Professor Bob Furbank
DIRECTOR OF THE ARC CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE FOR TRANSLATIONAL PHOTOSYNTHESIS AT AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
Removing the bladders of 40 cane toads was an experience at the University of Wollongong that proved a turning point for plant biologist Professor Bob Furbank.
He can still vividly recall an undergraduate research project he did in his third year of study that involved measuring the effects of hormones in toads.
“I now can’t look at a cane toad without feeling sorry for them,” Prof Furbank laughed.
Soon after the amphibian analysis, a project to make pea chloroplasts with Prof Ross Lilley in the late 1970s “clinched it” for the science student – he was going to specialise in plant biology. Prof Furbank went on to become a national and international leader in plant biological research.
Currently the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Translational Photosynthesis at the Australian National University, Prof Furbank is also a trailblazer in the concept of digital agriculture.
He is helping develop advances in C4 photosynthesis research, crop bioengineering, plant phenomics and computational tools to increase crop yields. (It is predicted food production will need to increase by at least 50% by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population).
“Most of our cereal crops are C3 plants; that is they capture carbon dioxide in the leaves directly from the air using an enzyme called rubisco. Rubisco is not a very efficient enzyme and the energy losses are high,” he explained.
“C4 crops like maize, sugar cane and sorghum capture carbon dioxide and pump into specialised cells where rubisco is located, like a biochemical supercharger. This means their photosynthesis is almost twice as efficient as crops like rice and wheat and they produce double the yield for the same inputs.”
The challenge for Prof Furbank is to identify the genes controlling the photosynthesis in C4 crops and implant them in crops such as rice.
Advances in research, such as genomics and using thermal and hyperspectral cameras, more commonly used by the military, to detect photosynthetic performance in crops are part of Prof Furbank’s developments in the new field of digital agriculture.
“While we are mainly applying our work to breeding new crop varieties and discovering gene function, Australia’s highly educated grain farmers are rapidly adopting sensor technologies and aerial sensing for precision agriculture at a rate higher than anywhere in the world,” he said.
“Thermal and hyperspectral cameras used by the military could just as easily detect drought tolerance photosynthetic performance in crops without our laborious destructive techniques we were using.
“At the moment the grand challenge for me is the global food security crisis and climate change. It is a unique time for plant scientists to really make a difference both in Australia and globally. I have high hopes that we can improve photosynthetic performance of crop plants and help reach the goals of feeding a hungry world. ”
It’s a very specific target Prof Furbank is aiming for, but when he enrolled at the University of Wollongong in the late 1970s, he had no idea what he was going to specialise in.
“My dad was a steelworker and I was the first in my family to make year 12 at school let alone attend university,” Prof Furbank said.
It was in year 10 at Corrimal High School that photosynthesis came to light. “I was hooked,” he said.
“Ironically, I almost gave away any ambition of a scientific career path in year 10 when I was told by a careers advisor that a career in music or the arts was most appropriate as I was too poor in maths.
“But I guess my family and my mentors at UOW made me feel I could do anything I put my mind to.”
Prof Furbank said UOW gave him a broad education in science and he didn’t specialise until late in his degree. “I had a taste of maths, physics, lots of chemistry and a splash of biology,” he said.
Because of this, he advises students to not specialise too early and show an interest in as much as possible.
“Follow what you are interested in and passionate about, not necessarily what will get you a well-paid job,” he said.
“You don’t have to join the Navy to see the world.”
Throughout all his travels and accomplishments, steel making has always remained in Prof Furbank’s veins. “Given my steel worker background and hotting up cars in my youth, I always use mechanical analogies to explain the C4 plant engineering,” he said.
“I tell people that the reason I like to figure out how plants work and want to ‘hot up’ photosynthesis was that I hotted up cars in my youth and cars and things mechanical are still a passion.”
Surfing also played a part in his youth, as he recalled other memories of UOW.
“Well, sitting under the fig tree drinking beer with my friends and surfing at Towradgi Beach spring to mind, but the small classes and intimate attention I got from my lecturers, especially the mentoring I got from Ross Lilley, rank up there,” he said.
Prof Furbank explained that in the late 1970s, unlike today, it was almost mandatory to move between universities for PhD training. After three years of PhD work at the Australian National University, he made his way to “see the world as a postdoc”. This took him to Sheffield University in the UK, on to Gottingen and Wurzburg in Germany and the Centre d’Etude Nucleaire in France.
An ARC Queen Elizabeth Fellowship in 1987 brought Prof Furbank back to Canberra, where he realised he wanted to embrace the “new biology” of recombinant DNA technology and “upskilled” his science at the CSIRO.
The most rewarding experience in his career came when he set up the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility in 2009 and became director of the Canberra node, enabling him to develop his vision for digital agriculture. Up until then, research into photosynthesis was booming, but the funding wasn’t. His work in phenomics resulted in two ACT ICT Innovation Awards in 2013 and being presented with the CSIRO Plant Industry Leadership Award in 2014.
Professor Furbank’s achievements in plant biology and contributions to sustainable agriculture were also recognised with the awarding of an honorary Doctor of Science (honoris causa) at the 2016 autumn graduation celebrations at UOW.
Prof Furbank describes his role nowadays as an “integrative plant biologist”.
“The cross disciplinary nature of my work is always challenging my mind, coming to grips with everything from a new piece of computer software or optical tools to understanding an enzyme mechanism,” he said.
Technological advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering and molecular tools have also changed Prof Furbank’s way of working over the years and he said there has never been such enormous opportunity.
“I am constantly reminded of the importance of what I am doing and that it’s not just for the Australian farmer but for the many millions of people globally living on less than $1 a day,” he said.
Bachelor of Science (Honours) Biology 1980