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MSc in Biological Sciences Research

Male biochemistry

What is the MSc in Biological Sciences Research?

This is a one-year Masters by research programme beginning in September every year. Students with a good first degree in Biochemistry, Biology or related disciplines are offered the opportunity to develop their research skills (producing and critically evaluating novel data, use of advanced bioinformatics tools and presentation skills).

The Research Project

Candidates should select their projects prior to application from one of the three major research areas within the School: Biomedical Sciences (BMS), Plant Molecular Sciences (PMS), and Ecology,Evolution and Behaviour (EEB).

Students accepted on the program will be trained and supervised by one of our Academic researchers on a single research project (usually selected by the student). Students will have hands on experience and will be trained in a wide range of advanced research methods .

This supervised project runs for approximately eight months and offers students the opportunity to:

  • Work closely with a leading scientist in their chosen scientific subject
  • Develop practical research skills in the lab or field at the highest level
  • Become independent researchers,
  • Learn to generate and critically analyse novel scientific data and
  • Obtain experience working as part of a research team

Teaching and Learning Objectives

Although this is a research degree, a complementary and inventive taught component will provide training in transferable skills and will be delivered throughout the first two terms. As part of this, there is a requirement to complete coursework, prepare and present your research to a School audience by means of a poster, designing of a web page as well as a 20 minute oral presentation in the summer term.

All elements of the programme must be passed in order to be able to submit the final project report for assessment in the summer. 

Students receive regular, scheduled, feedback on their performance in taught modules, their project plan, literature review/draft introduction (autumn term), draft materials and methods write up (spring term), preparatory oral presentation (spring term); assessed oral presentation (summer term); and draft project write up (summer term).

Award

As with most research degrees, the final write up will be assessed internally and externally at the end of the summer with the final award of a Masters by Research degree in the following autumn term

If you wish to discuss the MSc informally, please contact the MSc Programme Director Dr Pavlos Alifragis (01784 444988). 

Biomedical Science projects and supervisors

Applicants will be expected to have experience and evident knowledge of molecular cell biology, biochemistry.

Dr Pavlos Alifragis

Investigating pre-synaptic defects induced by Aβ

This study aims to investigate how Aβ affects neurotransmitter release. We have previously shown that the well documented effects of Aβ at the post-synaptic activity have a pre-synaptic component as well. The successful candidate will use a range of techniques (ranging from microscopy to biochemistry) to analyse phosphorylation defects in candidate pre-synaptic proteins in the presence of Aβ. Furthermore, potential drugs will be used to identify if these effects can be weakened.

Investigation of candidate ubiquitin ligases regulating the activity dependent degradation of NMDA receptors

It is of paramount importance to analyse the molecular mechanisms regulating the activity of NMDA receptors. NMDA receptors are essential for many physiological processes and their deregulation is the underlying cause of an ever increasing list of neurological disorders. We have shown that Slap, an adaptor protein is involved in a mechanism that regulates the degradation of NMDAR’s. The successful candidate will investigate if a ubiquitin ligase we have isolated is the missing link between Slap and the degradation of NMDAR’s using a variety of techniques (Molecular biology, biochemistry).

Research page - Dr Alifragis 

Dr Jon Beauchamp

Investigation of the role of Notch signalling in regulating adult skeletal muscle stem cell behaviour

Adult skeletal muscle regeneration requires a population of tissue-specific stem cells, termed satellite cells. Normally dormant, satellite cells become activated, proliferate and eventually differentiate to replace, repair or augment functional muscle fibres. In many developing and adult tissues, cell behaviour and fate decisions are known to be regulated by the Notch signalling pathway and in skeletal muscle. Notch1 activity is known to promote proliferation of progenitors prior to differentiation. However, Notch1 is one of a family of four mammalian Notch receptors, each of which can interact with any of five different ligands resulting in different behavioural outcomes depending on receptor-ligand combination(s), cellular context and expression of regulators such as Numb. The aim of this project is to investigate the role of Notch signalling, in particular through Notch2 and Notch3, in the regulation of stem and progenitor cell behaviour during the various phases of skeletal muscle regeneration.

Investigation of adult skeletal muscle stem cell self-renewal

The growth, repair and regeneration of adult skeletal muscle involve the activation of dormant tissue-specific stem cells (satellite cells) that proliferate and then differentiate to become post-mitotic myonuclei within functional muscle fibres. However, in order to maintain regenerative capacity throughout adult life, it is essential that the satellite cell pool is replenished. This is thought to occur through a process of self-renewal during which a minority of activated, proliferating progenitor cells withdraw from the differentiation pathway and return to a state of undifferentiated idleness, thereby repopulating the stem cell pool to meet future demands. Why some precursors re-acquire stem cell status whilst the majority undergo terminal differentiation within the same regenerating environment, is unknown. The adoption of alternate fates can be observed in vitro as once differentiated, skeletal muscle cell cultures contain a minority of undifferentiated, passive cells (reserve cells) that share many characteristics of satellite cells, including the capacity for reactivation. The aim of this project is to use this system to investigate the mechanisms that control cell fate decisions during skeletal muscle differentiation as a model of satellite cell self-renewal during regeneration. 

Research page - Dr Beauchamp 

Dr Philip Chen

Pharmacology of glycine-site agonists at NMDA receptors

This project will characterise a number of novel agonists at NMDA receptors using molecular biology and recording glutamate evoked inward currents from oocytes injected with mutant NMDARs under two-electrode voltage clamp configuration. The project will involve molecular techniques such as subcloning, site-directed mutagenesis, PCR and in vitro cRNA synthesis, injection of cRNA into Xenopus oocytes and two-electrode voltage clamp electrophysiology.

Examining the consequences of altered RNA editing on neuronal function

RNA editing is a process by which specific nucleotides are modified following gene transcription and disruptions in these processes have been linked to certain neurodegenerative conditions.  We have developed a number of genetic tools to manipulate RNA editing and would like to explore their consequences on cell function. This project would involve mammalian tissue culture, RNA extraction, cell transfection and RT-PCR.

Research page - Dr Chen  

Professor Simon Cutting

Mucosal vaccines

Work consists of innovative bacterial delivery systems for mucosal vaccination (i.e. against malaria or TB). Due to the dynamics of our projects, they are ongoing and subject to change on a regular basis and cannot be specified in advance. 

Research pages - Professor Cutting

Professor George Dickson

Genetic Therapy for Muscular Dystrophy (I): Genetic Engineering, Optimisation and Production of Gene Therapy Vectors

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), the most common inherited lethal childhood disease is caused in the majority of families by gene mutations leading to premature truncation of the large cytoskeletal protein, dystrophin. Gene therapy with recombinant cDNA-based mini/micro genes and vectors based on the human parvovirus, adeno-associated virus(AAV), has been demonstrated. In this project AAV vectors encoding optimised dystrophin micro-genes will be developed and tested in animal models. Biotechnologies involved include recombinant DNA engineering, viral vector production, and immunological analyses.

