Crop Science Centre - Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

AM fungi as art

AM fungi as art

Symbiotic fungus

Methods for using art to engage the public in AM fungi have been described by Crop Science Centre scientists, Uta Paszkowski and Jennifer McGaley in the Journal Plants, People and People.

The authors stress the importance of high-quality visuals in public engagement, as well as the wealth of visual data collected during regular biological investigation, including photographs, micrographs, models and illustrations.

To read more click here to read the full paper.

Crop Science Centre

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Rice receptor conditions plants for symbiosis with beneficial Fungi

Rice receptor conditions plants for symbiosis with beneficial Fungi

Root arbuscules

A recent review from the Crop Science Centre discusses the establishment of arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbiosis from the perspective of the rice receptor DWARF14-LIKE (D14L).

Published in July of 2021 in the journal Current Opinion in Plant Biology as part of a themed issue on biotic interactions, the review proposes that D14L signalling modulates the physiological condition of the plant to create a permissive state for AM symbiosis, underpinning attraction and enabling accommodation of the symbiotic fungus.

AM symbiosis is a plant-fungal mutualism that arose approximately 450 million years ago in early land plants. In this relationship plants can derive up to 100% of their phosphorus needs and around 40% of their nitrogen needs from AM fungi. In fact, it is thought that AM symbiosis is the default plant nutrient uptake strategy and so is central to plant performance and ecosystem productivity.

Raphaella Hull, plant scientist at the Crop Science Centre, said “The receptor D14L is essential for the perception of AM fungi by rice plants. In this work, we discuss how D14L integrates hormonal signals to prepare plants for AM symbiosis. We highlight research showing that D14L regulates the biosynthesis and exudation of the plant hormone strigolactone, the best known and potent attractant for AM fungi, via degradation of the repressor SMAX1. In addition, we draw attention to data that suggests that D14L signalling also has a role in regulating the biosynthesis of gibberellic acid. Altogether, our current understanding of D14L signalling leads us to propose that D14L is a central regulator of symbiotic competency, whilst further research is required to elucidate the downstream signalling pathway of SMAX1 and the evolutionary conservation of D14L function.”

Read more by clicking here to read the review paper.

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Bringing a SPARK into the ancient relationship between plants and symbiotic fungi

Bringing a SPARK into the ancient relationship between plants and symbiotic fungi

A rice root colonized by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

New research from the Crop Science Centre provides insights into the ancient signalling pathways facilitating the arbuscular mycorrhizal association, which is the most prevalent symbiosis in plants.

The mycorrhizal fungi help plants to capture nutrients from the soil and by shedding light on elements of the pathway used by plants to interact with these fungi, this research could help develop genetic strategies to enhance crop performance.

Published on June 15 in the journal PNAS, this study characterizes a symbiotic gene in rice called arbuscular receptor-like kinase 2 (ARK 2), as well as unveiling an ancient protein domain that defines a new class of signalling proteins.

In the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis nutrient exchange occurs in tree-shaped structures formed inside root cells called arbuscules. Several plant proteins are known to function in cells hosting arbuscules, mostly nutrient transporters.

A previous study from the Cereal Symbiosis laboratory, at the University of Cambridge, characterized arbuscular receptor-like kinase 1 (ARK1), which is the first known receptor-like kinase to regulate the symbiosis in arbusculated cells. Receptor-like kinases are cell-surface signalling proteins that normally have two modules: an extracellular domain, which perceives external signals and an intracellular kinase domain that initiates a cellular response.

In this new study, the authors performed a phylogenetic analysis to gain new insights into the evolutionary history of the receptor-like kinase subfamily that ARK1 belongs to. This revealed that a single gene called ARK duplicated early in the evolution of seed plants. This duplication generated ARK1 and ARK2. The authors functionally characterized ARK2 in rice using mutant lines.  Plants with ARK2 mutated had reduced levels of arbuscular mycorrhizal colonization, demonstrating ARK2 to have a symbiotic function. Global analyses of gene expression further showed that a set of genes is co-regulated by ARK1 and ARK2, suggesting the two receptor-like kinases regulate the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis in a novel signalling pathway.

