Royal Society recognises research into the 'hidden half' of plants

30 Aug 2013 16:47:56.777
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As Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Plant Integrative Biology (CPIB) Professor Malcolm Bennett has helped revolutionise the way bioscientists think and work.

His quest to answer some of the world’s most important plant and crop science questions has now been recognised by the Royal Society with a prestigious Wolfson Research Merit Award – a scheme set up to provide universities with additional support to enable them to recruit and retain respected scientists of outstanding achievement and potential to the UK.

Professor Bennett, is one of 25 new Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award holders. The award will support his research into the ‘hidden half’ of plants and help develop a new generation of crops with improved root architecture to help meet the challenge of global food security.

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Professor Bennett said: “This award provides recognition for the ground-breaking work of our team to re-engineer root systems and create new, improved and more sustainable varieties of crops.”

Getting to the root of plant science

Food security represents a pressing global issue. Crop production has to double by 2050 to keep pace with global population growth. This target is even more challenging given the impact of climate change on water availability and the drive to reduce fertilizer inputs to make agriculture become more environmentally sustainable. In both cases, developing crops with improved water and nutrient uptake efficiency would provide a solution. Root architecture critically influences nutrient and water uptake efficiency.

Over the last six years the interdisciplinary multi-school team at CPIB has developed world renowned expertise in systems biology, using mathematics and computer science to build predictive models of the complex interactions that take place in the roots of plants at every scale - from cell to the field.

Experts from the Schools of Biosciences, Maths, Computer Science and Engineering have been brought together to study everything about plant roots at every scale, from individual molecules to cells to whole root systems in the field. By combining theory, computer modelling and real life experiments the team at CPIB aim to discover how plants grow and develop.

Re-engineering root systems

The award recognises Professor Bennett’s expertise in studying the regulation of root growth and development. Many of the genes and signals that regulate key root traits such as angle, depth and branching density have been identified in either his or collaborators labs using a model plant called Arabidopsis thaliana.

Professor Bennett is part of a worldwide effort to develop new varieties of crops. He aims to translate his knowledge of key root genes to re-engineer important traits and optimise yields in crops relevant to Europe (wheat), Asia (rice) and Africa (pearl millet) with international collaborators. In the long term, combinations of root traits and novel genes are likely to be required to underpin food security.

Promising results

The new award is focused on learning more about root growth and development with the aim of informing the design of new crop varieties that may transform many aspects of agriculture over the next 10-20 years.

Professor Bennett explained: “To better understand exactly which combination of root traits and genes determine water and nutrient use efficiency in crops, our team is building on recent major investment at Nottingham by the University, the Wolfson Foundation, UK and European research councils. This investment has enabled us to non-invasively visualise crop roots grown in soil employing an unique combination of robotics, X-ray imaging and computer vision software.”

Officially opened in 2007, CPIB is funded by the Systems Biology joint initiative by BBSRC and EPSRC. The centre is one of six across the country sharing funding of £80m.

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More information is available from Professor Malcolm Bennett on +44 (0)115 951 3255, or Susannah Lydon on +44 (0) 115 951 6289,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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