Genetic Therapy for Muscular Dystrophy (II): RNA Interference (RNAi)-Mediated Therapies

Oculo-Pharyngeal Muscular Dystrophy (OPMD) is a rare autosomal dominant inherited muscular dystrophy caused by a triplet-repeat expansion mutations in the poly-A binding protein (PABPN1) gene. The mutant gene encodes a product with pathogenic activities, and there is no current treatment for OPMD, but inhibition of expression of PABP1 provides a potential therapeutic approach. The aim of the project will be to evaluate shRNA to PABPN1 transcripts and evaluate the mouse OPMD model. Biotechnologies involved include recombinant DNA engineering, viral vector production, and immunological analyses.

Research pages - Professor George Dickson

Dr James McEvoy

Bacterial biofilms on orthopaedic pins

Bacterial biofilms are a common cause of infection in surgical implants, and pin tract infection is the major complication of external fixation of fractures. This microbiological project, run in collaboration with Dr Shobana Dissanayeke (Royal Holloway) and Mr Arshad Khaleel (St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey), will characterise and study bacterial biofilms that have been obtained from percutaneous pins used in orthopaedic fixation frames. Having identified the principal infecting organisms on such pins, you will measure the effectiveness of different antimicrobial treatments (e.g. antibiotics) using a realistic in vitro models of these biofilms. Our long-term objective is to inform surgical practice and reduce pin tract infection rates.

Electrochemical detection of antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is a significant and growing public-health threat. To meet this threat, cheap and accurate analytical methods are required to measure environmental antibiotic concentrations and bacterial β-lactamase activities. In this project you will work towards the design of an amperometric / coulometric sensor for antibiotics, comparing the direct detection of a redox-active antibiotic with a more selective, biosensor approach. 

Research pages - Dr McEvoy  

Dr Jenny Murdoch

Understanding the molecular and cellular function of proteins involved in developmental neurobiology

Formation of the nervous system is a fundamental part of normal embryonic development. Our lab has identified a number of genes that are critical for normal development of the nervous system. When disrupted, these genes cause defects of neural tube closure, and of neural tube patterning. The molecular function of the genes is partly understood, but many questions remain. The aim of the project will be to contribute towards the understanding of the molecular and cellular function of a specific protein. As an MSc student, you are likely to use a range of molecular techniques, as well as cell biology approaches. Precise details will depend on the exact status of current research at the time of beginning the MSc project.

Investigating the interactions of proteins involved in developmental neurobiology

Our lab is focused on understanding the molecular and cellular processes involved in the development of the mammalian nervous system. We have identified several genes that are important for normal nervous system development, but we have only a partial understanding of their molecular function. One way to investigate molecular function is by identifying interacting proteins. The aim of the project will be to contribute towards the clarity of the function of a specific protein, by elaborating on the protein interactions. You are likely to use a wide range of molecular techniques, as well as mammalian cell culture. Precise details will depend on the exact status of current research at the time of beginning the MSc project.

Research pages - Dr Murdoch

Dr Linda Popplewell

Optimisation of antisense oligonucleotide-induced exon skipping as a therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a severe muscle-wasting disease due to a lack of dystrophin protein, is caused by mutations in the DMD gene. Antisense oligonucleotides (AOs) can be used to restore the transcript reading frame so that truncated but functional dystrophin protein is expressed. Clinical trials show that such a therapy appears to halt the progression of the disease. The aim of this project would be to enhance the levels of exon skipping seen using alternative AO delivery methods, and modulators of gene expression so that therapeutic benefit is enhanced.

Upregulation of utrophin expression as a therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a severe muscle-wasting disease due to a lack of dystrophin protein, is caused by mutations in the DMD gene. Utrophin is a structural homolog of dystrophin protein and can act as its substitute at the sarcolemma. Upregulation of utrophin expression has been achieved using small molecule interaction with its promoter. While good results are evident in animal models, effects appear to be limited in clinical trial. The aim of this project would be to examine alternative strategies to upregulate utrophin expression using the CRISPR system together with transcriptional activators.

Research pages - Dr Popplewell

Professor Pankaj Sharma

Epidemiology of global stroke in South Asians

You will be based in a group headed by a clinical academic.

Stroke is the third commonest cause of death in the UK. WHO estimates that by 2050 around 80% of all stroke will be in India and China. Our group has amassed the largest database of South Asian stroke in the world. We have data from UK, India and the Middle East.

It is expected that these projects will lead to publications in major international peer review journals.

This project will allow students to analyse this extensive database to search for interactions between stroke and established risk factors

Risk factors in South Asian stroke

You will be based in a group headed by a clinical academic.

Stroke is the third commonest cause of death in the UK. WHO estimates that by 2050 around 80% of all stroke will be in India and China. Our group has amassed the largest database of South Asian stroke in the world. We have data from UK, India and the Middle East.

It is expected that these projects will lead to publications in major international peer review journals.

This project will allow students to analyse this extensive database to search for novel risk factors in South Asians and compare and contrast such factors with stroke in Caucasians.

Designing a new strategy for ‘five-a-day’ intake

You will be based in a group headed by a clinical academic and be supervised by two clinicians.

 The 5-a-day campaign was launched by the UK Government to ensure that the population eats at least five fruit and vegetables per day. Research suggests that those that do this have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

However, the evidence is that most people do not remember how many of their 5-a-day they have eaten. We propose to develop a new colour based flag strategy for each meal to replace the 5-a-day slogan.

This work potentially has large and important clinical and public health implications.

Research pages - Professor Sharma

Dr Mikhail Soloviev

Biomarkers of metabolic disorders for screening at risk patients and early detection and prevention of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease

The metabolic syndrome (MS) comprises obesity and a cluster of metabolic disorders associated with insulin resistance and inflammation which predisposes the individuals to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). Physical inactivity, high-caloric intake, smoking and heavy alcohol consumption, which are all preventable and reversible, fuel the development of MS, affecting 20-25% of Western populations. However, MS is even more prevalent (35-40%) among individuals with spinal cord injuries and cancer survivors, leading to increased risk of developing CVD and type 2 diabetes in these individuals.

This project aims to predict and test blood and urine biomarkers for the early detection of metabolic disorders in at risk patients to allow intervention and prevention of CVD. Selected markers will be tested using a range of affinity based assays (lateral flow, ELISA, microarrays, HPLC) for which training will be provided. Strong candidates with the interest in medical sciences with an aspiration in taking the project further to clinical application in preventative health and disease should email both supervisors with their CV and a short description of their research interests in advance of making formal application.

Supervisors: Dr Thang S Han (Institute of Cardiovascular Research) and Dr Mikhail Soloviev, Royal Holloway University of London

The aetiology of thrombosis in cancer survivors: biomarkers for screening and identifying at risk patients

Blood clotting is a natural process which helps our bodies to repair injuries to blood vessels. Normal thrombogenesis is an important part of haemostasis. Disorders in coagulation system may lead to obstruction of blood flow through the blood vessels, ischemia and irreversible damage of the affected tissues. The association of cancer, particularly haematological type, with increased risk of thrombosis has been well documented. A number of biomarkers have been associated with the increased risk of thrombosis in cancer patients. However, the aetiology/pathophysiology of thrombosis in cancer survivors remains unexplained.

