Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Major international push to maximise bioscience research to help world’s poorest farmers

The Department has been awarded two grants from the BBSRC-led programme 'Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development' (SCPRID).

The aim of Julian Hibberd's grant "Wild rice MAGIC" (£1.4M) is to increase drought tolerance and tolerance to bacterial and viral infections in domesticated rice using naturally existing variation in wild rice species. MAGIC is shortened from Multi-Advanced Generation Inter-Crossing. The research team includes not only scientists in Julian's lab in the Plant Sciences Department, but also colleagues at NIAB, IRRI in the Philippines as well as partners in Coimbatore, India and Tanzania.

The aim of the project "Modelling and manipulation of plant-aphid interactions: A new avenue for sustainable disease management of an important crop in Africa" (led at Plant Sciences by John Carr, Chris Gilligan and David Baulcombe) is to understand how changes in plant biochemistry caused by virus infection alter the behaviour of aphids (insects that transmit viruses between plants) and to see how this knowledge could be used to better protect crop plants against these insects and the viruses they transmit. In this £2M project the main focus is on bean and its viruses and the work will be carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Rothamsted and in Kenya and Uganda. Post Doctoral Research Fellow job is available for this grant (closing date 30 January).

More information

Although bean varieties resistant to bean common mosaic virus exist, these plants die off if they became infected with another virus, called bean common mosaic necrotic virus that is widespread in Africa. The plant on the left is infected with bean common mosaic virus and the plant on the right is resistant to bean common mosaic virus but has become infected with bean common mosaic necrotic virus (Image credit: CIAT, Uganda).
Illus: Although bean varieties resistant to bean common mosaic virus exist, these plants die off if they became infected with another virus, called bean common mosaic necrotic virus that is widespread in Africa. The plant on the left is infected with bean common mosaic virus and the plant on the right is resistant to bean common mosaic virus but has become infected with bean common mosaic necrotic virus (Image credit: CIAT, Uganda).

Making plastics from algae

Alison Smith has attended the kick-off meeting of an EU FP7 network grant called "SPLASH – sustainable polymers from algae sugars and hydrocarbons". The project is between 20 different partners, will cost some €12m and the grant from the European Commission is almost €9m.

More information

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Labmash a smash hit

Plant Sciences played host to 28 secondary school students who live in care, as part of the University’s "Realise" project that encourages students to stay in 16+ education. Students took part in a shortened practical adapted from our first year undergraduate "Physiology of Organisms" course.

"Labmash; an introduction to enzyme induction" allowed students hands-on experience of extracting and assaying for nitrate reductase. It was great fun for staff and students alike.

Feedback comments included: "It's like CSI Miami!" "ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT! I loved it - I'm considering studying Biology for uni" and "Very interactive, friendly and well supported".

Thanks go to Barbara Landamore, teaching staff and volunteer post-grads.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Paper published in PNAS

A new paper published in PNAS this week provides evidence for chloroplast pyrenoid formation in the green alga Chlamydamonas. The pyrenoid, once thought to be a starch-storage granule, is now recognized to be the centre of a carbon concentrating mechanism which turbocharges photosynthesis.

Moritz Meyer, Maddie Mitchell and Howard Griffiths, in collaboration with colleagues in UNL Nebraska, have shown that modifications to the primary carboxylase, Rubisco, are responsible for pyrenoid formation. Specifically, it seems that two regions of the small subunit, the alpha helices, interact to allow Rubisco to aggregate into the pyrenoid, which also regulates CCM activity.

Read online

Monday, October 15, 2012

BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership Programme

The BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership Programme started on 1st October 2012. The programme, developed following an award of £5.6M from the BBSRC, will have at least 60 students over the next three years. The programme, which sits in the Graduate School of Life Sciences, involves a number of partners (Babraham Institute, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, European Bioinformatics Institute, National Institute for Agricultural Botany and the Animal Health Trust) as well as 15 Departments and Institutes in the Schools of Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Physical Sciences and Technology.

The Programme's Director, Professor Sir David Baulcombe, hosted a welcome dinner at St Catharine's College on 3rd October 2012.

Monday, September 17, 2012

David Baulcombe wins prize

David Baulcombe is the recipient of the 2012 Balzan Prize "For his fundamental contribution to the understanding of epigenetics and its role in cell and tissue development under normal and stressful conditions". The Prize will be presented during the award ceremony to be held in Rome on November 14.

Details of the Prize are at http://www.balzan.org/en/home.html

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Blowing in the wind: how hidden flower features are crucial for bees

New research reveals that velcro-like cells on plant petals play a crucial role in helping bees grip flowers.

