Crop Science Centre - Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

The Crop Science Centre opens in Cambridge

The Crop Science Building, home to the Crop Science Centre

A new Centre in Cambridge, designed to fast-track technologies to sustainably improve farmers’ yields worldwide, has been launched today (1st October 2020). 

The Crop Science Centre is an alliance between the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and NIAB.

The Centre will serve as a global hub for crop science research and a base for collaborations with research partners around the world, to ensure global agricultural impact from the ground-breaking science happening in Cambridge. It includes a brand-new state-of-the-art research facility, at NIAB’s Lawrence Weaver Road campus in the north-west of Cambridge, maximising the pace of research and accelerating crop improvements.

The Centre will focus on improving the sustainability and equity of global food production. It will use an understanding of how plants work at the most fundamental level to drive transformative change in how we grow our food. Research will be aimed at reducing agricultural reliance on chemical inputs such as inorganic fertilisers, while maximising crop productivity, especially for the world’s poorest farmers.

Professor Giles Oldroyd FRS, Russell R. Geiger Professor of Crop Science at the University of Cambridge and Inaugural Director of the Crop Science Centre said: “This year we have seen how fragile our global systems are. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing another 120 million people to starvation worldwide, while crop yields here in the UK are suffering from changes in our climate.”

Oldroyd, who leads an international programme to replace inorganic fertilisers, added: “We need lasting solutions for stable and secure food production, but also need to improve sustainability in agriculture. We are excited to be opening this new Centre, which can drive the transformative change we so desperately need.”

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Urgent action is required to sustainably provide enough quality food for the world’s growing population. By combining our expertise in fundamental plant science with NIAB’s long experience in crop improvement, I am confident that we will make progress towards this vital goal.”

Dr Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB, said: “Through transformative crop science technologies, research at the new Centre aims to ensure even the world’s poorest farmers can grow enough food. This work is at the top of the international agenda.”

Private donations from the late Russell R. Geiger and Robert and Susan Cawthorn helped to establish the Centre, alongside donations from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany Trust and the Cambridge University Potato Growers Research Association (CUPGRA) and capital funding from the Research England-managed UK Research Partnership Investment Fund. Professor Oldroyd’s research programme is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Further information about the Crop Science Centre is available at and @cropscicentre

NIAB NEWS: NIAB develops Barn4, a Cambridge-based incubator business space for agritech SMEs

Barn4 at NIAB Park Farm

Start-up agritech businesses will have access to new work and research facilities, alongside business support opportunities, with the development of Barn4, a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of Cambridge.

The crop research organisation NIAB has been awarded £2.5 million funding from The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to construct a 375m2 business incubator on its Park Farm site in Histon in Cambridgeshire. Barn4 will be open to tenants from spring 2021 with start-ups and SMEs offered laboratory, workshop and office space, meeting rooms and video-conferencing facilities. In addition, they will be able to get access to NIAB’s high performance computing capability, specialist laboratory facilities and both indoor and outdoor growing spaces.

Demand in Cambridge remains strong for these facilities despite the impact of Covid-19 on office working.  The agritech sector continues to grow and incubator space in and around the city is heavily over-subscribed. The unique offering of state-of-the-art technical facilities and links to NIAB, the Cambridge technology cluster and the wider agricultural sector will be ideal for early stage companies to grow and flourish.

Dr Juno McKee, Director of NIAB Ventures, says that Barn4 will provide facilities for up to 15 companies with 45 staff. “NIAB will work with a network of commercial and academic partners to provide a complete ecosystem within which technology driven start-ups and spinouts can thrive.”

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority Mayor James Palmer says, “In the wake of Covid-19 it is more vital than ever that we level up the economy of the region as we rebound and renew, and if we are to recover quickly and fulfil on the promise of our region we have to take risks and promote disruption in the market. Agritech is one of our key growth areas and I am absolutely delighted that the Combined Authority has enabled NIAB to create Barn4, which will help the sector expand and flourish. I am passionate about supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, and Barn4’s nurturing environment for young companies will help ground-breaking startups to flourish. I look forward to seeing the birth of world-leading technical solutions to agricultural challenges and opportunities as Barn4 opens and develops from 2021.”

Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government Simon Clarke MP says, “Investing in innovative agritech projects is at the heart of this Government’s commitment to create new, green jobs and reach our target of Net-Zero by 2050. That is why we are investing £2.5 million from the Local Growth Fund in this exciting project to create space for start-ups and small businesses in Cambridgeshire to grow and innovate, creating new jobs for the region and supporting this world-leading centre for agritech.”

The new building will be an addition to NIAB’s recently redeveloped Park Farm field research station which includes two new large research and office buildings (5,500 m2), 2,500 m2 of research glasshouses with an additional 300m2 planned, 3,000m2 protected outdoor growing space and field trial plots.

NIAB’s Director of Commercialisation Dr Michael Gifford explains that, in the face of challenges such as Covid-19, Brexit, the new Agriculture Bill, climate change and food security, the UK agrifood industry is under enormous pressure to redefine its farming and food supply chains. One way is to accelerate the pace at which it commercialises and adopts new agritech innovations to deliver sustainable change.

“Cambridgeshire is fast becoming a world-leading centre for agritech with an unrivalled combination of new innovative SME’s partnering with commercial industry, research, academia and networking organisations across the science, technology and agrifood sectors. To date there have been gaps in support for start-ups including access to sector specific expertise, basic research facilities with laboratory space, field plots, and engineering workshops. We are thinking about agritech in its widest sense and expect to have companies specialising in plant genetics, pest management, soil health, and AI to support sustainable farming decisions, farm robotics and much more.”

A study carried out for NIAB by the University of Cambridge’s Judge Institute showed that agritech start-ups felt that they would have benefited most from sector specific technical expertise and advice. This is exactly the type of support provided at Barn4.

“In Barn4, NIAB will be able to provide an environment in which young companies can thrive in the agritech sector. It allows companies to access Cambridge’s unrivalled technology sector and University whilst also being on the doorstep of some of the most fertile farmland and progressive farmers in the world,” finishes Dr Gifford.



NIAB NEWS: Impact study: NIAB research delivers 18 fold return to the wider UK economy

NIB Impact Study

An independent assessment of the value of research taking place at crop science organisation NIAB has revealed an 18-fold return on investment to the wider UK economy.

The economic impact report, by Donald Webb of Brookdale Consulting, concluded that for every £1 spent on research at NIAB, at least £17.60 is returned to the UK economy through improved production efficiency, economic growth, import substitution, export earnings and inward investment.

The report indicated that this return on investment would be even greater if NIAB’s international contribution had been accounted for.    

The study focused on the following five key areas of R&D to capture the broad spread of crop-related science and innovation now covered by the NIAB Group:

  • Plant variety and seed testing
  • Potato agronomy
  • Strawberry breeding
  • Concept vineyard
  • Legume pre-breeding

In each of these five case study areas, together accounting for around 20% of NIAB’s total research income, the report identified a high-level of ongoing actual impacts as well as potential future impacts, reflecting NIAB’s unique interconnecting role between fundamental science and practical application.

These case studies also highlight the broad range of routes through which NIAB today is delivering socio-economic value and impact, including the provision of statutory services to the plant breeding and seeds sector, developing innovative agronomy solutions for potato growers, breeding market-leading soft fruit varieties, supporting growth in the UK’s emerging vineyard sector, and supplying new traits and germplasm to support genetic improvement in legumes.

Commenting on the study, report author Donald Webb said:

“NIAB occupies a unique position within the UK plant science landscape, providing a vital translation service between fundamental science and its practical, commercial application.

“The 18-fold return on investment identified compares very favourably to any other research-based organisation in the agriculture sector or beyond. In addition, our study concluded that NIAB’s critical mass of skills, facilities, networks and expertise has a strong contribution to make to future challenges including climate change adaptation and resilience, sustainable intensification, economic growth and food security.”

