Impact Blog

Transforming the Australian grains industry one research graduate at a time

September 2021
Dr Narelle Tunstall
Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact


Last week I posted about the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Training Centre (ARC ITTC) scheme and the impact these Centre’s are having across diverse industries – from Australia’s wine industry (one of the world’s largest exporters of wine) to the naval manufacturing industry (more topical than I could have imagined last week!).

What I couldn’t cover in last week’s post – because there was too much to tell – is the exceptional outcomes of the ARC ITTC for Functional Grains.

The ITTC for Functional Grains was funded by the ARC in 2014, with the promise of transforming the Australian Grains Industry “from a commodity-based industry into a highly efficient industry producing high quality food and feed products that exceed market expectations”.

Between 2015 and 2020 the Centre, an initiative of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, at Charles Sturt University, has worked together with their industry partners Sunrice, Woods Grain, MSM Milling, Graingrowers Ltd, NSWDPI, Teys Cargill Joint Venture and Flavour Makers to do just that.

From an original $2.15 million ARC investment, leveraged by industry partner contributions, research graduates in this highly successful centre have conducted research projects that have:

  • increased knowledge about the potential therapeutic benefits of coloured grains for diseases like cancer and diabetes,
  • delivered important information to help rice growers improve water-use efficiency,
  • produced data to guide plant breeders developing low allergenic wheat,
  • shown how refining oil-extraction techniques could improve the quality of Australian oilseed meals used as a supplement in feed for livestock,
  • identified new ways to use lentils with high value to consumers and producers, as well as
  • provided insights to health practitioners on why people without a diagnosed gluten intolerance still choose to avoid gluten in their diets.

The research conducted by graduate researchers in this Centre, co-supervised by academics and industry, has clearly led to important discoveries and insights, supporting industry innovation, and sparking new research directions. And the research training received at Universities and working in partnership with industry, has also clearly built highly relevant knowledge, skills and networks necessary for these graduate researchers’ future careers.

The impact is best demonstrated through the achievements of each individual graduate researcher:

Dr Shiwangni Rao’s research investigated the antioxidant properties of wholegrain cereals like rice, sorghum, barley and oats on colorectal cancer cells. She found potential for compounds in these cereals to kill cancer cells. Since completing her PhD she has moved to a role with Agriculture Victoria in Horsham as a research scientist.

Dr Kyle Reynolds’ research has identified new ways to produce more sustainable vegetable oils that could revolutionise worldwide production. He used genetic engineering to produce vegetable oils from a range of plants that have a similar composition to popular, but unsustainable, sources such as coconut palm and oil palm. With increased demand for vegetable oils, this research is important for developing sustainable alternatives. Kyle is now a Project and Regulatory Manager at Nourish Ingredients.

Dr Esther Callcott’s research has identified the potential for using Australian-grown coloured rice as a functional food to combat some of the health risk factors associated with obesity and lifestyle diseases. A medical biochemist with experience in both veterinary and human medicine, she is now a Lecturer in Veterinary Technology in the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at CSU.

Dr Rachael Wood’s research has found it’s possible for rice growers to reduce water use without compromising the whole grain yield, an important indicator of grain quality. She also found increasing the zinc (Zn) content of the rice through fertilisation will not affect grain quality but may improve the Zn level delivered to consumers, which could deliver benefits for human health. Rachael is now an agricultural researcher in Germany, working at the interface between science and practice for the fruit industry.

Michelle Toutounji is conducting her PhD to understand the factors affecting digestibility of rice starch. The aim is to understand how diabetic friendly rice and rice products can be developed through improved breeding. The skills she’s developed have already landed her a food scientist role at Arnott’s.

Dr Kyah Hester’s PhD examined the behaviours of people who make gluten-free choices despite not having a diagnosed gluten intolerance (i.e. such as coeliac disease). Her research has identified distinct symptomology in these individuals that will be important for health practitioners to consider both in the diagnosis and treatment of these people.

Dr Chris Florides documented the allergenicity of 112 wheat cultivars grown in Australia over the last 160 years, providing important tools for plant breeders to develop varieties more suited for people with mild gluten intolerance.  He has developed a diagnostic method and created databases with information on the allergenicity of these wheat varieties and has debunked a myth that all early varieties of wheat were less allergenic than the varieties grown today.

Dr Rebecca Heim’s PhD research has shown ways to improve the quality of oilseed meals that are used as a supplement in feed for livestock. Her work found that digestibility of protein in ruminants differs between oilseed types but also oil-extraction techniques. The work is now expected to be used by meal producers and end-users to enhance feed ration formulations for livestock with opportunities to improve quality by refining oil-extraction techniques. Rebecca is now a Senior Account Executive at EBSCO Information Services.

Dr Drew Portman’s PhD analysed the by-products of lentil production, and how lentil flour can be incorporated into wheat-based foods. With lentils being a source of protein and essential amino acids, incorporating these into new products like bread and pasta could deliver major health benefits for consumers, but also have major benefits to lentil producers. Lentils that are not suitable for splitting are currently downgraded and sold as stock feed, but Drew’s research is helping optimise the use of these in new products that deliver the nutritional benefits of lentils in exciting new ways. Drew conducted this research with Agriculture Victoria in Horsham and stayed on following his graduation.

These are the outstanding outcomes from just one Centre – demonstrating how we can transform industry through graduate research.

Photo by Disiana Caballero on Unsplash

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