This project aims to predict and test blood and urine biomarkers for screening at risk patients to allow intervention and prevention of thrombosis. Selected markers will be tested using a range of affinity based assays (lateral flow, ELISA, microarrays, HPLC) for which training will be provided. Strong candidates with the interest in medical sciences with an aspiration in taking the project further to clinical application in preventative health and disease should email both supervisors with their CV and a short description of their research interests in advance of making formal application.

Supervisors: Dr Thang S Han (Institute of Cardiovascular Research) and Dr Mikhail Soloviev, Royal Holloway University of London

Research Pages - Dr Thang

Research pages - Dr Soloviev 

ClearGold: immunochromatographic assays for minimally invasive early detection and stratification of breast cancers.

This project aims to address one of the critical research gaps in the prevention, detection and treatment of breast cancer and will aids the development of screening approaches. The key objectives are to test the predicted molecular markers for their suitability for minimally invasive early detection and stratification of breast cancers, and to devise immunoassays for their detection. We aim to develop multiplex affinity assays for serum profiling and simpler lateral flow immunochromatographic assays, akin Clearblue pregnancy tests, for Point-of-Care (PoC) urine analyses. New assays will allow mass screening, improve the time to diagnosis, improve clinical management, will lead to better health outcomes and should help to reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer (currently 12,000 each year).

Antibodies generated against selected novel markers will be tested using a range of affinity based assays (lateral flow, ELISA, microarrays, HPLC) for which training will be provided. Strong candidates with the interest in biomedical and analytical sciences with an aspiration in taking the project further to clinical application in preventative health and disease should email supervisor with their CV and a short description of their research interests in advance of making formal application. 
Supervisor: Dr Mikhail Soloviev, Royal Holloway University of London

Research pages - Dr Soloviev 

Experimental flow model of arterial thrombosis

Blood clotting is a natural process which helps our bodies to repair injuries to blood vessels. Normal process of thrombogenesis is an important part of haemostasis. However, disorders in the coagulation system may lead to abnormal formation of clots, resulting in obstruction of blood flow through blood vessels, causing ischemia and irreversible damage to affected tissues. Arterial thrombosis is the main underlying pathology in such ischaemic events and a major contributor to deaths caused by ischemic strokes, myocardial infarction and pulmonary embolism. This project aims to set up and test an experimental flow model of an artery to mimic anatomical conditions and physiological blood flow rates (1-10 ml/s) and flow velocities (up to ~ 100 cm/s). The flow model will employ a range of real-time spectrometric, flow and pressure sensors. The system will be used to model arterial thrombosis and to study the kinetics of clot lysis and re-canalisation.

Strong candidates with background in biophysics, analytical sciences, instrumental analyses and the interest in biomedical engineering and cardiovascular biology are invited to email supervisors with their CV and a short description of their research interests in advance of making formal application. 

Supervisors: Dr Mikhail Soloviev, Royal Holloway University of London

Mr. Abdullah Jibawi, Ashford and St Peter's Hospital

Dr Jorge Tovar

In vitro study of the cell-cell interactions between Aspergillus fumigatus and Bdellovibrio relevant to cystic fibrosis patients.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder caused due to mutations in CFTR gene. The gene is important for the regulation of epithelial fluid transport in the exocrine glands, situated largely in respiratory and alimentary systems. The lung of CF patients is increasingly found co-infected with fungal and bacterial pathogens (deDios et al, 2017; Middleton et al, 2013). Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa are the most common bacteria found in the CF lung. Aspergillus spp., Candida spp., Scedosporium spp., and Exophiala spp. are the most frequently detected fungi (Williams et al, 2016), with a reported 10-57% prevalence for A. fumigatus (deVvrankijker et al, 2017). 

Recently published research identified the presence of two predatory bacteria in CF lung microbiota, Bdellovibrio and Vampirovibrio. They limit CF pathogens by feeding on them (deDios et al, 2017). Interestingly, their predatory effect on fungi has not been investigated. This project will aim to understand the interaction between A. fumigatus and Bdellovibrio at the cellular level and will provide training in microbiology and advanced microscopy skills (brightfield and confocal). If Bdellovibrio can exert fungicidal or static effects it could potentially be used to treat CF patients and other manifestations of aspergillosis

Developing novel platforms for the molecular diagnosis of fungal infections 

Human fungal infections represent one of the most pressing health problems in recent years. Endemic infections affect healthy immunocompetent individuals causing a range of diseases which generally resolve with chemotherapy but hospital-acquired nosocomial infections pose a serious threat to immunocompromised patients in hospital wards and intensive care units worldwide. Despite the availability of chemotherapy nosocomial infections frequently result in high mortality rates, often exceeding 50%. The development of timely and more efficient molecular diagnostic methods, along with the development of new drugs and anti-fungal vaccines, was recently identified as one of the most pressing needs in medical mycology research. 

We are interested in developing and implementing simple nucleic acids diagnostic tests for a range of fungal infections, including both endemic and opportunistic. Using fungal genome data mining and isothermal DNA amplification this project will use Candida – the causative agent of endemic and nosocomial candidosis – to develop simple diagnostic tools that are both amenable to automation and applicable at the point of care.

Research pages: Dr Tovar

Dr Chris Wilkinson

Centrosomes and melanoma

Centrosome aberrations are a hallmark of cancer. Excessive centrosome numbers are thought to drive carcinogenesis by contributing to aneuploidy and chromosomal instability. However, much remains to be understood about the origin and the contribution of excessive centrosomes in tumorigenesis. This Masters project will test if centrosomal abnormalities correlate with progression of melanoma and investigate if this is driven by loss of INK4 proteins p15 and p16. A combination of cell biology, immunocytochemistry, epifluorescence microscopy and protein analysis such as Western blotting will be used in this project. 

Role of the centrosomin family of proteins in microcephaly and early neurogenesis

Primary microcephaly is a disease in which the size of the brain is much reduced but normal tissue architecture retained. Last year we showed that loss of many of the genes mutated in microcephaly results in a slow cell cycle, in a zebrafish model of the disease. We’d like to extend this study by looking at embryonic zebrafish brains. It is also a mystery why the brain alone is affected. In the case of one of the genes mutated, there is a sister protein with which it might be partially redundant. In this project, we will deplete this protein from zebrafish embryos and investigate the effect using a combination of zebrafish cell culture, embryology and confocal fluorescence microscopy.

Role of a polycystin-interacting protein in ciliogenesis

Cilia are hair-like structures on the surface of many animal cells. They have important roles in cell signalling and tissue development and homeostasis. Cilium malfunction is linked to autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD), which affects 1 in 1,000 of the population, as the cilium houses polycystin-1 whose gene is frequently mutated in ADPKD. This project will investigate the role of a protein that interacts with polycystin-1, discovered by our collaborator, Richard Sandford at Cambridge. A variety of cell biology and embryological techniques will be used to investigate its function using tissue culture cells and zebrafish embryos.

