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Plants for Food, Energy, Materials, Health and Eco-systems

Studying at Cambridge


How will YOUR research help the world?

Ana Bravo Cazar

Ana is studying plant viruses.  In particular, she is focusing on Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) and how it interacts with its plant host and an insect transmitter. CMV is found all over the world and can infect many different plants, including ones grown for food such as tomatoes, pepper, lettuce, and of course, cucumber. Therefore by studying this virus, Ana hopes to develop management strategies to contain the spread of the virus that can be used in the field to prevent the infection of crops.

Carol studies the interactions between cereal crops and fungi. Her work focuses on rice - some fungi form beneficial relationships with rice, providing the rice with nutrients from the soil, but other fungi are pathogens and cause disease in the field. By understanding how these relationships occur, Carol hopes to help farmers develop management strategies for rice to encourage beneficial interactions with fungi and minimise the spread of disease. Carol’s work will therefore help towards greater food security in the future.

Chiara's current project investigates the evolution of the MYB-bHLH-WD40 (MBW) transcriptional complex that regulates the specification of cellular identity and anthocyanin biosynthesis.  In collaboration with Sam Brockington she is using sequencing data from the 1KP project to analyse the evolution of the MYB, bHLH and WD40 protein families that form the MBW complex.  By comparing proteins, DNA sequences and functional data in land plants she aims to elucidate the evolution of this multimeric complex, assessing when and how it originated, and how novel functional roles have arisen through molecular evolution. Divya works on meiotic recombination. This is a process where during a special cell division, the genes of the two parents of an organism are shuffled and their offspring receives a mixture of these genes. This is the basis for genetic diversity, which is key to breeding new plant varieties with improved characteristics such as better disease resistance or greater yield. This work will therefore help breeders with crop improvement and contribute to food security in the future.
Gabriela studies the evolution of flower traits that are important for pollination. She is currently investigating how the texture of petals affects the ability of animal pollinators to reach the pollen and nectar in wild tobacco flowers. Understanding the molecular mechanisms behind petal texture could lead to the development of crops with petal textures that increase pollination. This work will therefore help breeders with crop improvement and contribute to food security in the future. James looks at agricultural pesticides that combat fungal infections in crops. Pesticides become less effective over time, which can lead to crop yield losses and less food to go around. This is particularly problematic in the face of an increasing global population, and so he develops mathematical models to predict the best ways of increasing the effectiveness of these pesticides. His models, which consider the evolution of the fungus and the farmer’s finances among other factors, could therefore help towards global food security in the future.
Jéssica’s work is centred on sugarcane in Brazil. One of her projects is looking at the sustainability of bioethanol production from sugarcane, with a focus on greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, bioethanol production from sugarcane releases huge amounts of nitrous oxide, which is much worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. From her work however Jéssica has learnt that altering fertiliser usage can affect nitrous oxide emissions. This information can be used to develop fertiliser management strategies for more sustainable bioethanol production. Matt researches algae, which are incredibly diverse but not well understood. Algae can be used for a number of different things such as for ‘bioenergy’, cleaning up contaminants in waste, removing carbon dioxide from the air and making healthy products like omega-3 and antioxidants. Matt’s work will help develop these areas further. Algae therefore could be the answer to problems like global warming and the future energy crisis – and also provide us a sustainable way to get the nutrients we need from our food. 
Moritz studies photosynthesis in microbial algae. Although their photosynthesis is very similar to that of land plants, they have an extra feature called a “carbon-concentrating mechanism”. This allows these algae to perform efficient photosynthesis when under water. Moritz hopes that by understanding this mechanism in algae, the knowledge can be used to inform bioengineering attempts to increase photosynthesis in land plants.  This could lead to greater crop yields and so contribute towards food security in the future. Ronelle studies the symbiotic relationship between arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM) fungi and rice. The fungus lives within the rice roots, providing the plant with important nutrients such as phosphates from the soil in exchange for carbon from the rice. This mutually beneficial relationship allows rice plants to grow better, leading to increased yields for farmers. As AM fungi form symbioses with a range of other important crops such as wheat and maize, Ronelle’s work on characterising the site of nutrient exchange will contribute towards greater food security in the future.

Ross’ works focuses on plant conservation. Plants provide us with many useful products and services, but their number and diversity have been affected by human activities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) produces a “Red List” of endangered species, and Ross is using this list to work out which botanic gardens around the world are growing these species. The work is being carried out in collaboration with Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), and Ross hopes that it will help with plant conservation programmes worldwide.

When two different parent plants are crossed, the ‘hybrid’ offspring plant can produce bigger and better fruits. Sara is researching the genetic mechanisms behind this effect in hybrid plants, as it can lead to greater crop yields. She hopes the knowledge gained can be included into crop breeding programmes to develop more productive crops. With the world population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, understanding and breeding these hybrid plants will be one step closer to ensuring global food security.

Steven researches C4 photosynthesis, which is similar to the ‘normal’ (C3) photosynthesis found in most plants that converts sunlight into sugars, only more efficient. Understanding the C4 process is crucial if we want to put it into C3 crops in order to increase yield. This would mean that food production could match an increasing global population and no extra land would have to be converted for agriculture - the same area of land currently used to grow crops would simply be producing more food. Therefore understanding C4 photosynthesis is crucial not only for global food security, but also for protecting the environment.

Thomas is passionate about using optical analytical tools to study the production and accumulation of bio-active compounds. To do this, he studies metabolic processes as they happen, using a non-destructive technique called Raman spectroscopy that provides more information about the processes than other methods allow. He aims to combine this information with other data obtained using similar approaches, which could lead to the development of new medicines, disease resistant crops, novel biologically-inspired materials and even new strains of yeast for more delicious beers!

Tommaso’s work centres around monitoring and restoring tropical forests in Malaysia. Tropical forests can capture a lot of carbon from the atmosphere, and so can reduce global warming if managed properly. Current monitoring methods however are expensive and time-consuming, so Tommaso and his colleagues are developing a remote-sensing system and plan to use drones to monitor forest recovery more efficiently and accurately. The information collected by the new system should help forest owners manage their forests better and lead to greater carbon capture as well as more biodiverse tropical forests.  Trisna researches how bean plants, viruses and aphids interact. Aphids are important insects that move viruses between plants, and viruses cause significant yield losses in bean crops in Africa. Trisna’s research therefore focuses on investigating how aphids respond to infected bean plants, which will help to understand how the virus spreads. In collaboration with various groups in the UK, Kenya and Uganda, this research aims to help African farmers develop management strategies to better protect their bean crops.