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Current Members

Alex JohnsonAssociate Professor Alex Johnson – Principle investigator

• PhD – Virginia Tech (2001)
• MSc – Virginia Tech (1998)
• BA – Gustavus Adolphus College (1996)

My lab aims to better understand trace metal metabolism in plants and use that knowledge to produce iron- and zinc-enriched crops. In addition to research I teach into several undergraduate subjects at the University of Melbourne including BIOL10004 Biology of Cells & Organisms, BOTA20001 Green Planet: Plants & the Environment and BOTA30005 Plant Molecular Biology & Biotechnology. I currently serve as Assistant Dean International within the Faculty of Science and am the Cell Biology Representative for the Australian Society of Plant Scientists.

Julien BonneauDr. Julien Bonneau – Postdoctoral researcher

• PhD – Science – 2012 – University of Adelaide under Cotutelle with The University of Blaise Pascal, France
• MSc – Science and Technology – 2008 – University of Blaise Pascal, France
• BSc equivalent Higher National Diploma – 2003 – Bel-Air College, Fontenay le Comte, France

I am interested in understanding the genetic factors regulating micronutrient mineral content in staple food crops such as rice and wheat. My current research focuses on characterizing bread wheat genes involved in uptake, sequestration, homeostasis and grain loading of iron and zinc. I led our group’s recent project to identify and characterize the NAS gene family in bread wheat (Bonneau et al. 2016) and am now helping to identify other metal homeostasis genes. Once characterized, these genes can be used to enhance the growth and nutrition of bread wheat using conventional breeding and/or biotechnology.

Martin O'BrienDr. Martin O’Brien – Postdoctoral researcher

• PhD – Molecular Biology, Université de Montréal, Faculty of Medicine, 2005
• MSc – Plant Genetics, Université de Montréal, Biological Sciences, 2000
• BSc – Plant Sciences, Université de Montréal, Biological Sciences, 1997

Throughout my research in plant molecular biology I have had strong interests in intracellular signal transduction and gene regulation through transcriptional cis/trans elements and epigenetic control. My primary role in the Johnson lab is to investigate the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology to enrich rice grain with iron and zinc. I am also undertaking a biochemical characterization of the three rice nicotianamine synthase (OsNAS) proteins, which catalyse the production of nicotianamine, with a particular focus on the OsNAS2 protein. I am curious about how iron uptake is regulated in rice, and hope that my scientific background in gene regulation can be used to elucidate novel genetic control mechanisms that are used to respond to iron deficiency and abundance.

Jesse BeasleyJesse Beasley – PhD student

• BSc – Molecular Biotechnology (University of Melbourne, 2013)
• MSc – Biosciences (University of Melbourne, 2015)

Feeding the growing human population into the future will be an issue of both food quantity and quality. My primary interest is in exploring novel ways to tackle the issue of global food security using plant biotechnology. Biofortification is a cost effective and efficient strategy to enhance the nutritional quality of the world’s most important food crops. I am working on a PhD research project involving field and laboratory based analyses of iron biofortified bread wheat.

Marianne WeisserMarianne Weisser – PhD student

• MSc – Plant Biotechnology, Molecular Plant Breeding and Pathology emphasis (Wageningen University – 2010)
• BScAgr – Horticulture and Floriculture emphasis (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso – 2004)

I am interested in understanding plant nutritional responses to global climate change, with a particular interest in the impact of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) on the iron (Fe) content of wheat. My research focuses on understanding the metabolism of Fe in relation to its uptake, translocation and relocation in wheat from the vegetative stage through to maturity under both ambient and elevated CO2. I am conducting the majority of my research experiments at the Australian Grain Free-air CO2 Enrichment (AGFACE) facility in Horsham, Victoria. This state of the art facility enables realistic simulations of future atmospheric conditions at the agronomic scale. Additionally, I am evaluating biofortification as an approach to overcoming the problem of lower Fe and Zn contents in wheat grain under elevated CO2.

Ronan BroadRonan Broad – PhD student

• BSc – Biological Sciences (University of Canterbury, 2011)
• MSc – Biotechnology (University of Canterbury, 2014)
• CA – Philosophy (University of Canterbury, 2015)

I am working on a new direction to combat human iron (Fe) deficiency; the biofortification of staple crops with ascorbic acid (AsA), commonly known as vitamin C. Ascorbic acid is a strong enhancer of Fe bioavailability and is able to overcome inhibitors of Fe absorption in the human intestine. Most staple crops, however, have low AsA content. Increasing AsA concentrations in staple crops could therefore represent a low-cost and sustainable strategy for increasing human dietary intakes of bioavailable Fe. My PhD project focuses on the characterization of rice plants with increased levels of GDP-L-galactose phosphorylase, an enzyme which regulates the major rate limiting step in AsA biosynthesis in plants.


Recent Alumni

Laura Moreno-MoyanoDr. Laura Moreno – Postdoctoral researcher (June 2015 – April 2017)

• PhD – Science, University of Melbourne (2014)
• MSc – Molecular Plant Biology (University of Los Andes, Colombia, 2009)
• BSc – Microbiology (University of Los Andes, Colombia, 2007)

I am interested in genetic and environmental factors affecting the accumulation of mineral nutrients in cereal crops and also the interactions between macronutrients and iron in both soil and plant tissues. My current research focuses on field evaluation of wheat lines that have been genetically modified to have higher grain iron content and the identification of genetic, physiological and environmental factors that enable high grain iron without compromising grain yields. I have worked in the area of iron biofortification for many years and, prior to commencing work as a postdoc in the Johnson lab, I was a PhD student working on iron biofortified rice as part of a collaborative project between the Johnson lab and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Tona SanchezDr. Tonatiuh Sánchez-Palacios – Postdoctoral researcher (January 2014 – December 2016)

• PhD – Plant Sciences, Phytoremediation (University of Melbourne – 2013)
• BSc (Honours) – Biology, Bioremediation (Metropolitan Autonomous University – 2005)

I am interested in understanding the genetics of plant mineral nutrition and heavy metal tolerance in crops. In particular, I am interested in the mechanisms of long distance transport and storage of iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu) and arsenic (As). My current research focuses on two aspects. The first involves the use of targeted genome editing techniques such as TILLING and CRISPR/Cas9 to produce micronutrient-enriched cereal grain; the second aspect involves use of X-ray fluorescence microscopy to determine the spatial distribution of micronutrients in cereal grain.