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Plant biology

Cell, molecular and development; biochemistry and physiology; biotechnology and biofuels; synthetic biology


Plant Biology has been one of the major areas of recent strategic development within Biological Sciences at Cambridge, with investments in new people, buildings and infrastructure. Researchers in this theme carry out basic research but the aim is that their findings will have impact in sustainable agriculture and food, industrial biotechnology including biofuels and aspects of environmental biology including epidemiology. Plant biologists are active in four of the University’s Strategic Research Initiatives: Global Food Security, Energy, Conservation and Synthetic Biology.

Highlights of recent research by our plant biologists include new understanding of:

·         fundamental carbon concentrating mechanisms in enhanced photosynthesis. The findings will shape a new generation of crops for sustainable food production and biofuels.

·         regulation and function of the plant circadian clock, including demonstrating that sugar is a regulator of the circadian clock of Arabidopsis. This is attracting industrial interest because of potential impact for improving crop plants.

·         movement of small RNAs between cells leading to epigenetic changes in recipient cell types. These findings have diverse implications including the phenotypes of hybrids and the epigenetic basis of stress tolerance in plants. The epigenetic landscape also influences recombination frequency during meiosis in plants and has implications for the basis of natural variation and for accelerating plant breeding.

·         the ways mechanical stresses and changes in elasticity can influence the outgrowth of early organ primordia and act as a cue for the positioning of the organ via hormone polarization or patterning.

·         the discovery of the DNA-binding code of plant pathogen TAL effectors. This major advance has stimulated research into the function of these proteins in disease and disease resistance. It has also triggered a major biotechnological advance involving targeting of nucleases (TALENs) for genome modification of animals and plants.

·         the novel concept of synthetic ecology that exploits the mutualistic interaction of algae and bacteria to optimize culture systems.

·         the use of the plant cell wall as a feedstock for lignocellulosic ethanol production, identifying enzymes to produce individual hexoses and pentoses that can be fermented.

·         how photosynthetic organisms could be used to generate electricity directly in "biophotovoltaic devices".

·         forest dynamics/disturbance and recovery, and climate change via carbon sequestration. The work is relevant to REDD+ and carbon credits with implications for biodiversity, monitoring and ecosystem services and it exploits novel high-tech spectral imaging. This topic has links to the Cambridge Conservation Campus.