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PM’s Prize for Science for revealing nature’s solar power

Photosynthesis is crucial to the ability of plants to convert sunlight into energy. N i c o l a/Flickr, CC BY

PM’s Prize for Science for revealing nature’s solar power

Humans have only just begun dabbling with solar power, but other organisms have been converting sunlight into energy for more than three billion years. In fact, we’re only just beginning to understand how they do it.

So it is for his groundbreaking work in helping us humans understand the process of photosynthesis that Graham Farquhar has today received this year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Graham Farquhar in his lab. Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear

Graham is Distinguished Professor of the Australian National University’s Research School of Biology and Chief Investigator of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

When he started out studying photosynthesis, Graham found that researchers from disparate fields within biology and biochemistry all had their own narrow views on how photosynthesis worked. But few were able to link together all the pieces of this complex puzzle.

So Graham brought his experience as a biophysicist to the problem and worked to describe how the components of photosynthesis connect in a mathematical way. He was particularly interested in how the process operates under different environmental conditions, such as when water is scarce. This is useful, because if we can understand this, then we can breed plants that can better withstand drought.

“All these things start with equations,” he says. “They’re just a rough approximation of reality, but in this case they were good enough to be able to point us in the right direction to select plants for water use efficiency.”

Graham’s models have also revealed some very interesting things about how plants function, such as how they carefully balance the trade-off between growing more and losing more water.

He also found that plants can actually affect the weather itself.

“About 70% of water that falls on land is evaporated, most of that through vegetation,” he says. “That evaporation cools the leaves, and over a sufficient area, that affects the local weather and climate.”

He is also interested in how plants are responding to climate change. In fact, he suggests that our carbon emissions have already changed agriculture.

“My reckoning is that if we could get rid of all the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution, then agricultural productivity would drop by 15%,” he says.

However, climate change also poses new challenges for plants and for agriculture, such as how the plants cope with higher temperatures and different rainfall patterns, which is also an area Graham is researching.

As for receiving the award, Graham says is was something of a shock, for more than one reason.

“I was actually in Glasgow when the Chief Scientist Ian Chubb rang me at what should have a nice time of day, but it turned out to be half past three in the morning,” he says.

However, he’s honoured to receive the prize, but hastens to acknowledge the input from all his colleagues and other researches in his field.

“The system tends to make individuals heroes by minimising the recognition of what their colleagues have done and exaggerating the success they’ve had. That’s happened to me too,” he says.

“Part of me is thrilled, but also cautious of accepting recognition of something I’ve shared. It’s a team effort and we all build on each others’ work.”

The 2015 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were awarded today in Canberra. The full list of prize recipients is below:

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Graham Farquhar
ANU, Canberra

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Graeme Jameson
University of Newcastle

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Cyrille Boyer
University of New South Wales

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
Jane Elith
University of Melbourne

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Ken Silburn
Casula High School, NSW

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Rebecca Johnson
Windaroo State School, Qld