Molecular Plant Sciences

Sandy Hetherington awarded UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship

Sandy Hetherington, an evolutionary biologist, is the recipient of a UK government fellowship that supports early career researchers and innovators with outstanding potential.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships is a £900 million fund that is helping to establish the careers of world-class research and innovation leaders across UK business and academia.

90 early career researchers at universities across the UK will each receive between £400,000 and £1.5 million, including five at the University of Edinburgh.

Food Transport in Plants

Sandy Hetherington will move to the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences in autumn to launch his research group and start the fellowship, studying the internal food transport system found in plants - known as the phloem.

Despite the phloem’s essential role in transporting sugars throughout the plant, little is known about how it evolved and it is the least understood plant tissue.

Developing a better understanding of this internal plumbing network is economically important, as it is vital to the growth of all plant-based food.

Climate Change

Research on the phloem is also important to understand how plants will change in response to climate change.

To predict how the phloem may respond the group will investigate how it evolved and adapted in the geological past during periods of high CO2.

Plant fossils provide unique evidence that can help to predict how the phloem may change in the future. 


The fossils of plants that lived in times of high CO2 offer a unique window into how plants evolved and adapted to high CO2, information key for predicting how plants may respond to changes in CO2 in the future.

Sandy Hetherington

Fossil Deposits

Sandy’s group will investigate a variety of fossil deposits looking for evidence of fossilised phloem, including making use of rich collections of fossil plants in Scotland.

We will be looking for evidence of ancient phloem in fossils from the earliest preserved terrestrial ecosystem the 407-million-year-old Rhynie chert, a world famous fossil deposit named after the small village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire where these exceptional fossils were found.

To achieve this interdisciplinary research project Sandy has teamed up with two Edinburgh based project partners, National Museums Scotland (NMS) and Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE).

With the amazing fossil plants in the National Museums Scotland, diversity of living plants at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and state of the art growth, imaging and research facilities in Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences, Edinburgh really is the best place to carry out this interdisciplinary research project.

The project is part of the Sandy’s wider work studying plant evolution over vast geological timescales.

Evidence from fossil plants, living plants and genomes will reveal the steps that enabled plants to conquer the land over the past 475 million years.

UKRI Future Leaders

Future Leaders is part of the Government’s modern industrial strategy, which aims to secure the UK as world-leading in scientific research and innovation.

UKRI announces new fellows through six competition rounds over the three years of the Future Leaders Fellowships programme.  

Related Links

Sandy Hetherington’s Lab

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships