Crop Science Centre - Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Crop Science Centre receives a donation to sustainably improve production of small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa

Crop Science Centre receives a donation to sustainably improve production of small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa

News
Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropies

The Crop Science Centre has been awarded a donation from Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropies for a five-year programme of work tackling key challenges faced by small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

On receiving the donation, Professor Giles Oldroyd, Director of the Crop Science Centre, said “Currently small holder farmers suffer yield challenges from pests, diseases, heat, drought, and a lack of soil nutrients. As a result, crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa are well below their potential productivity. By combining innovative plant science from the University of Cambridge with agricultural expertise from NIAB, the Crop Science Centre is uniquely placed to help close this yield gap, which is currently exacerbating hunger and poverty.”

The work funded by the donation attempts to raise potential production for small-holder farmers, by addressing the availability of nutrients for crop production, improving the efficiency of carbon capture by plants through photosynthesis, and reducing crop losses from pests, pathogens and heat stress.  These approaches reflect the breadth and depth of expertise at the Crop Science Centre.

Professor Mario Caccamo, NIAB’s CEO, said “This generous donation accelerates the impacts we can have at the Crop Science Centre and helps us focus on improving the livelihoods of some of the poorest farmers on the planet. With the support provided by the Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropies we will strive to close the yield gap for small holder farmers.”

The programme of work will begin in October 2022 and will involve aligning research activities between Cambridge and partners in sub-Saharan Africa, aiming to strengthen the links between the Crop Science Centre and the researchers working in related fields in Africa

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Beatrice Senatori

Beatrice Senatori


I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s studies in Biology at the University of Florence (Italy), performing an Erasmus+ traineeship at the University of Oxford, Department of Plant Sciences, in 2018 where I joined the Rhizosphere Group led by Prof. Philip Poole, where I studied the interaction between the symbiotic rhizobium microorganism Rhizobium leguminosarum and Pisum sativum plants. In early 2020 I joined the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, as a Research Laboratory Technician within the group of Development and Reproduction led by Dr. Sebastien Andreuzza.

Publications

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Siyuan Wei

Siyuan Wei


I finished my undergrad in China at the Nanjing Agricultural University studying Agriculture. Then I obtained my Master's degree at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, majoring in plant sciences and specialising in plant breeding and genetic resources. Because of my passion for biotic stress and genetics, I joined Sebastian's group to start my PhD in exploring more susceptibility and resistance genes underlying plant-nematode interactions.

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Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Kerry VerMeulen

Kerry VerMeulen


I joined the Crop Science Center in October 2021 to pursue postgraduate degree following the completion of a Master's in Plant Pathology at Michigan State University (USA). My undergraduate work was completed at Purdue University where I studied environmental sciences. I have worked in hazardous waste remediation and sales, and founded an entrepreneurial venture to manufacture lawn and garden products called Plumstone.

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Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Denitsa Hristova

Denitsa Hristova


I am a Biological Sciences Graduate with a strong passion about plants. I completed my undergraduate research project looking at the effects of different biotic and abiotic stresses on the ROS production in Arabidopsis thaliana. I will be now joining the Crop Breeding Technologies team of Natasha Yelina as an technician/assistant where I will be trying to work out why and how elevated temperature affects Arabidopsis fertility and reproductive success.

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Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Patricia Gil Diez

Patricia Gil Diez


My interest in plant science began when I was an undergrad in Biology at the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain). After that, I was introduced to legume-bacteria symbiosis during my master's and Ph.D. at Polytechnique University of Madrid (Spain). The main topic of my Ph.D. was metal transport into the nodules of Medicago truncatula, resulting in the characterization of two molybdenum transporters involved in the delivery of this metal to the nodules. I moved to the UK after completing my Ph.D.

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Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Maja Todorovic

Maja Todorovic


Maja is a research technician with the Platform team at the Crop Science Centre. Prior to this role, Maja worked in the fields of wheat genomics and pathology, completing her MSc at University College Dublin in the lab of Prof. Fiona Doohan.

Publications

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Tania Chancellor

Tania Chancellor


Tania is a postdoctoral research associate at the Crop Science Centre. She carried out her PhD studies with the University of Nottingham and Rothamsted Research Institute, where she was primarily based. Her PhD research focused on evaluating a potential biocontrol agent against “take-all” disease, which is caused by a devastating root-infecting pathogen of wheat.

Publications

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Barley orders soil bacteria to manufacture ammonia fertiliser

Barley orders soil bacteria to manufacture ammonia fertiliser

News
Barley

Scientists have accomplished a key step in the long-term ambition to engineer nitrogen-fixation into non-legume cereal crops by demonstrating that barley can instruct soil bacteria to convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia fertiliser.

