Plant power: the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Botanical Science
Without plants, there would be no life, and in recent times the priority of botanical research has shifted from developing critical economic industries based on plants to an urgent need to document and conserve Australia’s unique flora. The newly launched Eureka Prize for Excellence in Botanical Science, sponsored by the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, recognises the important role that documenting and protecting Australian plants plays in ensuring that species don’t become extinct. We caught up with Denise Ora, Chief Executive of the Institute, to discuss the prize and learn more about the field of botanical science.
The recently established Australian Institute of Botanical Science is one of the nation’s premier botanical research organisations. Can you tell us a bit about its purpose and mission?
The Australian Institute of Botanical Science (the Institute) stems from the historical roots of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney — the nation’s oldest botanic garden and scientific organisation, founded in 1816.
Staff at the Institute are building on more than 200 years of advancements in the fundamental knowledge of plants. Today, our world-leading research and collections continue this work, driving effective conservation to ensure the survival of plants. This understanding of plants and their environment is also informed by thousands of years of knowledge generated by First Nations people to sustainably manage the landscapes of Australia. The Institute aims to generate science that will continue this connection with Country and work in partnership with First Nations people to promote a broader appreciation of Australia’s unique flora.
Climate change, habitat loss and the extinction crisis were all accelerated by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, which has underscored the importance of ensuring that species are securely conserved. We aspire to look forward and are training and inspiring the next generation of plant scientists, who will work with our collaborators, partners and the community to ensure Australia’s plant species are protected for generations to come.
The Institute consists of the physical and virtual scientific collections, research, services and facilities, and of course, our staff. Our people bring exemplary expertise, knowledge and passion to our mission and their important work is facilitated through and supported by:
The National Herbarium of New South Wales: one of the most significant botanical resources in the Southern Hemisphere, housing a growing collection of over 1.43 million preserved plant specimens and a critical part of NSW and Australia’s scientific infrastructure. It includes more than 800 collections made by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on the Endeavour voyage to eastern Australia in 1770.
Research Centre for Ecosystem Resilience: focussed on providing genetic expertise and evidenced-based information on how to restore, repair and protect native ecosystems confronted by climate change, degradation and the impacts of invasive pathogens. The centre’s flagship project, ‘Restore and Renew’, is one of Australia's most future focussed research projects, applying the very latest genetic technology to conservation in a way that could revolutionise bush regeneration practices.
Australian PlantBank: an award-winning and innovative plant conservation and research centre focussed on saving our flora through ex situ conservation (the conservation of species outside their natural habitats). It is home to the seed bank, which contains seeds of over 5,300 native species and more than 70% of NSW’s threatened species. This vital collection and its cutting-edge facilities provide an insurance policy against the extinction of our native plants in the wild. Research programs at the Australian PlantBank focus on seed biology and storage technology, translocation ecology and threatened species conservation.
We aspire to look forward and are training and inspiring the next generation of plant scientists
Tell us more about the purpose of the Eureka Prizes for Excellence in Botanical Science.
Fundamentally, botany is the study of plants and given the importance of plants to humanity, it’s one of the world’s oldest natural sciences. Botanical science is about advancing fundamental knowledge of flora and is traditionally focussed on the classification and identification of plants, and how they might be used in the service of humans. More recently, the focus has shifted to driving effective conservation solutions to ensure the survival of plants and all of the life that depends on them. Documenting and describing new plants across the environment, protecting threatened species, and supporting and establishing resilient ecosystems is a critical component of this.
The Eureka Prize for Excellence in Botanical Science is awarded for innovative research outcomes that have led to the documentation and protection of native plants. Tell us more about the prize’s purpose.
The Planet is currently experiencing the start of a mass extinction event, caused by the impact of humans on Earth’s environment. Botanical science research is vital to ensuring that plant species do not become extinct — an increasingly difficult challenge in the face of climate change. Our aim is to learn more about each species so that we can better advise conservation agencies and landholders on how to look after them, and to help conserve and strengthen healthy and resilient populations. This prize encourages and acknowledges the important research efforts in this area of scientific discovery.
Plants have been used in medicine for thousands of years and discoveries of new species could play a role in boosting health for the entire human population.
Who might consider entering the prize?
Botanical science encompasses the scientific study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification and economic importance of plants, so we encourage all researchers and scientists in these fields to review the prize information and consider whether they’re undertaking relevant activity. The botanical science community is extremely diverse, made up of botanists, seed scientists, ecologists, plant physiologists, plant pathologists and evolutionary ecologists.
If you’re working in any such capacity — whether it be a at a university, one of Australia’s many incredible botanic gardens, a research organisation, the private sector or beyond — you might find that your research aligns with the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Botanical Science. If you’re not well placed to put your own work forward, ask yourself whether any colleagues or collaborators might be eligible and either support them in preparing an application, or nominate them yourself.
What practical impacts might the broader community observe in their day to day lives due to developments in botanical science?
Plants are integral to our very existence and without them there would be no life on Earth. They provide us with food to eat, air to breathe, clothes to wear, shelter from the elements and medicine to keep us healthy. Their study is also important in our fight to save the environment. Discovering, documenting and protecting plants plays a crucial role in maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems, which in turn clean water, purify air, maintain soil, regulate climate, recycle nutrients and put food on our tables.
Botanical science also plays a crucial role in informing the study of crops and the best growing techniques, helping increase food security by preventing crop losses, improving yields and food quality, and boosting the nutritional value of staple crops. Improved seed varieties that can withstand challenging environmental conditions — such as drought and salinity — are also an important product of botanical science, helping farmers in their fight against climate change.
Botanical science is also key to the development of biofuels, which are usually produced from non-edible plant materials such as corn stalks, grasses and wood chips. This is particularly relevant given that demand for biofuels is expected to double in the coming years, and could potentially allow us to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.
Plants have been used in medicine for thousands of years and discoveries of new species could play a role in boosting health for the entire human population. In the future, we may start to see the emergence of a new class of prescription medicine, containing complex mixtures of plant extracts.
What excites you most about this field of science?
The power of plants can be felt not just by scientists, but everyone. Whether it’s looking up in awe at a towering Flooded Gum tree (Eucalyptus grandis) or being captivated by the intricate flowering of an Old Man Banksia (Banksia serrata), Australian native flora is naturally valued by all. That’s what makes new discoveries in botanical science so exciting. By sharing this knowledge and expertise we ignite curiosity about plants, their importance and the need for their conservation.
Entries to the 2023 Australian Institute of Botanical Science Eureka Prize for Excellence in Botanical Science are now open and close 7pm AEST Friday 14 April.