Welcoming the report on behalf of NIAB, which commissioned the study, chief executive Dr Tina Barsby said: “Last year, NIAB marked its centenary having originally been established as a charitable trust in 1919 with the aim of improving UK crop production through better varieties and seeds. Over that period NIAB has pioneered the internationally recognised systems for plant variety testing and seed certification which have underpinned the growth and success of modern plant breeding and crop production.

“NIAB is still widely recognised for its founding role in varieties and seeds, which continues to this day. But as this impact report demonstrates, more recently NIAB has successfully adapted and diversified from its position as quasi-Government institute to become a leading international centre for crop science with a broad and expanding portfolio of near-market agricultural research.       

“At all levels, the focus of NIAB’s applied research activity is to improve the productivity, efficiency and resilience of UK agricultural and horticultural crop production. This independent study provides a resounding thumbs-up to the value and impact of our research,” finished Dr Barsby.

Download the summary report

Socio-economic impact of NIAB research - a summary of the impact study

Download the full report

Socio-economic impact of NIAB research - final report

NIAB NEWS: New sources of wheat diversity unlocked by massive-scale genomic study

New sources of wheat diversity unlocked by massive-scale genomic study

Growers, wheat breeders and crop scientists are all set to benefit from the discovery of genetic factors associated to yield, quality and agronomic traits in wheat following one of the largest analysis ever carried out of an agricultural crop.

An international research team, including crop scientists from NIAB, genetically characterised nearly 80,000 samples of wheat from the germplasm banks of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

NIAB’s Deputy Director Professor Mario Caccamo explained that the results give researchers and breeders a more detailed picture of the wheat diversity available. “The analysis identified regions of the wheat genome linked to important yield or agronomic bottlenecks introduced by successive breeding programmes. It also contributes to our understanding of the impact of the synthetic wheat varieties, most latterly with NIAB’s resynthesised ‘superwheat’ programme, in adding to the diversity, in particular in the D subgenome.”

The findings of the study published today in Nature Communications are described as ‘a massive-scale genotyping and diversity analysis’ of the two types of wheat grown globally (bread and pasta wheat) and of 27 known wild species.

The main objective of the study was to characterise the genetic diversity of CIMMYT and ICARDA’s internationally available collections, which are considered the largest in the world. The researchers aimed to understand this diversity by mapping genetic variants to identify useful genes for wheat breeding. The results show distinct biological groupings within the crop and suggest that a large proportion of the genetic diversity present in landraces has not been used to develop new high-yielding, resilient and nutritious varieties.

“The analysis of the wheat accessions reveals that relatively little of the diversity available in the landraces has been used in modern breeding, and this offers an opportunity to find untapped valuable variation for the development of new varieties from these landraces,” said Carolina Sansaloni, high-throughput genotyping and sequencing specialist at CIMMYT, who led the research team.

The study also found that the genetic diversity of pasta wheat is better represented in the modern varieties, with the exception of a subgroup of samples from Ethiopia.

The researchers mapped the genomic data obtained from the genotyping of the wheat samples to pinpoint the physical and genetic positions of molecular markers associated with characteristics that are present in both types of wheat and in the crop’s wild relatives.

According to Sansaloni, on average, 72 percent of the markers obtained are uniquely placed on three molecular reference maps and around half of these are in interesting regions with genes that control specific characteristics of value to breeders, farmers and consumers such as heat and drought tolerance, yield potential and protein content.

The data, analysis and visualisation tools of the SeeD and MasAgro projects sponsored by Mexico’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department (SADER) and the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC) were developed in collaboration with NIAB and the James Hutton Institute, and are freely available to the scientific community for advancing wheat research and breeding worldwide.

“These resources should be useful in gene discovery, cloning, marker development, genomic prediction or selection, marker-assisted selection, genome wide association studies and other applications,” said Dr Sansaloni.

