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Ensuring the long-term survival of seeds for future generations has been the life work of Agriculture Victoria scientist Dr Katherine Whitehouse, a seed physiology specialist at Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham.
Dr Whitehouse is one of just a few international experts working in applied seed longevity research.
Her principal goal is the effective use of germplasm – the living tissue from which new plants are grown – for hundreds of years.
“I am really passionate about global food security and my research focuses on improving and optimising seed longevity and quality management systems to ensure germplasm availability for hundreds of years,” she said.
Dr Whitehouse completed a PhD investigating the optimal conditions for drying rice seeds to maximise their life span in long-term genebank storage.
The research launched a five-year stint at the world’s largest rice genebank, in the Philippines.
A career highlight involved travelling to genebanks in countries and centres of crop diversity including Mexico, Colombia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Morocco, Lebanon and India, as part of a post-doctoral position working on a seed longevity initiative.
Dr Whitehouse joined Agriculture Victoria in 2018 at Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham.
“I have spent a lot of time streamlining and optimising the efficiencies of our genebank processes including seed production, harvest, drying and storage,” she said.
“My recent research has focused on lentil, because it is one of our mandate crops but one which at present we know very little about its longevity.” Since 2018, Dr Whitehouse has set up two experiments with one to determine the lentil’s inherent longevity.
This research will allow scientists to quantify lentil seed longevity under genebank storage conditions and help better manage a lentil collection.
The second is identifying how to optimise longevity by maximising seed quality at harvest.
Results will be used to optimise regeneration protocol at the Australian Grains Genebank to ensure high quality seeds are produced every time.
“I enjoy applied research as I know it will evoke change and lead to improvements,” she said.
“My area of work helps to ensure the availability of genetic resources into the future and to improve crops to tackle climate change and food security – two things I am very passionate about.”