School of Biosciences

Image of Malcolm Bennett

Malcolm Bennett

Professor of Plant Sciences, Faculty of Science



The hidden half of plant biology has been an enduring interest throughout my 20 year research career at Nottingham. Our research team have characterised many of the regulatory signals, genes and mechanisms that control root growth, development and adaptations to their soil environment. Highlights include initially identifying the first plant auxin transport protein AUX1 which controls root angle (Bennett et al, 1996, Science) and more recently elucidating how roots grow or branch preferentially towards moisture using hydrotropism (Dietrich et al, 2017, Nature Plants), hydropatterning (Orosa-Puente et al, 2018, Science) and xerobranching responses (Mehra et al, 2022, Science).

Over the past two decades, I have embraced a systems biology approach to study root development, helping establish the BBSRC/EPSRC Centre for Plant Integrative Biology (CPIB) at Nottingham. Highlights include elucidating how hormones like auxin control root growth and branching (Band et al, 2012, PNAS; Swarup et al, 2008, Nature Cell Biology). Our team is currently translating knowledge about the genes and signals regulating key root traits such as angle, depth and branching to re-engineer root architecture in crops and improve sustainability and yields (Huang et al, 2018, Nature Comms; Pandey et al, 2021, Science).

To uncover new traits determining water and nutrient use efficiency in crops, colleagues in Biosciences, Maths, Engineering, Computer Sciences and I have pioneered efforts to non-invasively image roots in soil. We have created the Hounsfield Facility (, an unique X-ray based root phenotyping platform integrating robotics, microCT scanners and AI-basd image analysis software. Research highlights include imaging novel root adaptive responses in soil termed Xerobranching and Hydropatterning, where roots only branch when in contact with water (Orman et al, 2018, Current Biology; Bao et al, 2014, PNAS) and discovering the ethylene based gas diffusion mechanism controlling soil compaction responses (Pandey et al, 2021, Science).

I have published over 230 research papers and review articles about root growth and development and am ranked in the top 1% most highly cited animal and plant biologists. These research activities have attracted several awards including a Royal Society Wolfson Research Fellowship (2013 and Dundee Medal (2022), together with election as a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO; 2014) and Fellow of the Royal Society (2020).

Teaching Summary

Plant development

Plant evolution

Plant stem cells

Selected Publications

Poonam Mehra, EMBO and Marie-Curie Research Fellow

Xero-Branching: discovering how plant roots adapt to reduced water availability

I obtained EMBO Long-term and MSCA post-doctoral fellowships to work with Prof. Malcolm Bennett and his team at UoN. My project focusses on studying root branching adaptations in response to heterogenous distribution of soil moisture. I am specifically interested in uncovering molecular mechanisms behind a novel root adaptive response termed 'Xero-branching' (Orman-Ligeza et al., 2018, Current Biology). Xero-branching is characterized by complete suppression of root branching in an area of low water availability in soil (e.g. air-filled gap). My goal is to discover the possible role of ABA and auxin signalling in regulating Xero-branching and recently publisged this work in Science (Mehra et al, 2022).

Dalia M. Melebari, PhD student

Characterising root hydrotropic responses in model and crop plants

I am a final year PhD student funded by Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Cultural Bureau working in the lab of Malcolm Bennett. My project focuses on hydrotropism, an adaptive mechanism that enable roots to detect gradients of water in soil. The hormone signal ABA plays a key role as a central regulator of hydrotropism (Dietrich et al, 2017). I am developing a high throughput protocol to analyse this mechanism in the model plant Arabidopsis to identify new genes involved. In collaboration with Daniela Dietrich (Bristol) and Eilon Shani (Tel Aviv) I am screening for mutants in hormone transporters involved in hydrotropism employing a library of amiRNA lines designed to silence expression of between 2-5 closely related genes. In addition, I am also phenotyping the hydrotropic response in genetic populations in several cereal crops. This is important for uncovering genetic and phenotypic variation in crops for this water-related root adaptive response.

Jason Banda, Post-Doctoral Researcher,

BBSRC SUMOcode sLOLA Project:

SUMOcode is a collaborative, multi-displinary project across four institutions. It aims to improve crop resilience, future proofing them against ongoing climate instability and change, and catalyse new insights across plants and animals into the rules that govern an organisms responses to their environment. SUMOylation has been shown by our group and others that it is important for the way a cell responds to environmental stresses such as water availability (Orosa-Puente et al, 2018, Science). Discovering how SUMO transduces environmental signals into specific physiological responses will be key to understanding this new set of fundamental 'rules of life' that regulate processes ranging from development to disease resistance in an ever-changing environment.