Surprisingly, while analysing the sequences of the extracellular domains in this subfamily, the authors discovered a new protein domain. The domain, named SPARK, has a unique arrangement of cysteines, an amino acid that is often found to stabilize protein domains by forming sulphur bonds. The domain has no resemblance at the sequence level with other known protein domains. The presence of the SPARK domain in receptor-like kinases of a species of algae revealed it to be an ancient protein domain.

The lead author, Hector Montero, said: “The discoveries within this research kick-start the study of a new class of signalling proteins that had been overlooked and we believe these findings will draw attention from those interested not only in mycorrhizal functioning but also in the evolution of receptor-like kinases. It will be important for future studies to explore the details of the signalling pathway orchestrated by the receptors and the function of the SPARK domain.”

This research was performed by Hector Montero and co-authors from the Cereal Symbiosis Laboratory in the Crop Science Centre, which is an alliance between the University of Cambridge and NIAB.


Hector Montero, Tak Lee, Boas Pucker, Gabriel Ferreras, Giles Oldroyd, Samuel Brockington, Akio Miyao, Uta Paszkowski. 2021. A mycorrhiza-associated receptor-like kinase with an ancient origin in the green lineage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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A plant-fungi partnership at the origin of terrestrial vegetation

A plant-fungi partnership at the origin of terrestrial vegetation

Symbiotic fungus

The first plants left aquatic life to live on land 450 million years ago, resulting in the stunning diversity of plant life seen on land today.

This significant step required the ancestor of all terrestrial plants developing evolutionary innovations to adapt to the much lower levels of water and nutrients on land, as well as the direct ultraviolet radiation.

New collaborative research, involving authors from the Crop Science Centre, has demonstrated that this was made possible by the mutually beneficial exchange of resources between plants and fungi.

Land plants fall into two main categories: vascular plants with stems and roots, and non-vascular plants such as mosses, called bryophytes.

Previous studies have shown the existence of genes that are essential for the proper functioning of symbiosis, particularly in vascular plants.

Published in Science on 21 May 2021, this research focused on a bryophyte resembling a succulent plant for which such genes had not yet been studied. The research team were able to demonstrate a lipid transfer between the plant and the fungus similar to that observed in vascular plants. By adapting the use of a molecular tool that allows DNA to be cleaved precisely, they were then able to modify a gene predicted as "symbiotic." As in vascular plants, the interruption of lipid exchange between the plant and the fungus leads to symbiosis failure in the bryophyte.

The common ancestor of these two groups of plants, which colonised dry land, must therefore have exchanged lipids with the fungus, as do the plants of today. Thus, 450 million years later, one of the secrets of life's first steps on land has finally been elucidated.

Professor Giles Oldroyd FRS, Russell R. Geiger Professor of Crop Science at the University of Cambridge and Inaugural Director of the Crop Science Centre said: “It has long been proposed that the evolution of the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis was a prerequisite for plant colonisation of land. This new work demonstrates mechanistically how this early innovation occurred.”

This international research was led by the Laboratoire de Recherche en Sciences Végétales at the Université de Toulouse, and was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as part of the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa project.

Crop Science Centre

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NEWS: Professor Giles Oldroyd elected to National Academy of Sciences

NEWS: Professor Giles Oldroyd elected to National Academy of Sciences

The National Academy of Sciences

The Crop Science Centre’s Professor Giles Oldroyd has been elected as an international member of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA. 

As Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science and Director of the Crop Science Centre, Professor Oldroyd’s research focuses on using the foundational knowledge of plants to drive transformative change in agriculture. It is in recognition of his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, that Professor Oldroyd has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Membership to the Academy is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honours that a scientist can receive. Currently, there are approximately 2,400 members and 500 international members, with a maximum of 30 international members elected annually.

Professor Giles Oldroyd

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

Celebrating the FAO International Year of Plant Health: A forward looking perspective on tackling the grand challenges in plant health to transform agriculture sustainably.

Celebrating the FAO International Year of Plant Health: A forward looking perspective on tackling the grand challenges in plant health to transform agriculture sustainably.


Join us on a dynamic panel discussion with representatives from farming, industry and research on 3 December at 4pm GMT to celebrate the FAO International Year of Plant Health.


A forward-looking perspective on tackling the grand challenges in Plant Health to transform Agriculture sustainably.

                                                                                              Register Here


This is the first seminar of an Annual Virtual Seminar Series where you will have the chance to speak directly to leading experts about some of the most urgent issues facing plants and our planet today.


