Cambridge University Plant Science Department

Who we are

Cambridge University has been central to innovation and teaching in Plant Science for many years. The university has been a scientific home for a dynasty of famous botanists including John Ray and Stephen Hales in the 17th and 18th centuries, Darwin’s mentor JS Henslow in the 19th and Blackman, Tansley and Godwin in the 20th century.  Blackman discovered the basic mechanisms of photosynthesis and Tansley, who established our nature reserve system, coined the term ecosystem. Their legacy continues today with vibrant research and teaching in the Department of Plant Sciences. Elsewhere in the University the Sainsbury Laboratory works exclusively on plants and there are groups with related interests in other University Departments.

Our research is multidisciplinary and international and we have collaborations with computer scientists, economists, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, engineers as well as other biologists. Undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Department become leaders in research and teaching. They find roles in various other careers in industry, government and education.

The three strategic targets of our work are agricultural crops, various types of industrial biotechnology and plants in the environment. Some projects are directly targeted to application. Other projects are basic science that, in the words of George Porter, is “not yet applied”. The potential impact of these projects could be in terms of the three strategic targets or in basic science that is then applied by others in diverse areas including medicine.

Agricultural crops

Specific research targets include improved crops for food and fuel, algae for fuel and biotechnology; understanding of epidemics so that we can manage diseases as they emerge; analysis of carbon flux in tropical forests as part of conservation initiatives.

Many of our projects could lead to new crops or crop husbandry so that yields are increased or maintained with lower fertilizer or pesticide inputs, with less water, or under the challenges associated with climate change. Yields in rice, for example, could be increased, even under water stressed conditions, using the understanding of photosynthesis and its regulation. We can also anticipate reduced losses due to pests and disease from our work on disease resistance mechanisms or on the modelling of disease epidemics. Similarly we aim to reduce losses due to salt and drought through understanding of signalling mechanisms in plants.

Post-harvest losses can be minimised from our analysis of tuber and seed dormancy or fungi that cause damage to the products of agriculture. Other projects will help crop plant breeders transfer genes from wild species into crops and exploit hybrid vigour.

We are also interested in the ways that insects identify flowers to pollinate our analysis of visual and tactile features of flowers that guide pollinator choice will help ensure that this important stage of the crop production cycle is as efficient as possible. Understanding of the mechanisms and evolution of plant development will eventually lead to new strategies for remodelling the architecture of crop plants.

To ensure the relevance of our work with crops we link with local institutes and industry through the Cambridge Partnership in Plant Science. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council are our major funders in this topic and we monitor national programmes through the multi-agency programme in Global Food Security (

Plants for Bioenergy and Industrial Biotechnology

With the need to reduce carbon emissions, and the dwindling reserves of fossil oil and gas, liquid fuels derived from plant material – biofuels – are an attractive source of energy. To minimize competition for land, water and other resources between energy crops and those grown for food, we must optimize plant productivity. Research is underway to understand what limits photosynthetic efficiency, and to explore ways of improving yields by optimizing existing processes, or introducing novel approaches such as  broadening the wavelengths of light captured by plants.

Algae offer an alternative source of bioenergy – many species grow very fast, produce large amounts of fuel molecules such as lipids, and they can be grown on marginal land so do not compete with crop plants. The Algal Biotechnology Consortium – a collaboration between plant scientists and engineers in Cambridge - is working to address some of the challenges for implementation of algal biodiesel production, including understanding lipid metabolism, and algal community biology, as well as conducting life-cycle analysis for sustainability. We collaborate with industrial partners and end-users, including establishing pilot-scale operations. A novel biophotovoltaic device, in which electricity is generated directly by photosynthesis in algae and cyanobacteria, is also being developed.

Applying biological solutions to industrial processes has the potential to produce bulk and fine chemicals, again replacing dependence on fossil fuel. We are generating synthetic biology tools for manipulation of microalgae to facilitate this. Engineering design principles for plant systems has been pioneered in our Department, and we run an active and very successful iGEM team each year. We are an active partner in the InCrops Project, an industry-facing organization facilitating commercialisation of new biorenewable and low carbon products from alternative and non-food crops.

We are also involved in increasing both energy awareness and public understanding of the opportunities and challenges biotechnology and bioenergy provide.

Plants and the Environment

Agricultural and natural systems are greatly affected by many factors including anthropogenic climate change, nitrogen deposition and the spread of pests, pathogens and competitors. We are exploring how the carbon and nutrient cycles of tropical forests are affected by global change and whether biologically diverse systems are more resistant and resilient to change.  Relevant to the impact of disease we are developing mathematical model of plant-pathogen and plant-plant interactions to predict how diseases spread and ecological communities respond to global change. Taxonomical research underpins much of this work.

Human population growth and resource consumption are placing enormous pressures on natural ecosystems. We are developing approaches for monitoring the impacts of land-use change, fragmentation and invasion by non-native species on carbon stocks and biodiversity.  Our approaches are being used by Government Departments for conservation planning, and by land managers interested in habitat restoration. We are enthusiastic partners in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

We formed and co-ordinate the Cambridge Partnership for Plant Sciences (CPPS) to facilitate knowledge transfer and translation of fundamental plant science research towards end users. The CPPS includes local Industry and Research Institutes.

How we operate

Projects need to be discussed and agreed with the academic involved.

How to contact us

For a specific project, the academic most closely aligned to this work should be contacted. For general enquiries please contact our Departmental Administrator Liz Hewitt, using the e-mail link on the left

Cambridge University Plant Science Department
Downing Street

Contact name:
Catherine Butler
Position:Department Administrator
Tel:01223 333909
Fax:01223 333953

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