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Enhanced four year Gatsby PhD Studentship

The evolution of plant mechanics: the role of the cell wall in cell shape across the kingdom

The evolution of plant mechanics: the role of the cell wall in cell shape across the kingdom

Enhanced four year postgraduate studentships starting in October 2014, will once again be awarded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts. Each of 6 supervisors will select a candidate who will then compete at interview for one of up to three Sainsbury PhD Studentships. Interviews will be held in London on Friday, 21 March 2014. It would be expected that the studentship holder spend six months during their 3rd or 4th year at another university/institute to gain additional experience. Please note that students cannot apply to their home institution.

Interested applicants should write, attaching a CV, before 27 January 2014, to . The selected candidate will design the project proposal with Siobhan and enter the competition.

Sutton Trust Summer Schools

Plants are “masters of biochemistry”. This was one of the conclusions reached by the 30 teenagers who visited the Sainsbury Laboratory for a morning of science challenges. Working in collaboration with Science and Plants for Schools, the Sainsbury Laboratory hosted the event as part of a week-long programme run by the Sutton Trust, designed to give bright students from non-privileged homes a taste of life at a leading university.

After a welcome by Professor Elliot Meyerowitz, Director of the Laboratory, the pupils attended an undergraduate-style lecture entitled ‘Plants: The Great Poisoners’ by Dr Beverley Glover of the Department of Plant Sciences. An opportunity to chat with Sainsbury Lab researchers over tea and biscuits followed.

The students then donned lab coats and used new equipment in a hands-on practical, looking at the effects of one particular plant poison – caffeine – on water fleas. Putting their new knowledge into context, the teenagers finished the morning with a visit to some of the world’s most poisonous plants in the benign setting of the Botanic Garden’s Tropical House.

The Sainsbury Lab was delighted to be able to assist in this collaborative effort to engage students in plant sciences, and intends to support more events of this nature.

Visit by Anglia Ruskin students, 9 February, 2012

When is a plant ‘nature’ and when is it ‘science’? Why is plant science a priority? How do national norms influence a multinational discipline like science? These were just some of the issues discussed with a group of Anglia Ruskin University social science students visiting the Sainsbury Laboratory.

After a tour of the Plant Growth Facility and the Lab, the students met with Associate Director Ottoline Leyser for a conversation on these and other topics. Themes that emerged included the critical importance of easy and frequent communication between researchers- tea breaks and Skype connections are as important as state of the art microscopy suites!

Anglia Ruskin lecturer David Skinner said, ‘it was a great experience for our students-it made them rethink what science is.’ Rob Brett, Horticultural Facilities Manager, said, ‘this was an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of plant science and to explain what the Lab does to a group of people not normally involved in pure science research'.

SAPS Train the Trainer 16-17 February 2012

The Sainsbury Laboratory was pleased to collaborate with Science and Plants for Schools on a ‘Train the Trainer’ event. Aimed at PGCE biology tutors and others involved in teacher training, Train the Trainer highlighted a wide range of new plant science based practicals and online resources suitable for secondary school use.

Over the course of two days, twenty two participants tried over a dozen practicals for themselves using the Lab’s facilities and standard school science equipment lent by nearby Netherhall School; the delegates were reassured that the practicals were reproducible without necessarily needing the resources of a world class research laboratory!

As the delegates cloned cauliflowers, looked at pollen under microscopes and made algal balls, they had the chance to ask questions of the scientists and teachers who developed the practicals, share best practice with each other and discuss recent changes to the science curriculum. New developments in plant research were highlighted by an evening talk by Dr Beverly Glover from the Department of Plant Sciences, and the attendees were also given a tour of the university’s extensive Botanic Garden.

The aim of this event was to give PGCE biology tutors new ideas, new resources, confidence and practice in teaching plant science. Feedback praised everything from the utility and viability of the practicals to the inspirational setting of the Lab to the food and evening lecture. One delegate claimed that this was ‘the best CPD (continuing professional development) course I have been on in over 20 years of going to them’.