Research pages - Dr Wilkinson 

Professor Robin Williams

Bipolar disorder, inositol depletion and the model system Dictyostelium

Bipolar disorder is a common neuropsychiatric disorder that is associated with an increased likelihood of suicide. Research in this field is difficult, since few molecular targets are known, and experimental approaches are almost entirely based upon animal models. One strongly supported mechanism of how bipolar disorder drugs work is the ‘inositol depletion’ hypothesis, which states that treatments such as valproic acid function to deplete inositol within neurons to control an individual’s emotional state. This effect may involve the regulation of the biosynthetic enzyme, inositol synthase. Using Dictyostelium as an animal replacement model, our recent data has identified several mechanisms by which inositol synthase acts. This project will employ Dictyostelium to identify how these mechanisms occur, without the use of animal models. Skills developed in the project will include a range of key molecular cell biology, microbiology and microscopy techniques.

Related research 

Defining the primordial target for gamma-secretase in the social amoeba, Dictyostelium

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating neurological disorder that is associated with changes in the activity of a highly conserved protein complex called gamma-secretase. Research in this field is increasingly breeding genetically modified animals as a model for study, and thus alternate non-animal models are needed to reduce animal experimentation. We have recently shown that the key human protein within this complex, presenilin 1, is active in the social amoeba, Dictyostelium. The substrates for the complex are well characterised in humans, however, no substrate has been identified in Dictyostelium. This project will involve the identification and characterisation of a potential Dictyostelium gamma-secretase substrate that will help to unravel the primordial role of this important complex, without the use of animal models. The project will involve the genetic ablation and over-expression of a fluorescently tagged gene in Dictyostelium. Skills developed in the project will include a range of key molecular cell biology, microbiology and microscopy techniques.

Related research

Research Pages - Professor Williams 

Dr Rafael Yanez

Gene therapy, viral vector, Spinal muscular atrophy

Spinal muscular atrophy is an autosomal recessive disease and one of the most common and severe inherited disorders. Lack or inactivation of SMN1 leads to progressive degeneration of motor neurons in the spinal cord, causing bilateral muscular atrophy and death in the worst affected cases. We are aiming to develop genetic therapies for this disease with the goal of preventing or slowing down motor neuron degeneration. The project will involve molecular cloning, production of viral vectors and initial testing in cell culture. The expected outcome is lentiviral vectors with the capacity to improve survival of motor neurons.

 Research pages - Dr Yanez

Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour projects and supervisors

Professor Mark Brown

Evolutionary ecology of host-parasite Interactions

50 per cent of all animal species are parasites, and how they interact with their hosts impacts ecology and evolution from individuals – e.g. host reproductive fitness – to ecosystems – e.g. parasites determine ecosystem structure and stability. We work on the interactions between parasites and social insects (mostly bumblebees, but also ants and honey bees) using a range of approaches, including fieldwork, infection experiments, functional immunology, and molecular ecology. Projects available in this area include the impact and epidemiology of natural and emergent diseases, parasites in invasive species, how hosts defend themselves against parasites, and parasite phylogeography. Please contact me for further information.

Conservation: the behaviour and ecology of bumble bees

Bumblebees are a major, and attractive component of UK (and global) ecosystems, providing the essential service of pollination to wildflowers and crops. Our interests include understanding the ecological needs of bumble bees, understanding patterns of decline, and re-introduction programmes. Available projects include the behaviour and ecology of bumblebee queens, the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee to the UK, and the ecology and behaviour of male bumblebees. Please contact me for further information.

Biology of social insects

Social insects are the ecologically dominant terrestrial animals, playing roles as major herbivores and predators, as well as providing the services of pest control, soil production and maintenance, and pollination. We are broadly interested in the biology of social insects, and are happy to support MSc projects in this area. Please look at my webpage and publications to see examples of previous work, and contact me for further information.

Research pages - Dr Brown

Professor Alan Gange

Interactions between symbiotic fungi and insects

“Plants are not discrete entities, but instead are mergers of fungal cells with plant tissues” (Wilson, 1993). This statement implies that every living plant has fungi living within the roots and shoots. What are the consequences of such infection for insects that also feed upon these plants? Can certain fungi protect plants against insect herbivore attack and so be used to help control pest insects? Meanwhile, if other fungi decrease the resistance of plants to herbivore attack, could these be used to improve biological weed control practises? Do the effects of the fungi extend to other trophic levels, such as predators and parasitoids? Our laboratory is trying to answer these questions and more, so as to understand the role that symbiotic fungi play in structuring communities of plants and animals.

Two projects are available, one involving arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and one with foliar endophyte fungi. Each would involve laboratory and field experiments in which we infect plants with combinations of fungi and examine the effects on higher tropic levels. The two areas are not exclusive, and we could easily run projects involving both mycorrhizas and endophytes together.

Key references:

Gange, A.C., Eschen, R., Wearn, J.A., Thawer, A. & Sutton, B.C. (2012). Differential effects of foliar endophytic fungi on insect herbivores attacking a herbaceous plant. Oecologia 168,1023-1031.

Hartley, S.E. & Gange, A.C. (2009). The impacts of symbiotic fungi on insect herbivores: mutualism in a multitrophic context. Annual Review of Entomology 54, 323-342.

Gange, A.C., Brown, V.K. & Aplin, D.M. (2005). Ecological specificity of arbuscular mycorrhizae: evidence from foliar- and seed-feeding insects. Ecology, 86, 603-611.

Gange. A.C., Brown, V.K. & Aplin, D.M. (2003). Multitrophic links between arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and insect parasitoids. Ecology Letters, 6, 1051-1055.

Gange, A.C., Stagg, P.G. & Ward, L.K. (2002). Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi affect phytophagous insect specialism. Ecology Letters 5, 11-15.

Wilson, D. (1993). Fungal endophytes – out of sight, but should not be out of mind. Oikos 68, 379-84.

Research pages - Professor Gange  

Dr Lena Grinsted
Behavioural ecology of group living spiders 

Spiders are normally solitary hunters, but some species live in social groups. This project will investigate costs and benefits of group living in communal spiders in Southern Spain and/or Israel, with particular focus on dispersal behaviour. What brings individuals together in groups? How do groups form? Do males disperse more than females? The project would include behavioural observations of spiders in the field, and have the option of including molecular analyses as well.

Research pages - Lena Grinsted

Professor Vincent Jansen

Models for social interaction in microbes

Microbes interact in various ways, for instance they can release antibiotics to stave off competitors, or they can release substances which help other microbes take up iron from the environment. In this way basic ecological interactions, such as competition or mutualisms can be realised in very simple organisms. This project aims to develop simple models for the interaction of microbes. Once such a model is formulated and analysed, it can then be used to study the evolution of microbes in a theoretical fashion. This project will concentrate on the production of siderophores, which allow microbes to interact through the production of a public good. This is a theoretical project that will require some experience and interest in mathematical modelling.

Models for social interaction between fungi and plants

Fungi interact with plants in various ways, for instance as pathogen, but they can also engage in a mutualistic interaction through the formation of mycorrhizas. They can release antibiotics to stave off competitors, or they can release substances which help other microbes take up iron from the environment. In this way basic ecological interactions, such as antagonisms or mutualisms can be realised. This project aims to develop simple models for the plant-fungal interaction of microbe. Once such a model is formulated and analysed, it can then be used to study the evolution of microbes in a theoretical fashion. This is a theoretical project that will require some experience and interest in mathematical modelling

Research pages - Professor Jansen

Professor Julia Koricheva

Does leaf variegation reduce herbivore damage?