During our first on-line seminar on Thursday 3 December at 4pm GMT, our distinguished panel will look at how research at the Crop Science Centre, industry and farmers can work together to develop improved crop management strategies driven by biological solutions.  Join us by registering here.


Dr Richard Harrison - Director of Cambridge Crop Research, NIAB. 


Dr Martin Clough - Head of Technology & Digital Integration at Syngenta Crop Protection. 

Cathryn Lambourne - Research co-ordinator for Horticulture, Plant Pathologist.

Professor Uta Paszkowski - Professor of Cereal Symbiosis, Department of Plant Sciences, Crop Science Centre, University of Cambridge.  


This event is supported by the Crop Science Centre in collaboration with the University of Cambridge Cambplants HubCambridge Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre, NIAB and the EIT Food #AnnualFoodAgenda.

Crop Science Centre

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The Crop Science Centre opens in Cambridge

The Crop Science Centre opens in Cambridge

The Crop Science Building, home to the Crop Science Centre

A new Centre in Cambridge, designed to fast-track technologies to sustainably improve farmers’ yields worldwide, has been launched today (1st October 2020). 

The Crop Science Centre is an alliance between the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and NIAB.

The Centre will serve as a global hub for crop science research and a base for collaborations with research partners around the world, to ensure global agricultural impact from the ground-breaking science happening in Cambridge. It includes a brand-new state-of-the-art research facility, at NIAB’s Lawrence Weaver Road campus in the north-west of Cambridge, maximising the pace of research and accelerating crop improvements.

The Centre will focus on improving the sustainability and equity of global food production. It will use an understanding of how plants work at the most fundamental level to drive transformative change in how we grow our food. Research will be aimed at reducing agricultural reliance on chemical inputs such as inorganic fertilisers, while maximising crop productivity, especially for the world’s poorest farmers.

Professor Giles Oldroyd FRS, Russell R. Geiger Professor of Crop Science at the University of Cambridge and Inaugural Director of the Crop Science Centre said: “This year we have seen how fragile our global systems are. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing another 120 million people to starvation worldwide, while crop yields here in the UK are suffering from changes in our climate.”

Oldroyd, who leads an international programme to replace inorganic fertilisers, added: “We need lasting solutions for stable and secure food production, but also need to improve sustainability in agriculture. We are excited to be opening this new Centre, which can drive the transformative change we so desperately need.”

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Urgent action is required to sustainably provide enough quality food for the world’s growing population. By combining our expertise in fundamental plant science with NIAB’s long experience in crop improvement, I am confident that we will make progress towards this vital goal.”

Dr Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB, said: “Through transformative crop science technologies, research at the new Centre aims to ensure even the world’s poorest farmers can grow enough food. This work is at the top of the international agenda.”

Private donations from the late Russell R. Geiger and Robert and Susan Cawthorn helped to establish the Centre, alongside donations from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany Trust and the Cambridge University Potato Growers Research Association (CUPGRA) and capital funding from the Research England-managed UK Research Partnership Investment Fund. Professor Oldroyd’s research programme is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Further information about the Crop Science Centre is available at and @cropscicentre

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

NIAB NEWS: NIAB develops Barn4, a Cambridge-based incubator business space for agritech SMEs

NIAB NEWS: NIAB develops Barn4, a Cambridge-based incubator business space for agritech SMEs

Barn4 at NIAB Park Farm

Start-up agritech businesses will have access to new work and research facilities, alongside business support opportunities, with the development of Barn4, a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of Cambridge.

The crop research organisation NIAB has been awarded £2.5 million funding from The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to construct a 375m2 business incubator on its Park Farm site in Histon in Cambridgeshire. Barn4 will be open to tenants from spring 2021 with start-ups and SMEs offered laboratory, workshop and office space, meeting rooms and video-conferencing facilities. In addition, they will be able to get access to NIAB’s high performance computing capability, specialist laboratory facilities and both indoor and outdoor growing spaces.

Demand in Cambridge remains strong for these facilities despite the impact of Covid-19 on office working.  The agritech sector continues to grow and incubator space in and around the city is heavily over-subscribed. The unique offering of state-of-the-art technical facilities and links to NIAB, the Cambridge technology cluster and the wider agricultural sector will be ideal for early stage companies to grow and flourish.

