Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Our research

We strive to increase the sustainability and equity of global agriculture and increase resilience to future climate change.

To achieve this we focus our research on:

  • Sustainable nutrient capture - Improving crop plant access to sustainable sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, replacing the need for inorganic fertilizers.
  • Reducing losses from pests and diseases – Finding sustainable ways to reduce yield losses from pests and diseases.
  • Improving crop breeding – Developing technologies that increase the pace and impact of crop breeding
  • Increasing yield potential through improved photosynthesis – Raising the potential yield ceiling through enhancing photosynthetic efficiency.

Research groups

Sustainable crop nutrition – Giles Oldroyd

GilesThe availability of sources of nitrogen and phosphorus are major limitations to crop productivity. This is primarily addressed through the application of inorganic fertilisers to augment these limiting nutrients. However, the use of such fertilisers is the greatest cause of pollution from agriculture in high and middle-income countries, while access to inorganic fertilisers is restricted for farmers in low-income countries, who suffer resultant losses to their potential yield.  In natural ecosystems many species of plants acquire nitrogen and phosphorus through associations with beneficial fungi and bacteria, but the use of these beneficial microbial associations is currently very limited in agriculture. Through a detailed understanding of how plants associate with beneficial microorganisms, we aim to broaden their use in agriculture to facilitate sustainable productivity and to ensure such benefits are accessible to the world’s poorest farmers.

Research areas:

Engineering nitrogen fixation

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria associate with legumes in specialised organs, nodules, that create an environment to maximises the activity of nitrogenase, the enzyme responsible for nitrogen fixation. Through genetic dissection in the model legume Medicago truncatula, we provide a detailed understanding of how legumes associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and are using this foundational knowledge to engineer crops, particularly cereals, to associate with these beneficial bacteria. Nitrogen-fixing cereals have much potential to deliver sustainable and secure food production systems, with potential for significant yield improvements to the poorest farmers of the world.

Enhancing nutrient capture

Plants associate with an array of microorganisms that facilitate nutrient capture from the environment, providing sources of phosphate, nitrate, water and some micronutrients to their host plants. Despite their widespread  use in natural ecosystems, the application of beneficial microbial associations in agriculture is limited. Through understanding the processes that drive their establishment, we are developing crop lines that make more effective use of beneficial microbial associations, providing sustainable ways to deliver nutrients to crops.

Cereal symbioses - Uta Paszkowski

UtaThe mutually beneficial arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbiosis is the most widespread association between roots of terrestrial plants and fungi of the Glomeromycota. The association receives increasing scientific attention because of the nutritional benefit it confers to plants, its ubiquitous occurrence among contemporary plant species and, as a result of its evolutionary antiquity, an ancestral relationship to other plant interactions. We focus on molecular mechanisms underlying the formation and function of AM symbioses in rice and maize. We aim to develop our knowledge of these associations to optimize the incorporation of the AM-symbiosis into sustainable agricultural practices.

Research areas:

Rhizosphere communication

Establishment of AM symbioses relies on the continuous orchestration of signals to achieve recognition and coordination of the interacting organisms. We have identified genetic determinants of the rhizosphere dialogue from rice and maize. Their functional characterization will shed light on the communicative signal exchange, “sending” and “receiving”, that impacts on the plant’s reprogramming for symbiosis and therefore on the effectiveness of AM symbioses in rice and other cropping systems.

Symbiotic phosphate acquisition

Phosphate (Pi) acquisition of crops via AM symbioses gains increasing importance due to limited Pi reserves and demand for environmentally sustainable agriculture. We found that 70% of the Pi acquired by aerobically- grown rice is delivered via the symbiotic route. We would like to understand the functioning and regulation of this pathway under laboratory and field conditions to exploit the symbiosis and develop rice cultivars better adapted to low-input rice agro-ecosystems.

Arbuscules, the heart of the symbiosis

'Arbuscules' are fascinating fungal feeding structures, produced inside root cortical cells by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Arbuscules are built by consecutive dichotomous hyphal branching, ultimately adopting a complex tree-like shape at microscopic scale. As the arbuscule develops, the hostplant cell undergoes fundamental architectural adaptations to accommodate the intracellularly expanding fungus. For instance, the plant cell dramatically increases membrane biogenesis to envelope the growing hyphal structure in the so-called peri-arbuscular membrane. The hugely enlarged membrane surface area between the two organisms appears ideal for the exchange of signals and nutrients. Remarkably, despite what seems a considerable metabolic investment, arbuscules collapse after a few days, and host cell architecture is restored to that of a non-colonized cell. Therefore, the life of an arbuscule is marked by the highly dynamic continuum of development and collapse without static intermediate stages. To capture arbuscule formation and turnover in 4D, and at ultrastructural resolution, we combine advanced multiphoton confocal imaging of living mycorrhizal rice roots with high resolution electron microscopy.