Leaf variegation is the appear­ance of differently coloured zones in leaves which is caused by a decrease, deficiency or masking of chlorophyll. Degree of leaf variegation often varies within plant species and many ornamental plants have variegated varieties. Leaf variegation may reduce photosynthetic efficiency of plants, but this may be compensated by other benefits, and it has been suggested that variegated plants may suffer less herbivory. This project will explore evidence of the anti-herbivory effect of leaf variegation by using holly and associated leafminer Phytomyza ilicis. Normal and variegated varieties of hollies will be compared and the amount of herbivory received and herbivore performance will be recorded.

Sex-biased herbivory

For dioecious plants, plant quality might vary between male and female plants due to their differential investment in vegetative growth and reproduction and its consequences for tissue nutritional quality. This project will explore differences in herbivory by leafminer Phytomyza ilicis on holly. Male and female holly plants will be selected and compared in terms of various leaf traits which might affect herbivory. The amount of herbivory received and herbivore performance on male and female plants will also be compared.

Research pages - Professor Koricheva 

Dr Elli Leadbeater

Genomics of the honeybee waggle dance 

The honeybee waggle dance, used by bees  to advertise new food or a new home to other members of the colony, is one of the most celebrated examples of communication behaviour within the animal kingdom. Its initial discovery resulted in a Nobel Prize for Karl von Frisch in 1973, and since then much research has been done to characterize this fascinating behaviour. However, we still know very little about the regulation of the waggle dance at the molecular level in the brain of the honey bee. The aim of this project is to identify key genes possibly involved in the waggle dance behaviour (based on previous experiments of microarrays and RNA sequencing), and characterize their patterns of expression in different groups of bees that have performed or followed a dance. The project requires strong commitment to molecular work in the lab, and includes statistical analysis of gene expression data and bioinformatic analyses. Students who have an inclination for this type of work or previous experience in this field are particularly encouraged to apply

Pesticide-contaminated pollen: an unexplored driver of bee colony failures?

There is now strong evidence to associate pesticide use with bee population declines. Understanding the mechanisms underlying these effects is critical to reducing them via policy change, and a wealth of studies have experimentally exposed bees to pesticides via nectar/sucrose and examined the consequences. In contrast, little work has focussed on exposure via pollen, despite that pollen is the only protein source for developing larvae. In the field, pesticide residues in pollen are often much higher than in nectar, sometimes by a factor of ten or more. In this project, the student will carry out behavioural and life-history assays in the laboratory and potentially also the field, to examine the effects of pollen-based exposure on colony demographics, reproductive success and/or cognition. Students who have a strong interest in current conservation issues and in animal behaviour are particularly encouraged to apply.

Research page- Dr Leadbeater

Dr Dave Morritt

Biology of Chinese mitten crabs in the River Thames

The project, which will involve collaboration with the Natural History Museum, London, could investigate various aspects of the reproductive biology and population migrations of the invasive alien Chinese mitten crab, Eriocheir sinensis. This crab is one of only two brachyuran crabs listed in the 100 worse invasive species and has a number of adverse impacts on native biota, river banks and fishing activities. Recent evidence suggests that small crabs may have successfully recruited into sites on the Thames following a period when they were less widely recorded (possibly due to extreme flood events in recent winters). The project could explore the extent of this apparent proliferation in numbers as well as consider other aspects of the biology of the species. There will also be an opportunity to interact with collaborators at other institutions working on different aspects of mitten crab biology.  

References

Morritt, D., Mills, H., Hind, K., Clifton-Dey, D. & Clark, P.F. (2013) Monitoring downstream migrations of Eriocheir sinensis H. Mine Edwards, 1853 (Crustacea: Brachyura: Grapsoidea: Varunidae) in the River Thames using capture data from a water abstraction intake. Management of Biological Invasions 4: 139-147

Webster, J.M., Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2015) Laboratory based feeding behaviour of the Chinese mitten crab, Eriocheir sinensis, (Crustacea: Decapoda, Brachyura, Varunidae): fish egg consumption. Aquatic Invasions 10: 313-326

Mills, C.D, Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2016) Flexible prey handling, preference and a novel capture technique in invasive, sub-adult Chinese mitten crabs. Hydrobiologia 733: 135-147

Research project web page

The impacts of plastic pollution on River Thames biota

During fyke net trials in the River Thames it became apparent that large quantities of litter, especially plastics, are moving along the river bed. These data (see Morritt et al., 2014), and well-established monitoring by organisations such as Thames 21 and Port of London Authority, highlight a serious environment issue. Preliminary studies have now demonstrated how Thames organisms may be exposed to plastics in the environment (McGoran et al. 2017). The aim of this project is to further describe and quantify the presence of plastics in the guts of Thames organisms, e.g. crustaceans and bottom-feeding fish, in order to provide a comparison with data for marine species. Work to establish the role trophic links in plastic ingestion could form an important part of the study. The project will involve collaboration with colleagues at the Natural History Museum, London and in the Thames Estuary Partnership. Projects investigating other aspects of plastic pollution in the River Thames, whether focussed on macroplastics or microplastics, are also possible.

References

Morritt, D., Stefanoudis, P.V., Pearce, D., Crimmen, O.A. & Clark, P.F. (2014) Plastic in the Thames: a river runs through it. Marine Pollution Bulletin 78: 196–200

McGoran, A.R., Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2017) Presence of microplastic in the digestive tracts of European flounder, Platichthys flesus, and European smelt, Osmerus eperlanus, from the River Thames. Environmental Pollution 220: 744-751

Research project web page

Research pages - Dr Morritt 

Dr Sarah Papworth

Conservation: behavioural interactions between humans and other primates

Primates are relatively large bodied mammals with slow reproduction rates, making them vulnerable to population declines. Distributed across the tropics, they face numerous threats, including habitat decline and unsustainable hunting. Our group is interested in primate behavioural responses to direct (e.g. hunting and ecotourism) and indirect (e.g. habitat decline and degradation) human disturbances. Available projects would require field work in the tropics to collect data on primate behaviour. Please contact me for further information.

The shifting baseline syndrome and its impact on conservation management

Shifting baseline syndrome describes how a lack of information about past ecological conditions can change the decisions made in conservation and environmental management. This information may be lacking as ecological information (for example from surveys) was never collected. Where this information is not available, managers may forget past ecological conditions or be too young to have experienced them. Since it was first proposed, research on shifting baselines in conservation has largely focused on either quantifying changing biological conditions over time, or on identifying whether local communities are aware of changes in environmental conditions. Yet as originally proposed, the shifting baseline syndrome was a particular issue if resource managers and conservation professionals could not identify environmental changes due to a lack of past biological information or lack of experience of past conditions, and thus did not address them. This project will use social science methods to examine the evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation managers. Please contact me for further information.

Research pages - Dr Sarah Papworth

Dr Steve Portugal

Group Dynamics, Navigation & Behaviour in homing pigeons 

Body mass is an important component of the energetic costs involved in bird flight. Fat stores are an essential source of fuel for the body during long flights, but excessive body mass will increase flight costs dramatically. Body mass is also known to play a role in certain animal societies in determining social structure and dominance hierarchies. Birds will have a trade-off, therefore, between optimal body mass for flight, and requirements for body fuel in the form of fat, and social dynamics.