Dr Juno McKee, Director of NIAB Ventures, says that Barn4 will provide facilities for up to 15 companies with 45 staff. “NIAB will work with a network of commercial and academic partners to provide a complete ecosystem within which technology driven start-ups and spinouts can thrive.”

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority Mayor James Palmer says, “In the wake of Covid-19 it is more vital than ever that we level up the economy of the region as we rebound and renew, and if we are to recover quickly and fulfil on the promise of our region we have to take risks and promote disruption in the market. Agritech is one of our key growth areas and I am absolutely delighted that the Combined Authority has enabled NIAB to create Barn4, which will help the sector expand and flourish. I am passionate about supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, and Barn4’s nurturing environment for young companies will help ground-breaking startups to flourish. I look forward to seeing the birth of world-leading technical solutions to agricultural challenges and opportunities as Barn4 opens and develops from 2021.”

Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government Simon Clarke MP says, “Investing in innovative agritech projects is at the heart of this Government’s commitment to create new, green jobs and reach our target of Net-Zero by 2050. That is why we are investing £2.5 million from the Local Growth Fund in this exciting project to create space for start-ups and small businesses in Cambridgeshire to grow and innovate, creating new jobs for the region and supporting this world-leading centre for agritech.”

The new building will be an addition to NIAB’s recently redeveloped Park Farm field research station which includes two new large research and office buildings (5,500 m2), 2,500 m2 of research glasshouses with an additional 300m2 planned, 3,000m2 protected outdoor growing space and field trial plots.

NIAB’s Director of Commercialisation Dr Michael Gifford explains that, in the face of challenges such as Covid-19, Brexit, the new Agriculture Bill, climate change and food security, the UK agrifood industry is under enormous pressure to redefine its farming and food supply chains. One way is to accelerate the pace at which it commercialises and adopts new agritech innovations to deliver sustainable change.

“Cambridgeshire is fast becoming a world-leading centre for agritech with an unrivalled combination of new innovative SME’s partnering with commercial industry, research, academia and networking organisations across the science, technology and agrifood sectors. To date there have been gaps in support for start-ups including access to sector specific expertise, basic research facilities with laboratory space, field plots, and engineering workshops. We are thinking about agritech in its widest sense and expect to have companies specialising in plant genetics, pest management, soil health, and AI to support sustainable farming decisions, farm robotics and much more.”

A study carried out for NIAB by the University of Cambridge’s Judge Institute showed that agritech start-ups felt that they would have benefited most from sector specific technical expertise and advice. This is exactly the type of support provided at Barn4.

“In Barn4, NIAB will be able to provide an environment in which young companies can thrive in the agritech sector. It allows companies to access Cambridge’s unrivalled technology sector and University whilst also being on the doorstep of some of the most fertile farmland and progressive farmers in the world,” finishes Dr Gifford.



Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

NIAB NEWS: Impact study: NIAB research delivers 18 fold return to the wider UK economy

NIAB NEWS: Impact study: NIAB research delivers 18 fold return to the wider UK economy

NIB Impact Study

An independent assessment of the value of research taking place at crop science organisation NIAB has revealed an 18-fold return on investment to the wider UK economy.

The economic impact report, by Donald Webb of Brookdale Consulting, concluded that for every £1 spent on research at NIAB, at least £17.60 is returned to the UK economy through improved production efficiency, economic growth, import substitution, export earnings and inward investment.

The report indicated that this return on investment would be even greater if NIAB’s international contribution had been accounted for.    

The study focused on the following five key areas of R&D to capture the broad spread of crop-related science and innovation now covered by the NIAB Group:

  • Plant variety and seed testing
  • Potato agronomy
  • Strawberry breeding
  • Concept vineyard
  • Legume pre-breeding

In each of these five case study areas, together accounting for around 20% of NIAB’s total research income, the report identified a high-level of ongoing actual impacts as well as potential future impacts, reflecting NIAB’s unique interconnecting role between fundamental science and practical application.

These case studies also highlight the broad range of routes through which NIAB today is delivering socio-economic value and impact, including the provision of statutory services to the plant breeding and seeds sector, developing innovative agronomy solutions for potato growers, breeding market-leading soft fruit varieties, supporting growth in the UK’s emerging vineyard sector, and supplying new traits and germplasm to support genetic improvement in legumes.

Commenting on the study, report author Donald Webb said:

“NIAB occupies a unique position within the UK plant science landscape, providing a vital translation service between fundamental science and its practical, commercial application.

