Associate Professor Caitlin Byrt

College of Science

Biography

Co-founder of Membrane Transporter Engineers (MTE). MTE develops protein components for highly specific element and nutrient separation from complex solutions and for crop improvement purposes. MTE have designed novel protein components and tested the function of hundreds of naturally occurring diverse membrane proteins using cutting-edge and highly specialised approaches. MTE engineers value-adding components for advancing membrane separation technologies and improving plant productivity in challenging environments. The components MTE creates can be embedded in membrane-based filtration systems for gaining new functions and used in critical mineral processing, and MTE deliver components that can be incorporated in plant cell membranes for improving crop performance.

Available student projects

Biotechnology Development Opportunities:

Contribute to solving water security challenges by helping the Membrane Transporter Engineers Pty Ltd team develop novel advanced separation technologies https://ceat.org.au/ceat-announces-new-addition-to-the-innovation-hub/

 

Higher Degree Research Project Opportunities:

1. Investigating aquaporin roles as macronutrient channels in plants

Project Overview

Aquaporins are emerging as multi-functional water and solute channels that could have crucial roles in plant nutrition and nutrient uptake pathways, including macronutrients such as nitrogen and potassium. There have been reports in the literature that some plant aquaporins can transport the macronutrients potassium (K+) (AtPIP2;1; Byrt et al., 2017; Qiu et al., 2020) and nitrogen (NO3-) (OsPIP1;3in; Liu et al., 2020). This PhD project will investigate plant aquaporins as macro-nutrient channels by testing their function in nutrient transport in heterologous systems and confirm in planta function of macronutrient transport by generation and analysis of transgenics.

Hypothesis

Plant aquaporins that transport the macronutrients may have important roles in plant nutrient uptake pathways and nutrient distribution through-out the plant.

Experiments and desired skills

This project will involve experiments using yeast and possibly Xenopus laevis oocytes as heterologous expression systems for functional characterization of candidate aquaporins. The candidate will generate transgenic plants via agrobacterium mediated transformation of Arabidopsis (floral dipping), Setaria viridis or Oryza sativa (tissue culture). Transgenic lines will include +/- tagged versions for protein localization studies. The transgenic plants will be phenotyped and analysed for nutrient uptake/transport.

Desired (but not essential) skills:

-          General molecular biology skills (PCR, gene cloning etc)

-          Cell culture

-          Plant growth

-          Plant transformation

-          Microscopy

 

Outputs

Expected outputs would be

- High-impact paper(s) reporting on in planta investigation of aquaporin contributions to nutrient transport; potential for IP generation.


2. Engineering aquaporins for applications in membrane separation technologies

Project Overview

Aquaporin proteins are used in commercially available water filtration devices. The aquaporin proteins are stably embedded in polymer membrane matrix that enabled the selective filtration of ultra-pure water from contaminated water sources. The diversity of substrate permeabilities of plant aquaporins opens the possibility that plant aquaporins could be embedded in a polymer membrane matrix and deployed in filtration devices to increase the functionality of membrane separation technologies. This PhD project will engineer and optimize plant aquaporins to for use in filtration devices.

Hypothesis

Plant aquaporins could be engineered to specifically separate other molecules of interest (such as macronutrients, or other valuable ion elements) from mixed aqueous solution when embedded in a filter membrane.

Experiments and desired skills

This project is IP-sensitive. This project will involve design-build-test cycles of protein engineering to optimize function and protein stability. The candidate will test protein function using yeast as the heterologous expression system before moving onto protein purification and reconstitution into liposomes. The candidate (in coordination with external collaborators) will generate the polymer membrane matrix to embed the engineered aquaporins in as a lab-bench prototype and perform proof-of-function tests; analyzing input vs output composition of complex aqueous mixtures.

Outputs

Opportunity to contribute to developing technologies that can help solve water and nutrient security and sustainability challenges in the future.

 

3. Improving osmotic stress tolerance in crops by engineering ion-channel aquaporins

Project Overview

It is well established in the literature that aquaporins have crucial roles in plant osmoregulation and tolerance to osmotic stresses. Several plant aquaporins have also been shown to transport sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) ions, and this function may have important implications in aquaporin involvement in plant osmotic stress tolerance. This PhD project will investigate how the ion channel function of candidate plant aquaporins influences plant osmotic stress tolerance.  The possible coupling between ion and water flow in aquaporins could be an important feature for water pumping and energy generation. Coupled ion and water flow has been linked to regulating membrane potential by reducing membrane hyperpolarization, which would reduce the gradient for nonselective cation influx and influence plant tolerance to osmotic stresses such as salinity. Coupling of ion and water flow could also be implicated in diurnal movements in plant tissues and in movement of guard cells which influences gas and water exchange with the environment.

Hypothesis

Plants use ion channel aquaporin function in osmotic stress tolerance mechanisms.

Experiments and desired skills

The candidate will generate transgenic plants via agrobacterium mediated transformation of Arabidopsis (floral dipping), Setaria viridis or Oryza sativa (tissue culture). Transgenic lines will include +/- tagged versions for protein localization studies. The transgenic plants will be phenotyped under different osmotic stress conditions, and ion uptake/transport analysed.

Outputs

- paper(s) on in planta investigation of ion channel aquaporins as targets for crop osmotic stress tolerance improvement; potential for IP generation.

Publications

Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  11 August 2022 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers