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‘Hidden Half’ plant biologist elected Fellow of Royal Society

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

A plant biologist from the University of Nottingham who is pioneering research to reveal how root systems work has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Professor Malcolm Bennett from the school of Biosciences is one of 62 exceptional scientists from around the world to have been elected to the prestigious Royal Society this year. The 51 new Fellows, 10 Foreign Members and one Honorary Fellow have been selected for their outstanding contributions to scientific understanding. 

Malcolm’s research focuses on the ‘hidden half of plants,’ exploring how roots grow, develop and adapt to their soil environment. Roots are critical for plants to acquire water and nutrients from the soil. Water is essential for plant growth, yet changing climatic conditions makes acquiring moisture from soil even more challenging. Plants are able to adapt to different soil moisture conditions by altering their root architecture and Malcolm’s research has revealed how they do this.

Malcolm’s research group has characterised many of the regulatory signals, genes and molecular mechanisms that control root growth and developmental responses. Highlights include identifying the first transport protein for the plant hormone auxin termed AUX1 which controls root angle, and explaining how roots preferentially grow and branch towards water using hydrotropic and hydropatterning responses.

Rooting for Global Food Security

Malcolm is also on the leadership team of the University of Nottingham’s Future Food Beacon that is looking for new, sustainable ways to feed the world. Malcolm’s team is translating knowledge about genes and signals regulating key root traits such as angle, depth and branching to re-engineer root architecture and improve crop yields.

To uncover new root traits determining water and nutrient use efficiency in crops, Malcolm and collaborators have pioneered efforts to non-invasively image roots in soil using X-ray based microCT by creating the Hounsfield Facility, a unique root phenotyping platform integrating robotics, CT scanners and image analysis software.

Malcolm’s research has attracted awards including a Wolfson Research Fellowship and election to EMBO, and is ranked in the most highly cited animal and plant biologists.

Professor Malcolm Bennett

Reacting to his new fellowship Malcom said: “I am delighted to receive this fellowship from the Royal Society. This award was based on a track record of research discoveries

that relied on the outstanding efforts of many researchers I have had the privilege to work with over the past 20 years. I am also grateful for the support of my colleagues in the School of Biosciences and across the Faculty of Science and University. Nottingham provides a fantastic scientific environment to perform world-leading research and this award provides clear evidence of this.”

This is a richly deserved accolade for Malcolm Bennett and underlines the importance of plant science research. Malcolm and his team are breaking new ground in understanding the biology of plant roots, using cutting-edge techniques and equipment to build new genetic knowledge. His research has huge potential to help tackle global food security issues, and we are very proud that he has been recognised for this excellent work with a Royal Society Fellowship.
Professor Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham

University of Nottingham chemist, Sir Martyn Poliakoff FRS, former Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, said “I am delighted that Malcolm’s outstanding research on plant roots has been recognised in this way.  It is gratifying to see how the excellence in plant sciences at our University is continuing to a new generation”.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said: “At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer. Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity.

While election to the Fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance. This year’s Fellows and Foreign Members have helped shape the 21st century through their work at the cutting-edge of fields from human genomics, to climate science and machine learning.

It gives me great pleasure to celebrate these achievements, and those yet to come, and welcome them into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

Professor Bennett will be formally admitted as a Fellow to the Royal Society at the Admissions Day ceremony which is delayed until May 2021, when he will sign the Charter Book and the Obligation of the Fellows of the Royal Society.  

Other fellows of the Royal Society from the University of Nottingham include the inventor of the brain tumour drug temozolomide, Malcolm Stevens, chemists Dave Garner, Gerry Pattenden, Tony Stace and Jim Turner, physicists Tom Foxon and Laurence Eaves, plant biologist Don Grierson and also Professors Bob Lloyd, Ted Cocking, and last year the first female scientist from the University of Nottingham Professor Liz Sockett. Also the late Bryan Clarke who made their research discoveries in departments which became part of the present School of Life Sciences.  

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