Crop Science Centre - Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

University of Cambridge NEWS: Advancing collaborations in global food security research

University of Cambridge NEWS: Advancing collaborations in global food security research

Diane Saunders (JIC) discusses her wheat rust diagnosis kit with Bill Gates, Alok Sharma and Lord Sainsbury

Plant scientists gathered in Cambridge to advance collaborations in global food security research. They included scientists from the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences, Lancaster University, The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in Norwich and the John Innes Centre. With funding from Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development (DFID), these scientists are developing innovations that will increase productivity and empower farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  

Founder of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation Lord Sainsbury, welcomed Bill Gates (Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Alok Sharma (International Development Secretary) and Professor Charlotte Watts (Department for International Development’s (DFID) Chief Scientific Advisor) to the SLCU to meet with the plant scientists who are working on projects supported by the three organisations. 

They heard from scientists about their latest advances in crop engineering to use biological nitrogen fixation to sustainably increase yields for small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (ENSA); the RIPE Project that is engineering crops to be more productive by improving photosynthesis; the CASS Project that is engineering metabolic pathways to enhance the yields of root and tuber crops; an in-field kit that diagnoses wheat rust strains in 48-hours (MARPLE) and epidemiological models to predict the spread of plant disease (Epidemiology and Modelling Group). 

University of Cambridge Professor and SLCU Group Leader Giles Oldroyd, who coordinates the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) project provided an update on the project’s progress and demonstrated the signalling responses that help plants form symbiotic associations with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. Professor Oldroyd said: “We have been working on a programme of research to engineer nitrogen-fixing cereals with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the past six years and are now getting to an exciting stage with a number of discoveries that are getting us closer to achieving this goal. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, through the SLCU, is supporting us in researching the fundamental understandings of how plants engage with beneficial microorganisms and this is providing us with the foundations on which we can build the engineering programmes in cereal crops.” 

As part of their visit, International Development Secretary Alok Sharma announced that DFID would strengthen its ongoing partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims to improve rural livelihoods and create opportunities for people living in the world’s poorest places. 

International Development Secretary Alok Sharma said: “We are proud to be working alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle some of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time. 

“Feeding a global population of 10 billion by 2050 is a major challenge, particularly with pests and diseases destroying up to 40% of food produced. 

“Our joint investment in cutting-edge British research will produce crops that can thrive in conditions caused by climate change. This means people in the developing world will have enough food to eat, British consumers get stable prices, and we can protect our planet by avoiding fertilisers or damaging pesticides.” 

The new £38 million of UK aid from DFID will contribute to a portfolio of projects, which will receive additional funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

ENSA Scientific Programme Manager, Christian Rogers, provided an overview of how researchers are collaborating on the ENSA, CASS and RIPE projects to the visitors

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Department of Plant Sciences NEWS: Brushing off unwanted advances - how plants exercise restraint over beneficial fungi

Department of Plant Sciences NEWS: Brushing off unwanted advances - how plants exercise restraint over beneficial fungi

Fungal arbuscules inside plant root cells

When nutrients are scarce in the soil, plants recruit helper fungi into life-long alliances called arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbioses. Fungal assistance - despite desirable - can become costly as it is fuelled by considerable amounts of carbon delivered by the plant. At the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Dr. Jeongmin Choi  in the research team of Professor Uta Paszkowski, discovered a protein from rice, called SMAX1, that functions as a molecular brake to control the plant’s engagement with the fungus (published on Nature Communications). Via biochemical dialogues, plants ‘check-out’ potential partner fungi, stimulate appropriate candidates by secretion of chemical called strigolactones, and only then commit to the interaction. In the presence of SMAX1, the plant no longer sees the fungus as an attractive ally, suppressing essential symbiosis programmes, and refraining from encouraging the fungus through increased production of strigolactones. 


Choi, J., Lee, T., Cho, J. et al.The negative regulator SMAX1 controls mycorrhizal symbiosis and strigolactone biosynthesis in rice. Nat Commun 11, 2114 (2020).  

Text and image (showing Fungal arbuscules inside plant root cells.) supplied by Dr Jeongmin Choi. 

