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Malcolm Bennett

Professor of Plant Sciences, Faculty of Science



The hidden half of plant biology has been an enduring interest throughout Malcolm's 20 year research career at Nottingham. His team has characterised many of the regulatory signals, genes and mechanisms that control root growth, development and adaptations to their soil environment. Highlights include identifying the first transport protein described in plants for the hormone auxin termed AUX1 which controls root angle (Bennett et al, 1996, Science); and elucidating how roots preferentially grow towards or branch towards water availability using hydrotropism (Dietrich et al, 2017, Nature Plants) and hydropatterning responses (Orosa-Puente et al, 2018, Science).

Over the past decade, Malcolm has 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). His 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).

To uncover new traits determining water and nutrient use efficiency in crops, Malcolm and colleagues in Biosciences, Maths, Engineering and Computer Sciences have pioneered efforts to non-invasively image roots in soil. They have created the Hounsfield Facility (, an unique X-ray based root imaging platform integrating robotics, microCT scanners and 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 signalling mechanism underpinning root compaction responses (Pandey et al, 2021, Science).

Links to the new paper in Science can be found below



Full text:

Malcolm has published over 200 research papers and review articles about root growth and development and is ranked in the top 1% most highly cited animal and plant biologists. His research activities have attracted several awards including a Royal Society Wolfson Research Fellowship (2013) and election as a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO; 2014) and Fellow of the Royal Society (2020).

Research Summary


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 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 traits such as angle, depth and density critically influences nutrient and water uptake efficiency. Despite this knowledge, the genes that regulate root architecture traits remain to be identified in crops.

Our Approach

Our team and collaborators are pursuing several in inter-disciplinary research approaches to identify genes controlling key root traits by:

  • Exploiting model plants like Arabidopsis and rice to pinpoint key root regulatory genes, signals and adaptive mechanisms. Projects include characterising root responses such as

- Gravitropism which controls the angle of roots and impacts a crops ability to forage for nutrients like phosphate (Band et al, 2012, PNAS; Huang et al, 2018, Nature Comms). Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC, Newton, Royal Society and ARPA-E for team members that include Rahul Bhosale (now an independent BBSRC Discovery Fellow), Bipin Pandey (research fellow) and Riccardo Fusi (PhD). Collaborators include Dabing Zhang (Shanghai) and Silvio Salvi (Bologne)

- Hydrotropism that enables roots to grow towards available water (Dietrich et al, 2017, Nature Plants). Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC and Saudi Government for team members that include Daniela Dietrich (recently appointed a Lecturer at University of Bristol) and Dalia Melebari (PhD). Collaborators include Eilon Shani (Tel Aviv) and Hideyuki Takahashi (Sendai)

- Lateral root branching which determines root density and nutrient foraging (Banda et al, 2019, TIPS; Trinh et al, 2019, PNAS; von Wangenheim et al, 2020, Nature Plants). Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC for PhD and research grants for team members Jason Banda (PhD) and Daniel von Wangenheim (Postdoc, now at an Imaging Company). Collaborators include Laurent Laplaze (Montpellier) and Joop Vermeer (Neufchatel)

- Xerobranching which blocks root branching when no longer in contact with water (Orman, Morris et al, 2018, Current Biology). Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC, Marie Curie and EMBO for team members that include Emily Morris (PhD; now at Oxford University) and Poonam Mehra (MC/EMBO fellow). Collaborators include Xavier Draye (UC Louvain) and Tom Beeckman (VIB Ghent).

- Hydropatterning that promotes root branching when in contact with moist soil (Bao et al, 2014, PNAS; Orosa-Puente, Leftley et al, 2018, Science). Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC for PhD and research grants for team members Nicky Leftley (PhD, now Postdoc), Emily Morris (PhD; now at Oxford University), Jason Banda (PhD) and Daniel von Wangenheim (Postdoc, now at an Imaging Company). Collaborators include Ari Sadanandom (Durham) and Jose Dinneny (Stanford).

- Root hair length which is critical for uptake of immobile nutrients like phosphate (Bhosale et al, 2018, Nature Comms; Giri et al, 2018, Nature Comms; Schoenaers et al, 2018, Current Biology). Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC, Newton and Royal Society for team members Rahul Bhosale (now an independent BBSRC Discovery Fellow), Bipin Pandey (research fellow) and Azad Kilic (PhD). Collaborators include Jitender Giri (NIPGR, Delhi) and Kris Vissenberg (Antwerp).

  • To uncover new root traits determining water and nutrient use efficiency in crops, our team and collaborators are pioneering efforts to phenotype roots. This includes

- Creating the Hounsfield Facility (, a unique X-ray based root-soil imaging platform integrating robotics, microCT scanners and analysis software. Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC, Wolfson, Royal Society, University of Nottingham and an ERC Advanced grant. Collaborators at Nottingham include Sacha Mooney and Craig Sturrock (Soil Scientists), Darren Wells (Biophysicist) and Tony Pridmore (Computer Scientist). Brian Atkinson has led efforts to create a publicly accessible repository of CT images entitled the 'The Hidden Half'

- Employing an innovative new anatomical phenotyping approach (developed by our US collaborator Jonathan Lynch) termed Laser Ablation Tomography (LAT). Research funding has been obtained from the BBSRC Large equipment initiative (ALERT17). Collaborators at Nottingham include Jon Atkinson and Darren Wells (Biophysicist), Tony Pridmore, Mike Pound and Andy French (Computer Scientists). International collaborators include Jonathan Lynch (Penn State) and Matthew Reynolds (CIMMYT, Mexico).

- Exploiting entirely new root phenotyping approaches developed as part of a $7M US Government funded ARPA-E ROOTS project. The DEEPER project aims to create an integrated platform of phenomic, genomic, and in silico technologies to generate maize lines with deeper roots. Research funding from ARPA-E supports team members Riccardo Fusi (PhD, gene discovery) and Eze Benson (PhD, deep learning) with Nottingham collaborators Anthony Bishopp, Sacha Mooney and Tony Pridmore.

- Translating tools (e.g. Transfer Learning), technologies (e.g. LAT) and knowledge (e.g. key regulatory genes) to optimise root traits in pearl millet, a key crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Research funding has been obtained from BBSRC, Newton, GCRF, Future Food Beacon and Royal Society for team members Rahul Bhosale (now an independent BBSRC Discovery Fellow), Jon Atkinson (Beacon Research Fellow), Awa Faye (Postdoc), Eze Benson and Dylan Jones (PhD). Collaborators include Darren Wells and Tony Pridmore (Nottingham), Ndjido Kane (ISRA, Senegal) and Laurent Laplaze (IRD, Montpellier).

Selected Publications

A picture of Jason Banda

Jason Banda, PhD Student:

How roots find water: revealing the genetic mechanism controlling lateral root hydropatterning

I am a fourth year BBSRC DTP funded PhD student working in the lab of Malcolm Bennett. My project focusses on investigating how root branching towards water is controlled. This adaptive response is called lateral root hydropatterning and is crucial for plants to forage the soil for available water sources. Our work led to the discovery that lateral root initiation and emergence are steered towards water (von Wangenheim et al., 2020). This adaptive response is regulated through post-translational modification of ARF7 by Small Ubiquitin-like Modifier (SUMO), which regulates the activity of ARF7 according to the environment (Orosa-Puente et al., 2018). We now focus on how SUMOylation or deSUMOylation of ARF7 is controlled by the external environment. This in order to gain further knowledge on the fundamental mechanism employed by plants and to translate this knowledge into crops to increase forage capabilities under drought conditions.

A picture of Riccardo Fusi

Riccardo Fusi, PhD Student

Going DEEPER: How genes regulating anatomical and architectural traits in cereals confer deeper rooting.

I'm a third year ARPA-E (USA) funded Ph.D. Student working in Malcolm Bennett's lab, collaborating with Penn State, Wisconsin, Georgia (USA) and Bologna University (IT) within the DEEPER project (Led by Jonathan Lynch, Penn State). DEEPER aims to develop more efficient crops with deeper roots to improve nutrient uptake and sequester carbon more efficiently. To address this, my colleague Rahul Bhosale and I identified several candidate root genes in maize then validated their roles by generating CrispR lines in maize and Brachypodium models. In parallel, I characterised the role of a barley gene ENHANCED GRAVITROPISM1 (HvEgt1) that, when mutated, confers a steeper angle in all classes of roots (Fusi, in preparation). My PhD findings will lead to new biology insights as well as the development of stress resilient, deeper rooting crop varieties.

A picture of Azad Kilic

Azad Kilic, PhD student

Characterisation of Tomato Root Development

I am a 4th year PhD student in Professor Malcolm J. Bennett's lab. My project is mainly focussing on how plant roots adapt their shape to optimise capture of water and key nutrients like phosphate (P). We are performing our studies on roots using tomato together with the model plant Arabidopsis. Roots employ adaptive mechanisms to forage for P in soil. Root hair elongation is especially important since P is immobile. Auxin has a significant role in promoting root hair growth in Arabidopsis (Bhosale et al., 2018) and rice (Giri et al., 2018) in response to low external P. We are currently characterising several novel genes and processes which enable roots to alter their branching pattern and root hair density, allowing crops to capture more resources.

A picture of Nicola Leftley

Nicky Leftley, Research Fellow

Divining Roots: uncovering how SUMO-mediated responses control developmental plasticity

I am a BBSRC postdoctoral Research Fellow working 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 posttranslational modification of the auxin response factor ARF7 (Orosa-Puente et al., 2018). 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.

A picture of Poonam Mehra

Poonam Mehra, Research Fellow

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

I have recently 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 SUMOylation/ubiquitination driven ABA and auxin signalling in regulating Xero-branching. I also anticipate to translate this knowledge in engineering crop plants, especially Setaria for improving soil foraging capacity. The project also benefits from the close collaboration with Prof. Ari Sadanandom's group (Durham University) who has pioneered the area of protein modification in plants.

A picture of Dalia Melebari

Dalia M. Melebari, PhD student

Characterising hydrotropic responses in model and crop plants

I am a second year PhD student funded by Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Cultural Bureau working in the lab of Malcolm Bennett. My project focusses 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.

A picture of Lucia Nevescanin

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 and Jonathan Lynch from Penn State University.

A picture of Bipin Pandey

Bipin Pandey, Research Fellow

Characterising root adaptive responses to abiotic stress

I am working as GCRF postdoctoral Research Fellow in Prof. Bennett's team. My main focus is to discover novel root adaptive responses and signals which provide greater access to nutrients and water in poor soils. For example, I co-discovered how the hormone auxin plays a key role in roots during low phosphate stress by promoting hair elongation (Bhosale, et al, 2018, Nature Comms; Giri et al, 2018, Nature Comms) and also uncovered a novel regulatory mechanism controlling root angle that enhances foraging for phosphate (Huang et al, 2018, Nature Comms.). I recently became interested in creating "climate smart crops" that are more nutrient use efficient and/or resistant to stresses such as soil compaction.

Recent ex-Lab Members (with new role and employer) include

  • Daniela Dietrich (Lecturer, University of Bristol)
  • Daniel von Wangenheim (Technology Specialist, 3i Imaging Company)
  • Emily Morris (Executive, Oxford Innovations)
  • Antoine Larrieu (Research Fellow, University of Leeds)
  • Rahul Bhosale (BBSRC Discovery Fellow, University of Nottingham)
  • Benjamin Peret (Group Leader and ERC New Investigator grant holder, INRA Montpellier)

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