Professor Spencer Whitney

BSc (Hons) PhD
Associate Director Higher Degree Research; Convenor Biology Honours
ANU College of Science

Areas of expertise

  • Plant Physiology 060705
  • Transgenesis 100109
  • Bacteriology 060501
  • Agricultural Molecular Engineering Of Nucleic Acids And Proteins 100103
  • Molecular Evolution 060409
  • Genetically Modified Field Crops And Pasture 100105
  • Enzymes 060107
  • Biochemistry And Cell Biology 0601
  • Phycology (Incl. Marine Grasses) 060701
  • Agricultural Biotechnology 1001
  • Characterisation Of Biological Macromolecules 030403

Research interests

Synthetic photosynthesis; Improving plant CO2 capture and growth efficiency.

My research focuses on utilising synthetic biology to scrutinize the assembly, metabolic regulation and kinetic plasticity of the biospheres most abundant protein, the photosynthetic CO2-fixing enzyme Rubisco (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase). The research provides training in molecular biology, protein engineering (directed evolution), enzyme kinetics, biochemistry, plastome transformation, tissue culture, measuring leaf photosynthesis and plant growth.

Despites Rubisco’s pivotal role in photosynthetic carbon assimilation – catalysing the primary step of incorporating CO2 into carbohydrates that are used to store and transport energy - it is surprisingly an inefficient enzyme in need of improvement. It constitutes about 20 to 30% of soluble leaf protein due to its inefficiency. The catalytic inadequacies of Rubisco (such as a slow turnover rate and poor ability to distinguish CO2 from O2) frequently limit the growth capacity of many plants, including most crops. As such, Rubisco has been studied intensively as a prime target for genetic engineering as a means to supercharge photosynthesis and improve growth efficiency. Towards this significant challenge, the primary foci of research in the Whitney laboratory utilises recent technological and conceptual breakthroughs to study Rubisco biogenesis, modify its catalysis, understand its regulation by Rubisco activase and generally tackle the challenges faced in developing strategies for enhancing Rubisco activity to improve plant productivity.


Dr Whitney undertook his BSc (Botany, Biochemistry and Chemistry) honours and PhD at James Cook University of North Queensland where he discovered unique molecular and biochemical features of the photosynthetic CO2-fixing enzyme, Rubisco, from the symbiotic marine microalgae found in corals and clams. In 1996 he moved to the ANU to begin his postdoctoral studies and expanded his interest in interrogating Rubisco biology using plastome transformation biotechnology. His pivotal work on modifying plant photosynthesis via Rubisco engineering led to him being awarded the Goldacre Award in 2002 from the Australian Society of Plant Scientists and an International Photosynthesis Congress Young Scientist Award in 2004. From 2004-09 he held an ARC Research Fellowship and in 2009 was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship. His research was an integral part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis and now the ARC Future Crop Development program. 

Available student projects

The lab currently has three PhD students and has hosted six honours and undergraduate research projects over the last few years. Please contact Spencer to discuss research possibilities within the areas of opportunities listed on his homepage at

Some general project themes are:

  • Supercharging crop CO2-assimilation to tackle food security
  • Evolving and tranplanting more efficient Rubiscos into crops using new synthetic biology tools
  • Tailoring golden crops for a warmer future
  • Does the marine enviroment harbour the secret for improving crop productivity

Current student projects

Please see my homepage for more details

Current PhD students and their projects:

  • Undertsanding the plasticity and diversity of Rubisco form and function - Tim Rhodes
  • A golden future for enhancing Yield potential in canola - Tanya Skinner
  • Exploring the natural and artifical evolutionary landscape of Rubisco activase - Hanjun Sun
  • Engineering artificial CO2-fixing nanoreactors in plant chloroplasts - Davin Saviro Wijaya 

Current Undergrad student projects:

  • Optimising the design synthetic CO2-fixing nanocages - Riley Furbank


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:  14 July 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers