£1m research accolade for plant biologist

20 Jul 2009 09:00:00.000

PA 198/09

A University of Nottingham plant biologist has won a highly prestigious £1 million research fellowship to help tackle one of the biggest challenges facing the planet… to provide an increasingly sustainable food supply for the world’s growing population.


Professor Malcolm Bennett from the University’s Division of Plant and Crop Sciences, and Biology Director for the Centre for Plant Integrative Biology, has been awarded the Professorial Fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The Fellowship, which runs for five years, allows internationally renowned researchers to concentrate exclusively on conducting world-class research to tackle serious scientific questions.


Professor Bennett’s research will concentrate on the architecture of plant roots which critically influences how crops absorb nutrients and water. The eventual aim is to breed eco-friendly agricultural crops which can thrive in both the developed and developing worlds. He said: “I am thrilled to receive this award which will allow us to press ahead with this original and urgent research. Improving the root architecture of cereal crops will enable us to increase crop yields in a sustainable manner, and so help to address the global challenge of food security.”

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Food security is not a new challenge. It was a major problem in the middle of the last century when food production failed to keep pace with population growth. In this case, plant breeders were able to develop new high-yielding dwarf varieties of rice and wheat which responded to high inputs of fertilisers. This so-called ‘Green Revolution’ delivered 50 years of food security, but now western societies are increasingly demanding more environmentally sustainable agriculture, using less fertiliser. In the developing world, farmers have little access to fertilisers and need crops that can grow in infertile soils. In both cases, developing crops with improved nutrient use efficiency would provide the solution.


Root architecture critically influences the efficiency of a plant to take up nutrients and water. The depths to which roots grow affects how efficiently they take up nitrogen and water from the soil, since nitrate leaches deep into the ground. In contrast, phosphates accumulate nearer the surface, and the efficiency of their uptake could be significantly improved by manipulating the angle of root growth to better explore the top soil.


The BBSRC Professorial Fellowship research aims first to identify the genes that regulate root architecture in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, then use this information to manipulate equivalent genes in cereals, with the ultimate goal of altering their root architecture and improving nutrient take-up. The ambitious programme of research relies on a new X-ray based technique called Micro-CT which reveals in great detail the 3D arrangement of living roots in soil. The scientists will use the Micro-CT technique to identify Arabidopsis mutants (which lack a specific gene) with an altered arrangement of roots. This will allow them to pinpoint exactly which genes regulate root architecture.


Identifying equivalent genes in cereal crops is relatively straightforward since barley and rice are distantly related to Arabidopsis. Professor Bennett and his team will then use advanced genetic techniques to inactivate these barley and rice genes and then examine the effect this has on root architecture and nutrient use. Promising rice and barley lines will be made available to professional breeders at the International Rice Research Institute and Scottish Crop Research Institute with the ultimate aim of incorporating their modified root traits into elite crop varieties.


Professor Bennett’s Fellowship is one of 16 awards announced today by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, said: "The UK is already a world leader in biosciences research. These fellowships from BBSRC will help us maintain our lead and give some of our most outstanding bioscientists an extra boost. It is vital that we nurture scientists throughout their careers, as they will be essential to helping us tackle the major challenges we face."


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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.


More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.


The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.


Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.




The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.


The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.


For more information see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk


More University of Nottingham news: http://communications/nottingham.ac.uk/

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Susannah Lydon, Outreach Officer in the Centre for Plant Integrative Biology +44(0)115 951 6289, susannah.lydon@nottingham.ac.uk

Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager

Email: emma.rayner@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 74 84413  Location: University Park

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