Read the article

Katrina Alcorn, Heather Whitney and Beverley Glover (2012). 'Flower movement increases pollinator preference for flowers with better grip', doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2012.02009.x is published in Functional Ecology on Tuesday 29 May 2012.

Monday, May 14, 2012

First scholar on new Rwandan scholarship scheme

This term sees the arrival in Cambridge of Celestin Ukozehasi, who has been selected as the first recipient of the Rwanda Cambridge Scholarship. He will be studying for a PhD in Plant Sciences, and will be a member of Wolfson College.

More information...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Plant power, 19 May at the Botanic Garden

To kill and to cure, to make and to mend, to bewitch and beware, discover
The Power of Plants
as the Botanic Garden hosts first Fascination of Plants Day on
Saturday 19 May 2012

Plants have a unique talent: the ability to gather energy from the sun’s rays travelling through space to synthesise their own food. This is the foundation of all other life on earth, from the oxygen in our lungs to the medicines that keep us healthy. They’re also some of the most stunning organisms on the planet, and the most varied, adapted to every ecological niche across every continent.

On Saturday 19 May, plant scientists, biochemists, horticulturists and representatives from the plant science industries will gather at the Botanic Garden to share with visitors the power of plants for the first international Fascination of Plants Day. Demonstrations and activities will run from 10.30am: science experiments will include balloons inflated by gases released by fermenting plants, children can dress up as bees to collect nectar from giant flowers to learn about pollination and there’ll be quizzes to match the product to the plant. Plus the chance to test a laser remote sensing system – the latest tool in forest conservation.

The living world is a rich source of chemicals with many medicines, dyes, flavourings and foodstuffs having their origins in compounds produced by plants. Ampika Ltd, an ethical enterprise spinout of the University of Cambridge, will be bringing a display about medicinal plants, including a new anaesthetic gel derived from a plant found in the Peruvian rainforest, which is currently under trial as a pain-relief treatment for toothache. The Botanic Garden and Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre will also be launching a new Chemicals in Plants trail that identifies some of the poisonous, beneficial (and occasionally both!) chemicals produced by plants.

Launched under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation, the Fascination of Plants Day held at the Botanic Garden on 19 May will be a day of interactive plant fun and demos that will also highlight the critical role plant science plays in the social, environmental and economic landscape now and into the future. The event is co-organised by the Cambridge Partnership for Plant Science, a consortium that connects cutting-edge research undertaken in the region with the business community that develops plants for application in food, energy and other material uses.

More information

Monday, April 16, 2012

Plant genetics and opportunities in agriculture

David Baulcombe and Andrew Burgess discuss plant genetics and opportunities in agriculture in a Youtube video:

View the video

Seed size is controlled by maternally produced small RNAs, scientists find

Z. Jeff Chen, the D.J. Sibley Centennial Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics at The University of Texas at Austin and his colleagues, including David Baulcombe at the University of Cambridge, provide the first genetic evidence that seed development is controlled by maternally inherited "small interfering RNAs," or siRNAs.


Read the publication.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lighting up plant cells to engineer biology

Jim Haseloff's lab have developed a new technique for measuring and mapping gene and cell activity through fluorescence in living plant tissue.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

University Lectureship in the Department

David Baulcombe is pleased to announce that Dr Ian Henderson has accepted the offer of a University Lectureship in the Department and will take up the Lectureship duties when his Royal Society Fellowship finishes.

Visit Ian Henderson's web page.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Yoan Coudert won 3rd Prize in the University of Cambridge Research Image Competition

Branching moss.
Plant architecture diversification necessitated the evolution of branching mechanisms. The first land plants that appeared on earth about 450 million years ago were bryophyte‐like and had no branches but a single‐stemmed body. Mosses are the biggest group of extent bryophytes. The earliest branching plants were as tiny as mosses, exhibited a dichomomously branching stem but do not exist anymore except as fossils. The picture taken with a Nikon D80 camero and macro lens shows a natural variant of Bryum radiculosum with a branching shoot (left). Such variants represent a precious ressource to help us understanding how the switch from unbranched to branching growth happened several hundred millions years ago on earth. By reproducing artificially such developmental alterations in the lab, we aim at deciphering genetic alterations that have contributed to the earliest modifications of land plant architecture.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Professor B.A. Abeywickrema

We have been informed by Rohan H. Wickramasinghe of the passing away in May 2011 of Emeritus Professor B.A. Abeywickrema, who was a member of Clare College and earned
his Ph.D. from the Department of Botany in 1946. Professor Abeywickrema had
a distinguished career in the academic world in Sri Lanka and was much
respected by all who knew him.