Join us at the Crop Science Centre Virtual Launch


Crop Science Centre Virtual Launch with Professor Giles Oldroyd and Dr Tina Barsby

We are hugely excited by the Centre’s potential to conduct world-leading research in global food security, and hope you can join us for this very special launch event.   

Please register your place here. If you are interested but unable to attend, a recording of the event will be made available online. If you have any questions please contact us at

16.00pm BST Welcome from Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

16.10pm BST Introduction and discussion chaired by Dr Rob Doubleday (CSaP). How research and innovation can revolutionise agriculture, with Professor Giles Oldroyd (Director, Crop Science Centre), Dr Tina Barsby (CEO, NIAB) and Sir David Baulcombe (Royal Society Research Professor)

16.35pm BST Q&A

16.45pm BST Close

Department of Plant Sciences NEWS: A plant's diet, surviving in a variable nutrient environment

root responses

Giles Oldroyd and Ottoline Leyser’s review on nutrient sensing in the root and systemic signalling in the shoot to respond to changeable nutrient availability. Their article provides a detailed overview of the current knowledge about how plants engage with their nutrients and provides ideas about future research directions to help us use this knowledge to increase crop plant performance in low-fertility soils and wean global agriculture from its dependency on inorganic fertilisers. Read the review:


Image: N response and signaling. Root responses of Arabidopsis plants grown in uniform high N (NO3–; dark gray, left), uniform low N (light gray, middle), and differential treatments of high and low N (right). Note how the root responses are opposite to the local treatments in uniform versus differential treatments. Underpinning these responses are C-terminally encoded peptides (CEPs) produced in roots experiencing low N, cytokinins produced in roots experiencing high N, and an N-sufficiency signal in the shoot. All regulate shoot-to-root signaling, which involves CEP DOWNSTREAM 1 (CEPD) peptides. Systemic signaling is integrated with local signaling (indicated by red) that is induced by local perception of NO3–.


Crop Science Centre NEWS: Achieving global food security - a vision for the new Crop Science Centre

Crop Science Centre

The Crop Science Centre features in the impact stories of Dear World... Yours, Cambridge, the campaign for the University and Colleges of Cambridge as the response of the University of Cambridge and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB)  to the increasingly pressing challenge of feeding people across the globe. Read more about how this was possible

Dr Richard Harrison

Richard is the Director of NIAB Cambridge Crop Research (, a part of the NIAB Group, composed of research and service delivery in arable crop genetics, breeding, pathology, biotechnology and data science. 

Professor Alison Bentley

As a crop scientist working at the interface of academia and industry Alison’s research is focussed on the translation of fundamental scientific breakthroughs into tangible impacts for the agri-food sector. Alison is the Director of Genetics and Breeding at NIAB ( leading a team of scientists to deliver tools and technologies to improve plant breeding in the UK and internationally.

Sustainable food production for everyone

The Crop Science Centre is an alliance between the University of Cambridge and NIAB. Our research is funded by:

Our mission

At the Crop Science Centre, we are generating crop plants that deliver sufficient food for everyone in a sustainable way

  • We deliver agricultural impact, using excellence in research
  • We strive for sustainability, reducing agricultural reliance on chemical inputs
  • We foster equality, valuing all members of our research community
  • We believe in equity, ensuring even the world’s poorest farmers can grow enough food

Years of research has provided a deep understanding of how plants function, creating opportunities to transform the way we produce our food.  I am motivated to improve the sustainability and the equity of food production worldwide

Professor Giles Oldroyd,
CSC Director

Professor Giles Oldroyd

“The delivery of both public goods and economic growth is essential for today’s plant scientists, with the need to produce sufficient healthy nutritious food without harming the environment being at the top of the international agenda.”

Dr Tina Barsby,
CEO and Director of NIAB

Dr Tina Barsby

“We envisage that new CSC crop technologies will enable higher crop yields and lower environmental impact for crop-based food production – as well as contributing to improved dietary health.”

Sir David Baulcombe,
Royal Society Professor

Sir David Baulcombe

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