SOLVING BIG ISSUES: Hermitage Research Facility centre leader Professor Andrew Borrell with Gezahegn, a master's student from Jimma University in Ethiopia.
SOLVING BIG ISSUES: Hermitage Research Facility centre leader Professor Andrew Borrell with Gezahegn, a master's student from Jimma University in Ethiopia. Contributed

Hermitage in global network solving humanity's big issues

WITH each drone that flies over crops at the Hermitage Research Station, with each of the thousands of sorghum roots that are measured and with every international trip made, highly regarded scientists are working to solve some of the world's most pressing food security and climate issues.

The centre, located on the outskirts of Warwick, is Queensland's prime and oldest research institute but like the crops the scientists experiment on, they are constantly adapting.

According to Hermitage centre leader Professor Andrew Borrell, the work being done by the team of 55 is helping solve major issues facing the world.

One example is a question most governments are asking: how to continue to producing more food with less water.

A recent trip Prof Borrell took to Ethiopia was looking at just that.

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hermitage is working on a couple of projects in Ethiopia but Prof Borrell was primarily looking at the relationship between sorghum root architecture and grain yield.

He said the team theorises that narrow roots will be able to better extract water and result in a higher yield.

"If they've got a narrow angle then the roots are likely to go deep in the soil and that makes them more drought adapted,” Prof Borrell said.

The trip to Ethiopia was scenic, with camels loping across the landscape and rugged mountain ranges creating a spectacular scene.

"In places it was more like a moonscape, barren and bare,” Prof Borrell said.

"Kassahun (a professor from Ethiopia's Jimma University) explained that it hadn't rained much in this region lately.”

Temesgen Matiwos checking on his sorghum root phenotyping experiment at Jimma University in Ethiopia.
Temesgen Matiwos checking on his sorghum root phenotyping experiment at Jimma University in Ethiopia. Contributed

Working on the science

TO WORK towards the answer to the root and yield dilemma a PhD student from Jimma University, Temesgen Matiwos, who is working with the Hermitage, narrowed down 10,000 lines of sorghum from Ethiopia to 2000.

He then measured the angle of all 2000 of their roots and analysed their genomes.

That level of commitment is necessary to understand the link between the sorghum genes and their roots.

The findings will allow breeding programs to focus on sorghum types with narrow roots, if they do happen to have a higher grain yield.

Prof Borrell said the information would benefit both Ethiopia and Australia, as both countries faced similar drought and growing challenges.

International reach

MOST of the projects at the Queensland Government's research station, which is linked to the University of Queensland, have an international reach. The team collaborates with people across the world including in South-East Asia, India, Europe and America.

Back in Australia, the Hermitage does a lot of work with sorghum, mung beans, barley, wheat and chickpeas.

Prof Borrell recently returned from a trip to Germany where he took part in a conference about science and climate change.

"When you're asking these big questions about food security and climate change then it's great to be a part of finding solutions,” he said.

"We're part of this (Warwick) community but we have an international flavour, we do a lot of local work where a crop research institute is helping local farmers and around Australia to grow crops in drought conditions.

"People like having a big picture view and being able to contribute to some of the big things in the world.”

Camel trains grazing by the roadside in Ethiopia.
Camel trains grazing by the roadside in Ethiopia. Contributed

Prof Borrell said many people at Hermitage, who include geneticists, plant breeders, molecular biologists and other professionals, are driven by delight in making discoveries and making a difference.

"It's interesting that you can do science just for discovery and find out how something works but I couldn't do that in the absence of the worthwhileness of having a goal,” Prof Borrell said.

"It's discovery science and that discovery making a difference to humanity.”

Prof Borrell said it would take much longer to work out big issues if countries worked separately, so it was much more efficient to work together.

"Countries that are well resourced like Australia have a responsibility to help,” he said.

"The next 50 years is like an experiment that's unfolding in the world. We don't know the extent of the climate crisis but we need to know we need to take action.”

Global recognition

ONCE a discovery is made at the Hermitage, it is published in major journals that are read all over the world.

Prof Borrell said it can then be inspiration for others to build on what had been learnt here.

"Something that we do, the week that it's published every university in the world will read your work and then they design other experiments based on the work that you've just done,” he said.

"The knowledge moves quickly these days because we publish and it's read everywhere.

"The most significant thing is the contribution that they're able to make to some of the big issues we've talked about,” he said. "It's a significant reward in itself.”

Gezehegn measuring the leaf angle of sorghum plants in a field experiment at Mieso using smartphone technology developed by UQ scientists.
Gezehegn measuring the leaf angle of sorghum plants in a field experiment at Mieso using smartphone technology developed by UQ scientists. Contributed

Hermitage facts

- The Hermitage Research Facility is considered Queensland's premier research centre and is also the oldest agricultural research station in the state, opening in 1897.

- Research is primarily focused on sorghum and mung beans in summer, then barley, wheat and chickpeas in winter.

- There are 55 staff currently working at the station.

- It facilitates many international projects including collaborations with India, Europe, South-East Asia and Africa.

- On a day-to-day basis, researchers could be using robotics, driving high-tech machinery in fields, flying drones over paddocks, measuring photosynthesis, working in growth rooms, inputting data, applying for research grants and writing research papers.

- The Hermitage helps state and federal governments make decisions on policies for producing crops with less water.

- Hermitage researchers also speak at conferences and schools as well as participating in debates.