Obituaries in The Island newspaper:
by Dr Rohan H. Wickramasinghe
by Dr U Pethiyagoda

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Neil Dalchau awarded 2011 Tansley Medal

The 2011 Tansley Medal has been awarded to Neil Dalchau from Microsoft Research, Cambridge. Neil has made important discoveries that provide invaluable insights into the regulation of the circadian clock in Arabidopsis thaliana using a combination of mathematical modeling and experimental intervention. Most revealing among these has been the demonstration that components of the circadian clock are sensitive to sucrose and that the GIGANTIA gene is essential for its perception (Dalchau et al., 2011).

Neil was a graduate student in the Signal Transduction Group with Dr Alex Webb.

Read more.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Three articles in Research Horizons magazine

Under the Microscope #5 – Daisy
In this video Dr Beverley Glover explains how a daisy is a collection of tiny flowers grouped together to make it look like a single big flower. Read more.

Flower power: how to get ahead in advertising
Some plants go to extraordinary lengths to attract pollinators. A unique collaboration between plant scientists and physicists is revealing the full extent of botanical advertising. Read more.

Canopy commerce: forest conservation and poverty alleviation
Innovative approaches for protecting the future of Sierra Leone's Gola Forest - globally important for its biodiversity and its carbon reserves - are being developed by a collaboration of conservation agencies and University of Cambridge researchers. Read more.

Pioneering patent granted

A new patent granted in the USA is based on work from the group of David Baulcombe. It describes the use of short RNA molecules to silence gene expression in plants and animals and has potential application in biomedical and agricultural biotechnology.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Doug Bailey

I’m sorry to have to tell you that Doug Bailey died peacefully at his home on Monday (16th Jan) after a long battle with cancer. Doug was a Director of Research at INRA and was seconded as an INRA Visiting Fellow to work in the Department in the Epidemiology & Modelling Group.

Those who knew Doug well will remember him as a kind and generous colleague. He was an accomplished researcher with a remarkable ability to communicate the excitement and value of epidemiological research to experimenters, theoreticians, farmers and regulators. Others in the Department may not know much about Doug’s background and his contributions to research and I add an all too brief summary below. We shall miss him dearly.

Doug began his career in the University as a technical assistant in my group in the Dept of Applied Biology, transferring to Botany/Plant Sciences in 1989. He had previously worked at the Plant Breeding Institute and before that as a tractor driver for Pemberton Farms. Doug was an accomplished and much sought-after footballer with opportunities to play for major clubs but he decided instead to concentrate on a career in science, reading for a part-time degree at Anglia, from which he graduated with a first. This was followed by a part-time PhD with the Open University while continuing to work in the Epidemiology Group. Doug then completed several successful postdoc positions with us before being head-hunted by INRA to establish epidemiological programmes first on vine diseases in Bordeaux and then on soil-borne diseases in Rennes.

Doug was a remarkable experimenter with the rare gift of understanding how to interface experimentation with mathematical models in order to gain insight into the mechanisms of how diseases spread and to test that insight rigorously in both microcosms and in extensive field experiments. Doug produced seminal work on the roles of primary and secondary infection in the spread of disease. He pioneered research on disease-induced host growth, in which he showed how low levels of infection stimulate plants to over-compensate for infection by producing more leaves or roots that act as ‘stepping-stones’ to favour disease spread. He also carried out a series of elegant experiments on scaling from individual to population behaviour in epidemics. These experiments led to the first successful experimental test of percolation theory to predict disease invasion. Doug’s microcosm experiments in which he could study not only epidemiological mechanisms but the variability amongst replicate epidemics also led to new insights into how to improve the effectiveness of biological control of soil-borne pathogens by exploiting knowledge of the mechanisms and potential for variability. Doug’s research on primary and secondary infection in take-all of wheat was adopted by the Home Grown Cereals to explain the much–studied phenomenon of take-all decline in cereals, with related work impacting on sugar-beet diseases.

Doug’s work, matched with his enthusiasm and ever-friendly and helpful support, have endeared him to many and left a lasting legacy in laboratories here and in France and amongst many colleagues around the world.

Chris Gilligan

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

BBC Horizon covers Cambridge iGEM2012

Adam Rutherford meets the Cambridge iGEM2011 team, and Cat McMurran describes the use of squid reflectins as a biological source of iridescence. The iGEM team built reflectin biobricks for expression of the protein and production of iridescent films that response dynamically to changes in hydration. A video clip of the interview can be found here at the BBC website. The full programme is broadcast on Feb 17th at 9:30pm on BBC2, or can be played back on the BBC iPlayer. More information about the iGEM competition at the University of Cambridge can be found at: http://www.synbio.org.uk/cambridge/cambridge-igem-teams.html.

iGEM2011 wiki - iGEM2011 team wiki for Cambridge - Engineering iridescence.

iGEM2011 overview - Summary of iGEM2011 team and their research efforts.