“The 18-fold return on investment identified compares very favourably to any other research-based organisation in the agriculture sector or beyond. In addition, our study concluded that NIAB’s critical mass of skills, facilities, networks and expertise has a strong contribution to make to future challenges including climate change adaptation and resilience, sustainable intensification, economic growth and food security.”

Welcoming the report on behalf of NIAB, which commissioned the study, chief executive Dr Tina Barsby said: “Last year, NIAB marked its centenary having originally been established as a charitable trust in 1919 with the aim of improving UK crop production through better varieties and seeds. Over that period NIAB has pioneered the internationally recognised systems for plant variety testing and seed certification which have underpinned the growth and success of modern plant breeding and crop production.

“NIAB is still widely recognised for its founding role in varieties and seeds, which continues to this day. But as this impact report demonstrates, more recently NIAB has successfully adapted and diversified from its position as quasi-Government institute to become a leading international centre for crop science with a broad and expanding portfolio of near-market agricultural research.       

“At all levels, the focus of NIAB’s applied research activity is to improve the productivity, efficiency and resilience of UK agricultural and horticultural crop production. This independent study provides a resounding thumbs-up to the value and impact of our research,” finished Dr Barsby.

Download the summary report

Socio-economic impact of NIAB research - a summary of the impact study

Download the full report

Socio-economic impact of NIAB research - final report

Crop Science Centre

Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence

NIAB NEWS: New sources of wheat diversity unlocked by massive-scale genomic study

NIAB NEWS: New sources of wheat diversity unlocked by massive-scale genomic study

New sources of wheat diversity unlocked by massive-scale genomic study

Growers, wheat breeders and crop scientists are all set to benefit from the discovery of genetic factors associated to yield, quality and agronomic traits in wheat following one of the largest analysis ever carried out of an agricultural crop.

An international research team, including crop scientists from NIAB, genetically characterised nearly 80,000 samples of wheat from the germplasm banks of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

NIAB’s Deputy Director Professor Mario Caccamo explained that the results give researchers and breeders a more detailed picture of the wheat diversity available. “The analysis identified regions of the wheat genome linked to important yield or agronomic bottlenecks introduced by successive breeding programmes. It also contributes to our understanding of the impact of the synthetic wheat varieties, most latterly with NIAB’s resynthesised ‘superwheat’ programme, in adding to the diversity, in particular in the D subgenome.”

The findings of the study published today in Nature Communications are described as ‘a massive-scale genotyping and diversity analysis’ of the two types of wheat grown globally (bread and pasta wheat) and of 27 known wild species.

The main objective of the study was to characterise the genetic diversity of CIMMYT and ICARDA’s internationally available collections, which are considered the largest in the world. The researchers aimed to understand this diversity by mapping genetic variants to identify useful genes for wheat breeding. The results show distinct biological groupings within the crop and suggest that a large proportion of the genetic diversity present in landraces has not been used to develop new high-yielding, resilient and nutritious varieties.

“The analysis of the wheat accessions reveals that relatively little of the diversity available in the landraces has been used in modern breeding, and this offers an opportunity to find untapped valuable variation for the development of new varieties from these landraces,” said Carolina Sansaloni, high-throughput genotyping and sequencing specialist at CIMMYT, who led the research team.

The study also found that the genetic diversity of pasta wheat is better represented in the modern varieties, with the exception of a subgroup of samples from Ethiopia.

The researchers mapped the genomic data obtained from the genotyping of the wheat samples to pinpoint the physical and genetic positions of molecular markers associated with characteristics that are present in both types of wheat and in the crop’s wild relatives.

According to Sansaloni, on average, 72 percent of the markers obtained are uniquely placed on three molecular reference maps and around half of these are in interesting regions with genes that control specific characteristics of value to breeders, farmers and consumers such as heat and drought tolerance, yield potential and protein content.

The data, analysis and visualisation tools of the SeeD and MasAgro projects sponsored by Mexico’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department (SADER) and the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC) were developed in collaboration with NIAB and the James Hutton Institute, and are freely available to the scientific community for advancing wheat research and breeding worldwide.

“These resources should be useful in gene discovery, cloning, marker development, genomic prediction or selection, marker-assisted selection, genome wide association studies and other applications,” said Dr Sansaloni.

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