This project aims to investigate flock social structure and group dynamics in homing pigeons. Birds will be flown from release sites equipped with data loggers, and factors such as speed, flap frequency and wing-beat amplitude of all birds within the flock will be investigated. Individuals will then have their body mass artificially manipulated, to measure the outcomes this has on the birds general flight behaviour. These manipulations will be achieved through the addition of small weights to the back of the birds. Furthermore, this project will investigate dominance hierarchies in pigeon flocks, and leader follower dynamics during group navigational flights, again with respect to manipulations of body mass.

The biomechanics and physiology of a low-oxygen subterranean lifestyle: the mole rats

Naked Mole Rats, and others members of the Bathyergidae group, spend the majority of their lives underground, rarely venturing to the surface. They exhibit a number of unusual traits, including a long life-span for their size, characteristics of being cold-blooded, seemingly being immune to cancer, and suffering no muscle wastage with ageing. Another peculiarity of the Bathyergidae group is how they move around their burrows, and how they tolerate their low-oxygen underground environments. This project aims to study the walking biomechanics and exercise physiology of this fascinating group of animals, to understand better the adaptations they have to their unusual life style. Techniques will involve high-speed camera motion capture, force plates, respirometry (for oxygen consumption) and behavioural experiments. Practical work will be conducted at RHUL, Queen Mary’s University of London, and possibly fieldwork in South Africa. This project will be co-supervised by Dr Chris Faulkes (Queen Mary’s University of London) and Dr Monica Daley (Structure and Motion Laboratory, Royal Veterinary College).

Research pages - Dr Portugal 

Dr Rebecca Thomas
Importance of anthropogenic food in the diet of the reintroduced red kite (Milvus milvus)

The red kite (Milvus milvus) was once extinct in many parts of the UK but following a successful reintroduction programme it has become a common sight, especially in southern England. Historically it was associated with human settlements, scavenging on human waste, and has now begun to recolonise urban areas because of widespread supplementary feeding by the public. As of yet, no study has quantified the relative importance of anthropogenic food in their diet across the country.

The use of stable isotope analysis is becoming increasingly common in ecological research, revealing details of species foraging preferences. The technique determines the relative importance of food sources by comparing distributions of isotope ratios. Feathers have be collected from active red kite nests by licenced bird ringers across the country in collaboration with the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and the PBMS (Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme). Samples of natural and human provided food will be analysed and compared with the isotope ratios found within the feathers.

You will be working as part of a multi-disciplinary team, including research staff the University of Reading and Royal Holloway. It is expected that you will gain experience in stable isotope laboratory techniques and analysis.

Phenological responses of hedgehogs and amphibians to urbanisation

The British Trust for Ornithology have been running the Garden BirdWatch (GBW) project since 1995 as a way of understanding the way in which birds use our gardens. Volunteers record the birds that visit their gardens every week, but these active volunteers have also been collecting data on other species such as hedgehogs, common frog and common toad. Here we will use these data to ask questions about phenology, both in terms of changes over time, and in variations with latitude. We will also explore the data to look for whether these possible phenological changes vary across different levels of urbanisation.

There are also other opportunities available to expand this project by collection additional data from the GBW/BTO volunteers. 

Research Pages - Dr Thomas 

Dr Francisco Ubeda

Mathematical Models of Parent-of-Origin Expression

Genomic imprinting refers to the silencing of genes according to their parental origin (either paternally silenced and maternally expressed or vice versa). In this research I am interested in elaborating mathematical models that explore why would natural selection favour losing the advantages of diploidy to produce a functionally haploid locus

Mathematical Models of Gene Transmission

Meiotic drive refers to the preferential transmission of an allele (driving allele) during meiosis in diploid individuals. In this research I am interested in elaborating mathematical models that explore why is fair (Mendelian) segregation the rule and not the exception

Research pages - Dr Ubeda 

Plant Molecular Science projects and supervisors 

Dr Laurence Bindschedler 

How does barley powdery mildew interact at the protein level to successfully invade its host?

Pathogens secrete small proteins called effectors or virulence factors which are important for the successful invasion of the host. These effectors act by compromising the host immunity. Powdery mildews are economically important obligate fungal pathogens of cereals such as wheat and barley. Barley powdery mildew expresses and secretes many small unknown proteins of unknown functions, as well as a protease and glucosidases at the early stage of infection. To understand their function, we will be addressing one or some of the following questions:

  •  When and where are they expressed?

  •  Which barley proteins do they target?

  • Are they species specific?

  •  Are they required for a successful infection?

Molecular and proteomic approaches will be used to investigate the role of powdery mildew effector proteins of this plant pathogen during infection of barley by its powdery mildew.

RNAi in planta to control diseases caused by obligate fungi in cereal crops

The aim of this project is to develop high output workflow for gene silencing of plant pathogenic fungi with an ultimate goal of controlling plant diseases.

RNA interference (RNAi) is a powerful technique to investigate gene function by down regulating the expression of a particular gene in vivo (i.e. gene silencing).

Large scale RNAi strategies were possible through the design of synthetic siRNAs in mammalian systems or artificial microRNAs in plants but depend on cloning and protoplasts production.

Newer methods to adapt RNAi to plant systems have emerged using either cell permeable peptides to use direct siRNA or oligodeoxynucleotides (ODN) molecules uptake in whole plants or leaves.

Research pages - Dr Bindschedler   

Professor Laci Bogre

Balancing Assimilates for plant growth, cell proliferation and productivity

Plant growth and crop productivity is intimately linked to the efficiency of light capture and to the balanced storage and utilisation of assimilates. The evolutionary conserved TOR-S6K signalling pathway functions to adjust the rate of protein synthesis to demands (Deprost et al. (2007) EMBO Rep 8:864-870.). 

Cell proliferation is repressed upon carbon starvation, and we have shown that S6K1 is playing a role in this process (Henriques et al. (2010) EMBO J 29:2979-93.). We have also shown that exposure of etiolated seedlings to light rapidly revert starvation and leads to activation of protein synthesis and cell proliferation in shoot apex. 

Light has a direct input into cell proliferation through DET1 and COP1 which regulate the balance between transcriptional activator/repressor; E2FB/E2FC (Lopez et al (2008) Plant Cell 20:947-68.). Cell proliferation adjusted to available sucrose through regulating the expression, translation and protein stability of D-type cyclins and so RBR phosphorylation and leads to the release of E2FB to activate proliferation (Magyar et al (2012) EMBO J. 31:1480-93.). 

On the other hand, E2FA forms a stable repressor complex with RBR to maintain the meristem, while E2FC appears to be involved in induction of genes involved in metabolism, light and circadian rhythm (deJager et al. (2009) PMB 71(4-5):345-65.). The central question of this project: how carbon balance is connected to the regulation of growth and cell proliferation. 

How plant growth is adopted to drought conditions

One major consequence of the global changes in climate is an uneven distribution of freshwater, leading to drought in large areas worldwide. This has already had a strong influence on agricultural productivity. 

Our current understanding of plant adaptation to drought stress is limited to survival mechanisms, but little is known about how mild drought condition restrains plant productivity and yield. We have discovered a drought induced MAPK signalling pathway that restrains plant growth through multiple mechanisms; i) by regulation auxin transport, ii) regulating cell proliferation. 