Nutrient Perception and Capture – Jeongmin Choi

JeongminNutrients are major building blocks of biological machinery and biochemical processes governing the existence of life. Therefore, every organism needs to ensure nutrient provision by obtaining them from the environment while recycling them within the body. This requires highly complex biological communication systems linking organelles, cells and organs. To do so, a nutrient serves a dual function; a metabolite and a signalling molecule. As sessile organisms, plants developed sophisticated systems to maintain the nutrient sensing and signalling mechanism to maintain nutrient homeostasis to ensure their survival at a limited time and space. My lab focuses on discovering new molecular mechanisms underpinning nutrient sensing and signalling mechanisms in plants. The research outcomes could help us maximize the crop nutrient use efficiency to ensure global food security at low financial and environmental costs. 

In nature, plants are not alone; they are constantly in close contact with microorganisms. The collective evidence from paleontological, phylogenomics and evolutionary studies support that plants have been associated with beneficial microbes to maximize nutrient uptake and other ecological benefits. We will explore the role of nutrients by studying arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis in rice as a model system. 

Research areas: 

Phosphorus and nitrogen signalling in arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis

In poor nutrient conditions, plants launch phosphorus and nitrogen signalling pathways to maximize nutrient uptake while maintaining homeostasis. And this is the condition where the plant and microbe symbiosis occurs. We will explore how these nutrient sensing and signalling pathways are integrated into the core program of the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis. 

Plasticity of host susceptibility to arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis 

Arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis is a highly dynamic process that requires biochemical communication and careful assessment of nutrient economics in both symbiotic partners. Especially, plants develop ways to regulate the symbiosis as they invest up to 20% of the carbon fixed by photosynthesis to farm the microbes. In addition to nutrient status, many environmental factors also regulate the host susceptibility of AM symbioses. Understanding factors and mechanisms regulating the process will help us utilize symbiosis in a dynamic and broader range of environments especially facing global climate changes. 

Plant-parasitic interactions - Sebastian Eves-van den Akker

SebastianThe overarching theme  of our group is to combine genomics and molecular biology to understand fundamental questions in host:parasite biology. The group focuses on plant-parasitic nematodes because: i) they are a threat to food security in developed and developing countries, and ii) underlying this threat is a wealth of fascinating biology that until very recently has been largely unexplored.

Research areas: 

The 'readers' and the 'regulators'

What distinguishes plant-parasitic nematodes from many other plant pathogens is the presence of specialised gland cells that produce effectors. Discrete subsets of the effector repertoire are delivered into the plant in waves, over the course of several weeks. This project aims to understand this spatio-temporally controlled "parasitism programme": how the parasitism process is regulated over time, in the nematode and in the plant. We anticipate a small number of regulators that control the concerted action of a large number of effectors – if we can disrupt the few regulators, we can simultaneously disrupt hundreds of effectors.

We recently discovered the "DOG box": a promoter motif that unifies hundreds of otherwise sequence-unrelated effectors that are expressed in the same gland cell. The DOG box is our first insight into the regulation of the parasitic process. The fact that a single DNA motif unifies these effectors, implies the existence of a 'reader' and/or 'regulator': likely a protein, or protein complex, which coordinates tissue specific-expression through sequence-specific binding to the DOG box. We are characterising these 'readers' and 'regulators' of parasitism.

Discovering nematoide effectors

Plant-parasitic nematodes have the remarkable abilities to suppress plant-immunity, and to cause existing plant cells to re-differentiate into a novel tissue. The extent of host-plant manipulation is rapid and profound: the cell cycle is arrested at G2, and the number and/or size of almost every sub-cellular organelle is drastically increased (Nuclei, endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria, and plastids).

In a recent effort we have identified a comprehensive list of one of the 'toolboxes' that cyst nematodes use to manipulate their host. It is thus likely that within this effector repertoire lie genes that can dictate the outcomes of plant organelle development. This project aims to understand the targets and molecular detail of such effectors.

Plant-parasitic nematode genomes and transcriptomes

Over the last few years, we have sequenced genomes and or transcriptomes for nematode species that straddle almost every major phylogenetic bifurcation that gave rise to the sedentary endoparasites: the most economically important species. Most notably this includes the completion of the G. rostochiensis genome consortium. We have ongoing genome projects for a number of cyst nematode species, most recently including the Heterodera schachtii genome consortium, and are always looking for interesting species to analyse.

