A C4 plant sounds like a crossword question for the majority of people, but Dr Balasaheb Sonawane has been around these plants all his life. Currently, he is investigating what makes C4 plants such a promising solution to secure enough food for humanity in the near future.

Credit: Charles Tambiah. Dr Balasahed Sonawane working with C4 grasses

C4 plants, such as sugarcane and maize, are plants that use a more efficient type of photosynthesis, than plants using C3 photosynthesis, like wheat and rice. Understanding the variations between C3 and C4 plants responses to environmental factors can help scientists to and understand the impact of climate warming on crops.

Balasaheb, or Bala, grew up in an Indian area where sugarcane and Bajara, two C4 plants, are the dominant agricultural crops, so studying agriculture felt like a natural decision from the beginning of his career. “My parents are farmers at Sangmaner in an area 250 km from Mumbai, so I grew up surrounded by the problems that agriculture and farmers face in India,” he says.

Bala studied a bachelor degree and a Master’s degree in Agricultural biotechnology, and then he continued his agriculture path with an internship focused on sorghum shoot fly and sugarcane salt tolerance.

This eventually led him to Australia, in 2013, to study a PhD in Western Sydney University with Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis’ scientists Dr Oula Ghannoum, Dr Robert Sharwood and Dr Spencer Whitney.

“Researching in Australia has been a great experience as I have had access to excellent facilities and world class researchers, people who are recognised worldwide for their work in photosynthesis,” Bala says.

Bala’s research explored how photosynthesis responds to changes in temperature and light exposure in different subtypes of C4 plants, including sorghum and maize.

“I studied how C4 subtype of grasses responds to changes in the temperature and light in terms of leaf photosynthesis. Especially, I focused on identifying the components inside the leaf that are causing such responses. Understanding the environmental responses in the C4 subtype of grasses is a very important step towards our ultimate aim to improve the productivity of agricultural crops,” he says.

It will also help to support efforts aimed at bioengineering C4 photosynthetic traits into key C3 crops such as rice, which is the staple food for more than half of the world population.

“I find this work extremely interesting, I am doing cutting edge research, learning constantly and challenging myself every day,” he says.

As part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis, Bala worked in collaboration with researchers from different institutions and areas of photosynthesis research. “I learned techniques related to the enzyme Rubisco from Dr Sharwood and Dr Whitney at ANU. I worked in collaboration with Professor Susanne von Caemmerer and Dr Hugo Alonso Cantabrana from ANU, in a small project studying C3-C4 intermediate, as well as with Florence Danila in the production of electron microscopy images, he says.

“Working with the Centre exposed me to different angles and implications of the same scientific problem. Working and communicating with Centre’s researchers helped me to understand very quickly and thoroughly a vast quantity of the science behind the photosynthetic process.

“It also enhanced my motivation as a student, because you can really see the important implications that your research can have in the world.”

Bala finished his research in 2016 and was offered postdoc at Washington State University with leading researcher Asaph Cousins to work in Nitrogen use and water use efficiency of C4 photosynthesis.

Once again, C4 plants appear in Bala’s life, this time giving him a ticket to the world.