The overall aim of the proposed research is to identify cell cycle-regulatory targets of the drought-responsive MAPK signaling pathway, and link these to the growth adaptation of plants under drought stress conditions. To do this we will perform: (ii) computational predictions of MAPK substrates involved in cell cycle regulation, (iii) targeted approaches to test MAPK phosphorylation of key regulators in plant growth regulation, the RBR transcriptional repressor complex. 

Research pages - Professor Bogre 

Dr Paul Devlin

Next generation sequencing-based analysis secondary metabolite production pathways in basil

Basil is a culinary herb prized for its flavour and aroma. These characteristics are determined by the production of an array of secondary metabolites. We are interested in the environmental regulation of those pathways. We have been using a next generation, high-output RNA sequencing approach to generate RNAseq data from basil plants grown under different environmental conditions. Our aim is to examine the environmental effects on the expression of genes involved in secondary metabolite production pathways. By understanding more about these pathways and their environmental responsiveness at the molecular level, it is hoped that we can improve secondary metabolite production by modifying growing conditions.

This project will provide training in RNA-seq data analysis in order to examine patterns of differential gene expression. It will also involve quantitative RT-PCR-based confirmation of this pathway analysis and testing of the effectiveness of predictions for improved growing conditions

Next generation sequencing-based analysis of the effects of farming practice on the plant microbial flora

Healthy plants, like all higher organisms, host an extensive commensal microbial community or microbiome. Non-pathogenic microbes are tolerated and in many cases benefit the host. In plants, the leaf microbiome, the phyllosphere, contains a wide range of bacterial and fungal species, including some that have been shown to play an important role in disease prevention. Changes in the microbiome can, therefore, have important effects on the disease susceptibility of the host. We have been using high-output, next generation sequencing technology to analyse the impact of plant disease responses on the microbiome. Direct community sequencing-based approaches negate the need to culture microbes and allow taxonomic diversity of communities as a whole to be compared. Agricultural treatments are also likely to have a significant impact on the ecology of the plant phyllosphere. This project will use next generation sequencing technology to examine the effects of treatments such as pesticide, bactericide, fungicide, and even herbicide and fertiliser treatments on the phyllosphere microbial community. It will also examine the potential for probiotic treatment / microbiota transfer to help restore phyllosphere microbial homeostasis.

Research pages - Dr Paul Devlin

Dr Alessandra Devoto

Sustainable biomass and high-value chemical production and stress responses in crops

This study aims to investigate several aspects of the control of plant defences and to identify environmentally friendly forms of plant protectants, leading to enhanced crop yields. We aim to explain host processes and components required for the growth and reproduction of different plant microbes to uncouple stress-induced growth in crop species. Investigating more thoroughly and pinpointing what an invading microorganism does to be able to bypass or inactivate the host plant defences will open up the possibility to engineer crops to gain ‘natural immunity’. The expression of molecular markers such as genes expressed during pathogenesis will be characterised. We will also explain host processes linked with microbial growth to uncover cellular and metabolic changes associated with their demands (Noir et al, 2013, Plant Physiology 161: 1930-1951). This research will also further our understanding of biomass production and its regulation in response to stress to improve cell wall accessibility in biofuel feedstocks from different plants (Cook C, Devoto A, 2011, J Sci Food Agr, 91:1729-1732). The project will use high-output functional genomics including molecular and cell biology techniques including functional transient assays as well as bioinformatics.

Novel biotechnological routes to discovering phytopharmaceuticals in plants

The plant hormone jasmonic acid induces the biosynthesis of defence proteins and protective secondary metabolites. Pathways with potential for the production of therapeutic drugs will be manipulated with the dual aim of developing a greater understanding of the metabolism involved, that is often related to plant defence, and to develop small molecules or precursors for new medicines. Success in manipulating the targeted metabolic pathways will be analysed through a novel functional screening system. The analysis of diverse plant lines will improve the understanding of key pathways leading to the production of economically important compounds acting as toxins, antimalarial, or antineoplastic drugs in planta or even as important nutrients. The project offers the opportunity to become familiar with approaches and techniques of wide applicability such as functional genomics and transcriptomics as well as molecular biology and protein engineering. We will establish the role of newly identified molecular components of jasmonate (JA)-mediated stress and development (Noir et al, 2013, Plant Physiology 161: 1930-1951; Balbi and Devoto, 2008, New Phytologist, 177: 301-318). This project will contribute to identifying the link between plant growth and responses to stress and will lead to the discovery of regulators with the potential to engineer stress signalling pathways.

Research pages - Dr Devoto 

Professor Paul Fraser

Industrial Biotechnology: A synthetic Biology approach to the production of high value isoprenoids in renewable hosts

Plant and microbial natural products have been utilised by human civilisation for millennia, providing vital medicines and essential dietary components. More recently bioactive compounds from plant sources have been used in cosmetics, as health supplements and are important components of food and feedstuffs. Phytochemicals are also important industrial raw materials and high-value fine chemicals. Despite the significant investments made in combinatory chemical synthesis, these platforms have not delivered the desperately needed new activities and/or sources of complex structures found in nature. Chemical synthesis is also expensive and typically associated with chemical refineries using non-renewable energy sources and byproducts.

Terpenoids or isoprenoids are a class of compounds within which specific compounds have anti-cancer activity, confer health benefits, are natural colorants, and feed supplements. The present markets for isoprenoid compounds such as ketocarotenoids which are natural colorants and antioxidants are worth over $1 billion per annum, with demand far exceeding supply (Marz, 2006, Business report. Global Market for carotenoids, Norwalk CT, USA: Business Communications Company).

In the proposed project the applicant will (i) characterise existing transgenic plants and microorganisms producing high value bioactive natural products using modern omic technologies and (ii) generated and evaluate new biosources of these compounds using synthetic biology approaches.

Characterisation of staple crops (banana, yam, sweet potato and cassava) by metabolite profiling

Banana (Musa spp.), Cassava, Yam and Sweet potato are one of the top ten staple foods in the developing world and a target for international development to genetically enhance these crops. The proposed project will augment on-going plant breeding programmes in Africa, Asia and South America, designed to improve consumer traits in banana fruit. The applicant will perform metabolite profiling on well characterised segregating populations and integrate this metabolite information with genetic data. QTL underlying traits and candidate genes will then be characterised in transient and other fruit systems. The applicant will be provided with a unique opportunity to interact with research programmes aimed at combating food insecurity and poverty in developing countries.

Research pages - Professor Fraser 
Project pages - www.metapro.eu and www.multibiopro.eu 

Professor Gerhard Leubner

Molecular and hormonal mechanisms underpinning seed technologies applied to crop, flower and vegetable seeds by industry

The aim of this project is to determine the mechanisms which are underlying seed enhancement technologies to achieve rapid and uniform germination and seedling establishment. These technologies include seed priming, sorting, pelleting and the inclusion of various additives. Examples for the effects include the release of seed dormancy of vegetable and flower seeds, the control of aging processes during sugarbeet and onion seed storage and the benefits of priming to improve abiotic stress responses and vigour during germination and pre-emergence seedling growth (see projects on our PURE website below). The underlying mechanisms include regulation by altered hormonal contents and signalling and epigenetic changes leading to distinct transcriptome expression patterns. Very little is known about these mechanisms and therefore the optimisation of the seed enhancement technologies and their application to specific crop species is hampered. In the project we will investigate crop seed enhancement technologies with modern molecular, biochemical, microscopical and biophysical methods to understand how embryo growth, dormancy release and germination speed, uniformity and vigour are improved. This project is at the interface of fundamental and applied seed biology and engineering.

