerate drought and heat stress.
As the recipient of this year's award, Demi will receive a CRDC grant to undertake this novel research.