This development empowers non-legume crops to communicate directly with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and takes us a step closer to reducing our reliance on synthetic fertilisers.

The world’s human population consumes more than half their calories from three crops – rice, wheat and maize. However, these crops rely heavily on the application of synthetic fertilisers like nitrogen. The industrial production of nitrogen in the form of ammonia requires a high consumption of fossil fuels and the over-application of fertilisers can also leach into water bodies and release potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

With the Earth’s atmosphere made up of 78% nitrogen, wouldn’t it be great if plants could convert the nitrogen in the air into their own fertiliser? Well they can.

Legumes produce their own nitrogen fertiliser by partnering with naturally occurring rhizobia soil bacteria. The bacteria fix nitrogen from the air into ammonia, which they exchange with plants for sugars.

Professor Giles Oldroyd, who leads research into sustainable crop nutrition at the University of Cambridge’s Crop Science Centre and Sainsbury Laboratory, is coordinating a global effort to transfer the nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes into non-legume cereals so that crops like wheat, maize and rice can, in effect, make their own fertiliser.

“Analysing the genetics of both legume and non-legume plants, we have discovered that non-legumes already have many of the genes needed to form the root nodules that house the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Professor Oldroyd said. “There is substantial overlap in the developmental programmes plants use for lateral roots and nitrogen-fixing nodules. Studying the evolution of plant genes also indicates that many non-legumes did once form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria but have lost this ability over time.”

There are hundreds of processes involved in successfully establishing nitrogen-fixing symbiosis between a plant and its colonising bacteria – both from the plant and bacteria perspective – which is why it requires the collaboration of multiple teams of scientists to work on the problem. A collaboration between Professor Oldroyd’s group and the University of Oxford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on one key part – the intimate communication between the plant and bacteria.

Their latest work, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on their earlier design and engineering of a unique molecular dialogue between plants and bacteria. The synthetic signalling network they developed uses rhizopine compounds as chemical signals, which act like an intimate language that is only understood by the target plant and target bacteria.

The have now shown that the non-legume crop plant, barley, can communicate directly with free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria using rhizopine chemical signals to tell the bacteria to start fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and to turn it into ammonia.

Dr Ponraj Paramasivan, from Professor Oldroyd's group and who contributed to the engineering of barley to synthesise and then exude rhizopine from its roots, said this was a key advantage as only the target crop would benefit. “Currently weeds also benefit from applying nitrogen fertilisers, but this tactic means that only the specific crop plant that is engineered to produce the rhizopine signal will benefit,” he said.

The research, led by Dr Timothy Haskett and Professor Philip Poole, at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, showed that plants secreting rhizopine controlled nitrogen fixation by the bacterium on its roots. The bacteria would only fix nitrogen on the barley which released rhizopine and not on any other plant.

The next step is to ensure that the ammonia produced by the bacteria is released and provides sufficient nitrogen fertiliser to the target plant.

'Biological nitrogen fixation is one of the key processes enabling more sustainable agricultural practices and has been the subject of extensive research efforts for decades,” Professor Poole said.” This work on developing plant control of bacterial nitrogen fixation is a key part of a large effort to transfer root nodulation and nitrogen fixation to cereals. This was only made possible through a great collaborative effort bringing together the work done by multiple labs over many years.”

Professor Oldroyd said other staple crops such as maize, rice, sorghum and cassava would be included in future research for transferring nitrogen fixation into non-legumes.

Reference

Timothy L. Haskett, Ponraj Paramasivan, Marta D. Mendes, Patrick Green, Barney A. Geddes, Hayley E. Knights, Beatriz Jorrin, Min-Hyung Ryu, Paul Brett, Christopher A. Voigt, Giles E. D. Oldroyd, and Philip S. Poole. (2022) Engineered plant control of associative nitrogen fixation. PNAS

Sustainable food production for everyone

The Crop Science Centre is a coalition between the University of Cambridge, Department of Plant Sciences, and NIAB. This coalition focuses on translational research in crops with real-world impact. We combine the diverse skills and expertise of the University and NIAB, providing an environment for research excellence with the capability to apply discoveries to crop improvement in the field.

Our research is interdisciplinary and of global relevance. We strive to improve both staple crops such as maize, wheat and rice, but also the specific crops of relevance to small-holder farmers, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Centre provides leadership in crop sciences, with a creative and dynamic research culture, motivated by improvement of agriculture for the betterment of society.

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

“At the Crop Science Centre we have the scientific breadth and track record to rapidly respond to one of the grand challenges of our time: growing enough nutritious food for an increasing population while reducing inputs and green house emissions.”

Professor Mario Caccamo,
CEO and Director of NIAB

Professor Mario Caccamo

“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