Molecular mechanisms of gene expression during weed seed dormancy, germination and persistence in the soil seed bank

The sustainable intensification of food production necessary to feed the world’s growing population will only be achievable if crop harvest losses due to heat stress and competition with weeds are minimised. About ten per cent of crop production is currently lost to weeds and this loss would be far greater without the use of herbicides. However, the continued effectiveness of herbicide technology is threatened by the rapid advance of weed biotypes that are resistant to herbicides. The problem of effective weed control is most severe in annual field crop systems and with annual weeds which emerge at the same time as the crop seedlings. These problem weeds owe their success, at least in part, to the formation of large and persistent soil seed banks. Thus there is considerable potential for novel weed control solutions through engaging a deeper understanding of the molecular mechanisms of weed seed germination and survival. In the project we will focus on hormone-related mechanisms which mediate the environmental responses of weed seeds. Seed hormones will be quantified and the expression of corresponding genes analysed in the seeds of a variety of noxious weeds and in response to temperature as environmental factor. This project is in collaboration with Syngenta and at the interface of fundamental and applied seed science.

Research pages - Professor Leubner

Project pages 'The Seed Biology Place

Biopriming as a seed technology and its impacts on germination and seedling vigour

This project aims to investigate the interactions between bacterial endophytes and the seeds of high yielding crop species. Biopriming is a priming technology whereby seeds are hydrated and inoculated with a beneficial organism. Seed priming to modify hydration has been found to have several physiological benefits in the vegetable seed market such as increasing the uniformity and speed of germination.  Biopriming however, builds upon this principal with the addition of a microbial inoculant. These are typically microorganisms that may confer benefits to the growing plant such as greater access to macro and micro-nutrients or host plant defence. This project will work with a specific nitrogen fixing bacterial endosymbiont and consider the impacts that seed inoculation with this bacteria on germination, seedling establishment and seed hormones on a range of plant species that exist in different agroecological niches. This project will utilise modern microbiological, microscopical, biochemical and hormone quantification techniques and is likely to work closely with industry partners, with the possibility of a short industry placement.

Ror enquiries about this Project in the Leubner laboratory, please contact Dr James Hourston

Dr Enrique Lopez

Developmental biology of leaf initiation in the light

Leaves are light-capturing organs that develop from a group of “stem cells” (meristamatic cells) at the tip of plant shoots. The development of leaves initially involves active cell proliferation, followed by differentiation, and in dicot plants it occurs only in the light: light acts as a cell proliferation and development switch. We seek to understand how this takes place. This project will follow on from our previous studies, using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, that have shown that leaf initiation in the light coincides with (1) a substantial rearrangement of hormonal responses at the shoot meristem and (2) an activation of a “feast”, or repression of a “starvation” pathway. You will use existing or newly-isolated Arabidopsis mutants in these pathways, in an attempt to generate a mutant combination that exhibits de-repression of leaf initiation, or accelerated leaf growth in the light. You will select one element of this network to focus on. You will also attempt to connect these pathways to cell cycle activation. You will use molecular genotyping, microscopic image-analysis, and gene expression techniques

Genes involved in chloroplast biogenesis

Chloroplast build-up is also essential for the photosynthetic production that drives plant growth, and that ultimately produces our food. Chloroplasts are built primarily while meristematic cells differentiate into leaf mesophyll cells. Through mutant screens in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, we have identified in the past genes whose function is essential for chloroplast biogenesis, or whose dysfunction rescues prior defects in chloroplast development (positive elements or negative regulators of chloroplast biogenesis, respectively). In this project you will focus on one of these genes, confirm its subcellular localisation and examine potential mechanisms of action, through examination of molecular and cellular phenotypes of the mutants and through generation of plants with elevated levels of the selected gene.

Research pages - Dr Lopez  

Dr Tony Stead

Providing better quality cut flowers

There are several stages, both pre- and post-harvest, which can adversely affect the quality of cut flowers purchased by the consumer. These range from the growing conditions, specialist post-harvest treatments, transport conditions, in-store treatment as well as the vase treatments in the home. Current projects are looking at the effect of light quality on pigmentation and flower opening, treatments to wash in-store buckets as well as the composition of the vase solution. We have a particular interest in Alstroemeria, Dahlia and roses; we are also studying chill-sensitivity in potted plants such as Phalenopsis

Improving the quality of culinary herbs

The benefits of healthy eating are well known, have you eaten your five portions of fruit and veg today? What is often overlooked is that herbs can provide a significant quantity of beneficial antioxidants or similar compounds. Ironically the consumer perception of which type of herb (pot-grown, cut leaf, dried etc) is best is usually wrong but it does indicate that improvements can be made to the quality of UK-grown pot herbs. These improvements relate to the growing conditions, particularly temperature, light quality and the presence of symbiotic mycorrhizae or other biostimulants. We are also concerned about improving chill tolerance in basil, and improving volatile levels produced by many culinary herbs.

Replacing peat in horticulture

Most potted plants (herbs and ornamentals) rely on peat-based composts although over 60 per cent of peat consumption is by amateur, not professional, growers nevertheless the Government has set targets for banning the use of peat due to its continued extraction being unsustainable and environmentally damaging, thus a replacement has to be found. We have been working with both commercial growers and the Royal Horticultural Society to try and find replacements for peat that do not compromise plant growth.

All of this research is applied but often involves explaining underlying mechanisms which has involved the use of microarrays and RNAseq to study gene expression studies as well as PCR techniques. Some work has involved microscopy using both light and electron microscopy. Some projects may have commercial sponsors that may contribute to the costs of the work and/or provide a small student bursary.

Research pages - Dr Stead 

Funding

Information on current tuition fees and other relevant financial information is available on our fees and funding page.

Scholarships and bursaries are available on a competitive basis to partially offset the fee. For some of the projects Research Council and Institutional Funding might be available.        

Applying

Before applying you will need to peruse and then identify up to two academic staff members or up to four projects from the list above. Once you have identified your area of interest, you should contact the potential supervisors via email  to discuss details of the projects. 

When you have made contact and chosen the projects you are interested in, please list these in the 'Supporting Statements' area of the online application. Enter the titles of up to four projects in the 'enter details' option of the Research Proposal section of this tab. There is no need to upload a research proposal.

Please note we are unable to consider your application if a supervisor has not been specified.

We would be grateful if when uploading your supporting documents you can also include a current CV

To request a hard copy of the Royal Holloway postgraduate prospectus, please contact us. The prospectus can also be viewed onlineApplications should be made online before 25 July.

The latest version of our course specification can be found here.   

Advice for international applicants on How to apply for a UK study visa

 

 

 

 

 




 


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