Academic staff profiles
Academic staff and Principal Investigators' profiles.
How does their environment influence plant growth?
The Plant Growth Lab aims to understand how plants regulate their growth to make the most of their environment. Using these insights, we are developing solutions to pressing problems in food security arising from the climate crisis. With a focus on the root-soil-microbiome interface we develop solutions for improved efficiency of nutrient use, particularly phosphate.
We also work on mitigation of the stress responses that ensue when resources are limiting, or conditions are adverse, which negatively affect growth. We use many technical approaches, including transcriptome sequencing, genetic, chemical genomics, molecular-physiologic, and biochemical methods to answer our questions and identify sustainable solutions for food security.
The Plant Nutrition Group
Climate change and continuous growth of the global population put an extraordinary pressure on agricultural practices to meet food, fibre, and fuel demands. Availability of nutrients in soil, particularly nitrogen sources, represents a major bottleneck in crop yield.
For this reason, crop productivity relies heavily on the use of commercial fertilizers. Despite supporting maximum yield, the intensive use of fertilizers often costs billions of pounds annually and leads to significant environmental impact.
In our lab, we use a range of genetic, proteomic, and biochemical techniques to understand how plants assimilate nitrogen, and improve plant nitrogen use efficiency. Ultimately, we aim to reveal novel chemical and genetic targets that can be used in crop improvement strategies.
Biochemistry of the plant cell wall
We are interested in the plant cell wall because it serves important biological roles — dictating the cell’s shape and size, repulsing pathogens, mopping up toxic metal ions, and gluing cells to each other within a tissue, to name but a few.
In particular, the mechanism and control of cell wall ‘loosening’ is of interest, regulating germination, growth, fruit ripening and abscission (natural detachment of parts of a plant).
Lots is still unknown about plant cell walls! Current areas of interest include:
- Enzymic mechanisms, old and new, of wall modification.
- Non-enzymic mechanisms of wall modification: role of vitamin C and hydroxyl radicals, an important chemical species.
- Evolution of primary cell wall in plants and algae.
- Cell walls as biotechnological materials.
Our preferred research strategy is to trace the ‘life histories’ of cell wall biopolymers produced in the living cell.
Evolution of water conducting systems in plants
When land plants first evolved from aquatic algal ancestors, they had to cope with the much hotter, drier terrestrial environments. My group is interested in how land plants evolved mechanisms to limit water loss through evaporation, and to transport water from soil to their aerial photosynthetic organs. We have identified genes which help plants make a waxy, waterproof covering, termed a cuticle, on their epidermis (outermost layer).
Together, the cuticle and epidermis, provide protection against injury, infection and water-loss. In addition, we have found genes that control cell death, which is important for removing cellular contents to make the hollow pipes that transport water in plants.
We are working with a liverwort species, Marchantia polymorpha, as comparisons with flowering plants can help identify shared feature that were likely present in the earliest land plants. In addition, Marchantia polymorpha is proving a powerful tool for gene discovery, due to its relatively streamlined toolkit of developmental genes.
Our results will help shed light on how early land plants evolved and what they looked like. This may have practical applications in terms of discovering new genes involved in water acquisition and conservation.
Justin Goodrich Lab
Environmental Control of Plant Growth and Development
Plants have an extraordinary ability to sense and adapt to changes in the environment. Our lab studies how plants are able to detect nearby plants and determine whether they are in shaded or open habitats. We employ a range of molecular, genetic and optogenetic (controlling the activity of cells with light) methods to establish how the light-detecting pathways interpret external cues and elicit adaptive responses.
Our current work is focussed on elucidating the molecular basis for canopy shade detection and is providing valuable insights into how plants survive in nature.
Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)
Karen has longstanding (12+ years) involvement in EDI, internally and externally, and is currently College Dean of Systematic Inclusion. In this role she works with social scientists to understand the basis of structural discrimination and to derive evidence-based methods for culture change.
How did plants take over the Earth?
For the vast majority of Earth’s history, the terrestrial surface was a barren, rocky and inhospitable place. However, this all changed roughly 500 million years ago when land plants radiated out of the water and transformed the Earth into the Green planet we know today.
