Molecular Plant Sciences

Research topics

A detailed description of research carried out by our Principal Investigators organised by topic.

Research by IMPS staff addresses the global challenges of food security, green technology and climate change.  The Institute has state-of-the-art facilities for research on the molecular to whole-plant scales.  Collaboration with partner institutions within Edinburgh Plant Science gives it the reach to extend this to crops and to ecosystems.

Plant Immunity

Our researchers have strong interests in plant pathogens and how plants resist disease. The lab of Gary Loake researches the molecular basis of plant defence, including the role of S-nitrosylation. Steven Spoel’s lab examines the roles of redox signalling and poly-ubiquitination in the control of plant responses to pathogens and abiotic stress, while the lab of Gerben van Ooijen examines the circadian control of disease resistance. Karl Oparka’s lab studies the replication and movement of plant viruses using molecular and cell biological techniques and also investigates ways in which crop protection compounds can be made more mobile.  Attila Molnár’s lab studies plant viruses and ways to design plants that are resistant to virus infection.  Catherine Kidner’s research group takes an evolutionary genomics approach to understanding the diverse chemical defence systems of the tropic genus Inga.

Plant Synthetic Biology

Gary Loake’s group develops system for production of high-value compounds from plant cells, including the chemotherapy agent paclitaxel and antibiotics.  Alistair McCormick’s group investigates ways to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in crop plants using carbon-concentrating mechanisms from algae and cyanobacteria and is using cyanobacteria to develop better ways of producing food ingredients and therapeutics. Attila Molnár’s lab is developing genome-editing strategies to produce high-value compounds from algae.  Naomi Nakayama’s group studies the ways in which plant cells and whole plants respond to physical stresses and uses knowledge gained from plants to inspire development of structures and materials with novel properties (biomimetics).  Stephen Fry’s lab uses its expertise in cell-wall biochemistry in development of new carbohydrate-modifying enzymes and herbicides and in novel industrial uses of cell-wall derived polymers and enzymes.  Peter Doerner’s lab dissects the pathways by which stress and nutrient deficiency reduce plant growth and uses these to develop novel plant growth-promoting compounds.  Andrew Hudson’s lab studies the genes controlling the development of plant hairs, which secrete useful compounds and help plants resist herbivores and abiotic stresses.

Plant Adaptation and Evolution

The responses of plants to environmental signals are a key focus of research. Karen Halliday’s lab studies the mechanisms that plants use to sense light and temperature, how these signals interact and how they affect crop performance.  Ferenc Nagy’s lab investigates the molecular components of visible and ultraviolet light-induced signalling cascades during photoreceptor-regulated plant growth and development. Gerben van Ooijen’s lab uses the model alga Ostreococcus to dissect the ancestral circadian clock that is shared by plants, fungi and animals.  The lab of Peter Doerner examines the molecular and physiological responses of plants to nutrient deprivation, with particular emphasis on the acquisition and transport of phosphate by plant roots, and how plants respond to DNA damage.  The laboratory of Stephen Fry conducts research on the biology of growing cell walls, especially their roles in signalling and control of plant growth. The Fry lab also studies the evolution of cell walls and their dynamic re-structuring in vivo. Karl Oparka’s lab examines the structure and development of plasmodesmata, small pores that interconnect plant cells, with a focus on macromolecules that pass between cells, while Attila Molnár’s group investigates how plants use small RNAs as long-distance signals that cause epigenetic gene silencing.  Naomi Nakayama’s lab addresses the mechanisms by which plants calibrate their forms and functions in response to the physical environment, and how such mechanisms diversified during evolution.  Justin Goodrich’s group investigates the roles of chromatin modification in correct gene expression during plant development.

Members of IMPS also take and evolutionary approach to understanding adaptation. Catherine Kidner holds a joint appointment with Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and uses genetics and genomics techniques to investigate the factors responsible for diversity in the two large tropical genera, Begonia and Inga. Richard Milne studies the effects of hybridisation and biogeography on plant diversity with special emphasis on Rhododendron. The laboratory of Andrew Hudson investigates the genes and adaptations underlying morphological diversity in Antirrhinum species and in Arabidopsis.

An evolutionary perspective is common to much of the research in IMPS.  For example, Justin Goodrich’s lab use the seedless liverwort Marchantia to study the origins of embryo-endosperm interactions in seed, Stephen Fry’s lab use a diverse plant species to investigate how cell walls evolved and as a source of novel cell wall enzyme and Gerben van Ooijen’s group uses yeast, algae and higher plants to understand the ancestral circadian clock. Steven Spoel's group uses both yeast and higher plants to understand fundamental and evolutionary conserved mechanisms of eukaryotic gene transcription.