A current focus of our genomics research is to understand the genetic mechanisms that underlie the juxtaposition of genomic variability and stability in effectors.

The contribution of horizontal gene transfer to plant-parasitism by nematodes

We have known for some time that the genomes of plant-parasitic nematodes have acquired genes from non-metazoans by horizontal transfer. Many of these genes encode cell-wall degrading/modifying enzymes that appear to be involved in host invasion.

Genome wide analyses of horizontal gene transfer have identified several other classes of genes that may be involved in other parts of the infection process. This project will investigate how the biochemistry of proteins encoded by horizontally acquired genes change following transfer, and how these functions contribute to plant-parasitism.

Transformation of the global study of plant-parasitic nematodes

With the help of BBSRC funding, we recently established the transformation of plant-parasitic nematodes consortium with the goal of coordinating efforts from groups around the world to deliver credible strategies for subsequent development; ultimately leading to a robust transformation method. Recent support from the Isaac Newton Trust/Wellcome Trust/University of Cambridge is allowing us to progress in this area. We are always interested to discuss and test ideas to make transformation for plant-parasitic nematodes a reality.

The crop breeding technologies group  - Natasha Yelina

NatashaWe are developing novel breeding technologies in legume crops to enhance the production of new cultivars adapted to changing climatic conditions, as well as having sustainable yields. Legumes are economically and agronomically important crops in the UK and worldwide due to their proteinaceous seeds and their ability to enhance soil fertility, making them important crops in rotation and intercropping with cereals. We work on legumes of importance to both high- and low-income countries.

We focus on meiotic recombination, a process occurring during plant sexual reproduction where characteristics, or traits, from both parents are brought together and reassorted before being passed on to offspring. This reassortment results in new qualities in crops, such as yield, nutrient content, resilience to pests and adaptation to abiotic stresses. This is the basis of selective breeding. The current challenges for researchers and crop breeders lie within the limitations of meiotic recombination. Not all characteristics are equally amenable to meiotic reassortment, which leaves up to a fifth of the genetic material unavailable for breeding.

Research areas:

Genetic manipulation of crossover landscapes

Meiotic recombination, or crossover, is initiated by double-strand breaks on the genomic DNA which are repaired in a conserved multi-step process. In plants only ~5% of meiotic double-strand breaks are repaired as crossovers, i.e. resulting in physical exchange of homologous chromosome parts and novel trait combinations. The remaining ~95% are repaired as non-crossovers with limited impact on trait reassortment. Recent breakthroughs in the model Arabidopsis have identified ways to manipulate crossover distribution, or landscape, along chromosomes (for example, by altering chromatin) and to increase crossovers genome-wide by shifting the double-strand DNA repair outcomes to favour crossovers. We will translate these findings into legume crops to develop novel breeding technologies enabling faster and less costly generation of cultivars with desired trait combinations.

Temperature, reproduction and meiosis

Extreme temperatures affect plant fertility and crossover landscapes. Wild relatives of cultivated crops, for example, legumes, are adapted to a wide range of geographic locations and, therefore, temperature extremes. We will combine forward genetics and natural variation studies to understand the mechanisms (i.e. genes and QTLs), underlying this adaptation. We will use this knowledge to develop high-yielding climate-resilient crop cultivars. Given that meiotic recombination is conserved in plants, we believe that our findings will be applicable to both legume and non-legume crops.

The crop pathogen immunity group  – Lida Derevnina

LidaWe use a combination of genomics, in-planta assays and molecular approaches to study the complex mechanisms underpinning plant immune responses, as well as the strategies pathogens deploy to circumvent them. We focus on the interaction between potatoes and parasitic nematodes, but we are also interested in other Solanaceous crops and their respective pathogens.

Plant immunity is comprised of complex networks that mediate responses to diverse pathogens. Pathogens secrete molecules, called effectors, that can target and disable critical components of these networks, allowing them to circumvent plant immune responses. My group will utilize our mechanistic understanding of plant immune networks and effector functions to develop novel network components that evade effector suppression. This will help us generate disease resistant crops and alleviate the challenges pathogens present for global food production.

Plant pathogens are ever-evolving threats to agriculture. They are highly adaptable and can quickly overcome newly deployed sources of host resistance, rendering these genes obsolete. As a result, there is a constant need to identify new sources of resistance in breeding programs. Gaining a deeper understanding of host-pathogen interactions will allow us to make targeted interventions when generating disease resistant crops. Using an informed approach should prove to be a more efficient means of breeding, helping us stay ahead in the ongoing arms race between plants and pathogens.