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Crop Science Centre NEWS: Giles Oldroyd elected as a fellow of the Royal Society

Crop Science Centre NEWS: Giles Oldroyd elected as a fellow of the Royal Society

Giles Oldroyd

Professor Giles Oldroyd elected as a fellow of the Royal Society 

Professor Giles Oldroyd has been recognised for his outstanding contributions to science in plant-microbe interactions with his election as a fellow of the Royal Society. Announced by the President of the Royal Society, Dr Venki Ramakrishnan, 51 new Fellows, 10 Foreign Members and one Honorary Fellow have been selected for their outstanding contributions to scientific understanding. 

As the inaugural director of the Crop Science Centre, Professor Oldroyd said: “It is a real honour to join such a prestigious fellowship of scientists.  I hope that my own contributions to science can in time have positive impacts on society in a manner similar to my scientific heroes from the fellowship.” 

More here: 

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Department of Plant Sciences NEWS: New EMBO members elected

Department of Plant Sciences NEWS: New EMBO members elected

uta and giles

We are delighted to announce that Giles Oldroyd and Uta Paszkowski have been elected as  EMBO members.

Giles Oldroyd is the Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science and Director of the Crop Science Centre (a coalition of expertise between NIAB, the DPS and SLCU) and Group Leader at the SLCU. He leads a research team studying interactions between plants and beneficial micro-organisms, both bacteria and fungi, that aid in the uptake of nutrients from the environment, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

Uta Paszkowski is Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at the Department of Plant Sciences. Uta leads the Cereal Symbiosis Group, which investigates the molecular mechanisms underlying formation and functioning of arbuscular mycorrhizal symbioses in cereals.

EMBO Membership honours distinguished scientists who have made outstanding contributions to the life sciences, including 88 Nobel Laureates. It is an international organisation of life scientists, which has more than 1800 members elected by peers.

Professor Giles Oldroyd FRS is Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science at the Sainsbury Laboratory, Director of the Crop Science Centre and Fellow at Fitzwilliam College. He is leading an international programme of research that attempts to achieve more equitable and sustainable agriculture through the enhanced use of beneficial microbial associations.

He said: “I have long admired the work that EMBO does to strengthen and coordinate science across Europe and it is an honour to now be a part of this prestigious European fellowship of biologists.”

EMBO Members can actively participate in EMBO’s initiatives by serving on the organisation's Council, committees and editorial boards, participating in the evaluation of applications for EMBO funding, acting as mentors to young scientists in the EMBO community, and advising on key activities. EMBO’s administrative headquarters are in Heidelberg, Germany.

This month Giles presented his work in the latest Fitzwilliam College Arrol Addam lecture. The lecture is available to view online in the link below:

The EMBO meeting

Sustainable food production for everyone

The Crop Science Centre is a coalition between the University of Cambridge, Department of Plant Sciences, and NIAB. This coalition focuses on translational research in crops with real-world impact. We combine the diverse skills and expertise of the University and NIAB, providing an environment for research excellence with the capability to apply discoveries to crop improvement in the field.

Our research is interdisciplinary and of global relevance. We strive to improve both staple crops such as maize, wheat and rice, but also the specific crops of relevance to small-holder farmers, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Centre provides leadership in crop sciences, with a creative and dynamic research culture, motivated by improvement of agriculture for the betterment of society.

Our mission

At the Crop Science Centre, we are generating crop plants that deliver sufficient food for everyone in a sustainable way

  • We deliver agricultural impact, using excellence in research
  • We strive for sustainability, reducing agricultural reliance on chemical inputs
  • We foster equality, valuing all members of our research community
  • We believe in equity, ensuring even the world’s poorest farmers can grow enough food

Years of research has provided a deep understanding of how plants function, creating opportunities to transform the way we produce our food.  I am motivated to improve the sustainability and the equity of food production worldwide

Professor Giles Oldroyd,
CSC Director

Professor Giles Oldroyd

“At the Crop Science Centre we have the scientific breadth and track record to rapidly respond to one of the grand challenges of our time: growing enough nutritious food for an increasing population while reducing inputs and green house emissions.”

Professor Mario Caccamo,
CEO and Director of NIAB

Professor Mario Caccamo

“We envisage that new CSC crop technologies will enable higher crop yields and lower environmental impact for crop-based food production – as well as contributing to improved dietary health.”

Sir David Baulcombe,
Royal Society Professor

Sir David Baulcombe