Nicky Leftley, Root Groups Lab Manager

I am the lab manager of the Nottingham Root Groups and work in the lab of Malcolm Bennett. The main focus of my research is to address how SUMO-mediated environmental responses create plasticity within root systems. It is known that roots have the ability to distinguish between wet and dry micro environments in the soil and adapt the positioning of lateral roots accordingly. This novel adaptive response is referred to as hydropatterning and was the basis behind my PhD thesis - 'dissecting the molecular mechanism regulating lateral root hydropatterning'. Our work uncovered that this mechanism, for controlling root branching, involves the post-translational modification of the auxin response factor ARF7 (Orosa-Puente et al., 2018, Science). We now hope to go beyond ARF7 and unravel the SUMO mediated signal transduction pathway. This will help us to understand a major regulator of plant-environmental responses.

Bipin Pandey, BBSRC Discovery Fellow & Nottingham Research Fellow

Characterising root adaptive responses to soil compaction stress

Soil compaction represents a major challenge facing modern agriculture, reducing crop yields by <25%, and when combined with drought <75%, as roots struggle to penetrate hard soils, causing £ billions in losses annually. Efforts to mitigate the impacts of soil compaction include reducing tillage, controlled traffic farming (CTF) or sub-soil management. However, these approaches can be time consuming, costly to implement and ineffective for the deeper soil profile. Engineering crops to better withstand compacted soil environments offers a novel solution to improve crop growth in affected fields (Europe has 36-million-hectares of soil prone to compaction). This is now a realistic possibility after our recent discovery that roots can penetrate compacted soils after disrupting their sensitivity to the plant signal ethylene (Pandey et al. Science, 2021). The paper's findings was covered by a wide range of media (18 global news outlets; >2.7m twitter followers; and funding agencies including UKRI). My BBSRC and NRF fellowships focus on investigating how ethylene acts and identifying its downstream signals. Recent highlights include my first senior corresponding author paper (Huang et al, 2022, PNAS).

Riccardo Fusi, Post-Doctoral Researcher

BBSRC Research Project BreakTHRU

The BreakTHRU research project proposes to build on our recent findings (Pandey et al, 2022, Science) and improve wheat responses to compacted soil by modifying their ethylene response. This goal promises to be transformative in laying the foundation for new crop varieties with improved root traits. We plan to address this goal with an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Nottingham (UoN) and Lancaster (LU), Rothamsted (RRes) and ADAS, plus international collaborators

Lucia Nevescanin, PhD student

I am studying wheat root function under abiotic stress under the supervision of Malcolm Bennett. My project is a collaboration between University of Nottingham and The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and supported by the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) for its doctoral training program. I will be working with root structure-function traits of contrasting wheat genotypes using both state of the art precision tomography in controlled conditions (UoN) and field based phenotyping at Yaqui Valley in Mexico (CIMMYT) to determine what root characteristics are underlying plant performance under a range of environments including warmer and water deficit conditions. I will also be working with Francisco Pinto and Matthew Reynolds from CIMMYT, Darren Wells and Craig Sturrock from the University of Nottingham.

Examples of ex-Lab Members (with new role and employer) in a research related academic, governmental or commercial organisation includes

  • Leah Band (Professor, University of Nottingham)
  • Benjamin Peret (Group Leader and ERC New Investigator, INRA Montpellier)
  • Tatsuaki Goh (Assistant Professor, Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Japan)
  • Daniela Dietrich (Lecturer, University of Bristol)
  • Rahul Bhosale (Associate Professor, University of Nottingham)
  • Azad Kilic (Research Scientist, Bati Akdeniz Agricultural Research Institute, Turkey)
  • Richard Traini (BBSRC)
  • Daniel von Wangenheim (Technology Specialist, 3i Imaging Company)
  • Emily Morris (Executive, Oxford Innovations)
  • Antoine Larrieu (Research Group Leader, Empyrean, Cambridge Business Park)

Key UK and international Research Collaborators include

  • Eilon Shani (Tel Aviv)
  • Thorsten Hamann (Trondheim)
  • Christine Zeigler (Regensburg)
  • Valentin Couvreur (UC Louvain)
  • Tom Beeckmann (VIB Ghent)
  • Xavier Draye (UC Louvain)
  • Francois Chaumont (UC Louvain)
  • Philip Benfey (Duke University)
  • Dabing Zhang (Shanghai & Adelalde)
  • Kim Johnson (La Trobe, Australia)
  • Ari Sadanadom (Durham)
  • Ian Dodd (Lancaster)
  • Kathryn Lilley (Cambridge)
  • Andy Jones (Liverpool)
  • Matthew Reynolds (CIMMYT)
  • Laurent Laplaze (IRD Montpellier)
  • Alexis Grondin (IRD Montpellier)
  • Ndjido Kane (ISRA, Senegal)
  • Tom Bennett (Leeds)
  • Hannah Cooper (Rothamsted)
  • Steve Thomas (Rothamsted)
  • Amelia Henry (IRRI)
  • Bertrand Muller (INRAE, Montpellier)

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