In my group we seek to characterise the major evolutionary innovations that enabled plants to undergo this radiation. We do this by taking an interdisciplinary approach of combining studies of fossil plants, with investigations of developmental and genetic networks in living species. This helps to piece together the evolutionary histories of leaves, roots and vascular tissue.
Plant development and evolution
I’m interested in plant development and how mutations, hybridisation (crossbreeding between genetically dissimilar parents to produce a hybrid ), and adaptation make different forms and new species.
Our research team uses mostly snapdragons (Antirrhinum species) because they are diverse in form and adapted to different extreme environments. They also hybridise with each other, making it possible to identify the genes underlying their differences using genetics and genomics methods. Genetics studies the function and composition of single genes, whereas genomics addresses all genes and their inter relationships to identify their combined influence on the organism.
We’re currently looking at two questions. The first is whether adaptations to alpine environments are passed between species by hybridisation, which may explain why alpine snapdragons have evolved quickly and more than once.
How does plant diversity evolve?
There are around three quarters of a million species of flowering plants. Many years of work by taxonomists, professionals that sort organisms into categories, have described how species vary in how they look and behave. This can be based on (pollination strategies, flowering time, habitat requirements and other factors).
The new technologies of genome sequencing allow us to look deeper to find hidden variation between species. We compare genomes to find out how plant species differ from each other in the structure of their genomes, the types of genes they contain, and how these genes change over time. We also look for patterns in the genomes which might explain variations in speciation rates, a measure of how quickly a species gives rise to new species. Understanding how plant diversity is produced will help us to preserve it.
Plant immunity and the biotechnological application of immune-related molecules
Crop losses to disease and pests are a substantial threat to global food security, with significant agricultural, economic and societal impacts. In addition, the EU is committed to reducing synthetic pesticide usage by 50% from 2030. Therefore, improved solutions for disease / pest management are urgently required.
In this context, together with our national and international collaborators, we are exploring the molecular basis of plant immunity moving between model systems and crop plants. Plants produce a plethora of chemical species in their cells, because of essential reactions that regulate many biological responses and events. A particular focus of our research is on how changes in cellular redox status following a burst of specific chemicals,the oxidative / nitrosative burst.
The production of a chemical cornucopia of complex natural products is another key feature of the immune response and these molecules have utility / potential utility across diverse industrial sectors. Working with industry, including a start-up company from the lab, we are also interested in the regulation, synthesis and biomanufacture of these natural product molecules for industrial applications.
Engineering Biology to harness the power of photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is nature's principal means of harnessing solar energy and carbon capture, and is one of the most essential biological processes for sustaining life on earth. Our group studies the fascinating world of photosynthetic organisms using an Engineering Biology approach, the next evolution of the field of Synthetic Biology that uses engineering principles to design and construct biological parts that can be readily incorporated into living organisms.
Our current work is focused on improving photosynthetic efficiencies in land plants and micro-algae and developing molecular tools for exploiting micro-algae to produce high value compounds such as food supplements and health products.
Plant evolutionary and hybridisation
Most of my research work is collaborative with research groups in China, allowing me to dabble in a wide range of topics, with my core interests being in plant evolution, hybridisation, biogeography and invasive species.
I have an interest in natural hybrid zones, particularly those where first-generation hybrids can outcompete other hybrid types due to extreme habitat-mediated selection. I am also interested in intercontinental seed dispersal following a paper on how members of the nettle family have repeatedly crossed huge ocean barriers.
Currently I’m involved in projects looking at genetic diversity of crop species such as walnut and ramie (a type of fibre) across Asia, and the biogeography of other species in and around China. Throughout my career a lot of my research has focussed on the genus Rhododendron, characterising the invasive Rhododendron ponticum in Britain, and unravelling the complex species relationships in the genus.
A new project starting this year will be looking at the invasion of roadside habitats in Britain by salt-tolerant coastal species, asking whether such invasions have required significant evolutionary change in the species involved.
Harnessing the power of biological engineering
Understanding the principles of gene regulation and genome editing is paramount for the field of engineering biology. Engineering biology is the application of engineering principles to the design and fabrication of biological components and systems, from modifications of natural systems to new forms of artificial biology.
