Biological Sciences

Sandy Hetherington wins prestigious Leverhulme Prize

Dr Sandy Hetherington, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, has been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in biological sciences, in recognition of the exceptional impact and promise of his research.

Sandy, who leads the Molecular Palaeobotany and Evolution Group at the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences, is one of 30 researchers announced as winners of the 2023 Philip Leverhulme Prize.

Each £100,000 prize is given in recognition of researchers at the early stage of their careers, whose work is exceptionally promising and has already had international impact.

Sandy’s lab takes a pioneering approach to understand how plants evolved over millions of years from their single-celled ancestors to the rich diversity of plants, flowers and trees today.

Plant Evolution

Dr Sandy Hetherington

His innovative work, known as ‘Molecular Palaeobotany’, combines studies of fossil plants with investigations into genetic and developmental pathways in living plant species.

The approach has already led to important insights into the evolution of plant roots and leaves hundreds of millions of years ago, which transformed life on Earth.

These developments allowed plants to thrive on land and stabilised the soil, reduced CO2 levels and revolutionised water circulation across continents – making the planet’s barren landscape habitable.

Sandy will use the prize to pinpoint the genetic changes that underpinned the origin and evolution of these key features such as leaves, shoots and phloem - vascular tissues that transport nutrients.  

Genetic Analysis

These milestones in plant evolution were the keys to plants’ success and paved the way for other life on Earth, yet it is unclear which genes allowed this to happen.

To tackle this he will study gene function in lycophytes – an ancient group of plants, which were the first to evolve roots, stems and leaves.

Sandy will compare the genes that underpin key structures in modern day lycophytes with flowering plants. 

This comparison will allow him to make predictions about gene function in the common ancestor of these two groups, a plant that lived over 400 million years ago. 

This vital work will further his innovative ‘Molecular Palaeobotany’ approach and tackle major questions in plant evolution that will reveal the secrets to life on earth. 


It’s a real honour to be awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize, the prize will make an enormous difference to my research, allowing the development of a new model species for investigating questions in plant evolution. I owe a huge thanks to everyone who has supported me, especially to my amazing group and the welcoming community in the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences, without whom this would not have been possible.

Dr Sandy Hetherington,  UKRI Future Leaders FellowInstitute of Molecular Plant Sciences, School of Biological Sciences

Related Links

Philip Leverhulme Prizes

Dr Sandy Hetherington