In our laboratory, we specialize in studying epigenetics—a mechanism that controls gene activity without altering the DNA sequence, and DNA repair.
We focus on both land plants and microalgae, utilizing and advancing genome editing tools and technologies. This knowledge underpins our efforts in crop improvement, spanning from the creation of virus resistance in plants, to the production of high-value compounds in microalgae, such as food supplements.
Understanding and improving plant immune responses to pests and diseases
My research focuses on studying the fundamental mechanisms underlying ubiquitin-mediated regulation of plant immunity, joining the two main themes of my career: plant-pathogen interactions and post-translational modifications.
The post-translational modifier ubiquitin plays vital roles in cell signalling and organismal responses to their environment. Ubiquitination is highly versatile and an indispensable component of the plant immune system with a key role in modulating the stability of immune receptors and transcriptional regulators. While plants have evolved to extensively utilise the ubiquitin machinery to support immune signalling, pathogens have evolved effector proteins to suppress the host ubiquitin pathway and are indispensable for the establishment of disease. Understanding the interplay between pathogen and host ubiquitin-mediated immunity is fundamental to the design of long-lasting resistance strategies.
My group is focused on applying innovative approaches to study the ubiquitin code that crops use to modulate the immune response. Additionally, we work to decipher how pathogens hijack the host ubiquitin pathway to promote virulence and use this knowledge to manipulate this system to promote plant resistance to pathogens. My research is opening new strategies for the development of crops with sustainable resistance against pathogens which will have a major impact on global food security.
Plant cells and science students: “growing” together
A plant can be viewed as an organised community: its members (the cells) are constantly exchanging nutrients and signals. Plant growth and development ultimately depend on these interactions. Small pores called plasmodesmata enable transport between neighbouring plant cells. My research interest lies in the regulation of these structures.
Exchanges between students and educators are similarly essential: they enable reciprocal development. As a community of learners, we influence each other's view of the world. My teaching goal is to help students grow into the leaders of tomorrow. I hope they will use their scientific knowledge to best support the societies of the future.
How do plants get their shapes?
Plants come in all kinds of amazing shapes. The shape of a plant, or even of an individual organ like a leaf, can have a big impact on how well the plant grows and produces seed. In the Plant Shape Lab, we delve into the secrets of shape development.
How is shape development controlled, and how do new shapes evolve?
We focus on grasses, as they underpin human health and society; cereals like wheat, rice, and maize, provide more than 50% of global calories! By better understanding how grasses develop and the genetic networks that control this, we can not only understand how plants evolved, but also discover potential ways to improve cereal crop yields.
How do plants maintain health in hostile environments?
I am a Professor of Cell Signalling and Proteostasis at the University and former Head of the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences (2018-2023). Proteostasis or protein homeostasis is the regulation of the complete set of proteins expressed by an organism, to maintain their health. My research team aims to improve plant health in an ever-changing environment. This is vital for the sustainable future of agriculture and for establishing food security for a growing global population. Our team’s current focus is to understand how dynamic changes in the epiproteome, representing the chemical modifications that control activities of cellular proteins and enzymes, enables plants to launch effective immune responses.
I am passionate about linking frontier science with industrial research and innovation. In my scientific advisory and consultancy roles, I aim to provide strategic solutions and establish inclusive environments that promote innovative thinking to tackle challenges across the plant science and Agricultural Technology sectors.
Gerben van Ooijen
How does a cell keep time?
Circadian rhythms are approximately 24-hour rhythms in the physiology or metabolism of an organism, a tissue or a cell. Circadian rhythms are a fundamental feature of the life, and misaligned circadian rhythms carry significant health consequences across life. In photosynthetic organisms, circadian defects prevent the anticipation of sunlight, which can decrease both carbon fixation and biomass production by the 'lungs of our planet' by about half.
In my lab, we use plants and algae to identify the cogs and gears of the circadian clock on cellular and molecular levels. This could lead to improvements that allow plants and algae to better fend off disease and thrive under a range of conditions - meeting the growing need for food, fuel and industrial biotechnology products.