Cambridge Science Festival 2012

'Plants for the Future', Monday 19 March, 2012

As part of the Science Festival, Ottoline Leyser gave a free talk to over 100 people at the Sainsbury Laboratory. Her talk highlighted the importance of understanding how plants manage their own resources to regulate their growth and development as we increasingly turning to plants to replace fossil fuels and increase food security.

Science on Saturday, Saturday 17 March, 2012

Are you smart enough to survive as a plant or will you become extinct?

This was the challenge facing people visiting the Sainsbury Laboratory's stand at the UK's largest free science festival. A computer game asked players to make the same sorts of decisions plants do: choosing between growing more leaves or more roots, when to grow flowers, coping with insect attacks and ultimately trying to disperse seeds in the most advantageous manner. Players could choose to be either a wild or domesticated plant, and learned quickly that a successful strategy for one type of plant did not necessarily work for another. At the end of the game, each player was told whether their plant had succeeded in passing on its genes or was extinct. 'Extinct' players often felt compelled to try again!

Younger attendees were captivated by the Lab's 'build your own plant' activity. As they chose different sizes and textures of fabric leaves and stems, velcroed on roots and stuck on flowers, they were asked to ponder why a plant would have one sort leaf over another, or, in response to one improbable but extravagant creation, why a plant might or might not be able to produce a banana and onion at once!

This was the Sainsbury Laboratory's first attendance at the Science Festival, and along with other plant science based organisations, saw an estimated 2,500 people come to the Plant Sciences marquee. 'Great to see children learning about plant development through play' and 'rewarding and exhausting!' was the verdict from Lab's members participating in running the stand. Future plans include extending the 'build your own plant' kits and devising an activity around computational modeling.

To find out if you are smart enough to survive as a plant, play the Extinct game here.

Plant Power May 2012

On 19 May, the Sainsbury Laboratory, along with 14 other plant research institutions, welcomed the public to ‘Plant Power’, an outreach day hosted in the grounds of the Botanic Garden. Hundreds of members of the public welcomed the chance to learn about plant development and breeding, the latest research on biofuels and many other aspects of current plant based research.

The Sainsbury Laboratory was pleased to participate in this initiative, providing project management support as well as participating in the event itself. Directors, group leaders, post docs and support staff all took part. 'Talking to members of the public is great. They ask questions about your research that really make you think about your work in new ways' said Maaike de Jong. Ian Harvey, from the Society of Biology said, 'we engaged our audience and had plenty of hands-on, participative activities, which is essential for the wide range of ages and knowledge that come to these events.'

‘Plant Power’ was part of the European Plant Sciences Organisation's 'Fascination of Plants' initiative. University departments, regional plant breeding institutes and scientific societies collaborated on this project. This was the first time such a wide range of organisations took part in a plant themed outreach event hosted by the University, and plans for future collaborations on similar projects are already under discussion.

Dynamics of plant biology

22-23 May 2012

The Sainsbury Laboratory hosted an academic symposium focusing on the dynamics of plant biology. Featuring early career scientists from around the world as speakers, the event attracted audiences from across Cambridge as well as researchers from other universities.

A timetable of the talks is below:

Tuesday 22 May, 2012


13:20 - 13:30

Welcome and introduction
Professors Elliot Meyerowitz and Ottoline Leyser

13:30 - 14:10

How cell walls mechanically control growth
Dr Siobhan Braybrook, University of  Bern

14:10 - 14:50

Finding love:  Intercellular communication during plant reproduction
Dr Sharon Kessler, University of Zürich

14:50 - 15:30

DNA methylation dynamics during sexual reproduction in Arabidopsis thaliana
Dr Pauline Jullien, ETH Zürich

15.30 - 15.50

Coffee Break

15:50 - 16:30

Plant pathogen effectors as probes to elucidate plant processes
Dr Sebastian Schornack, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich

16:30 - 17:10

Positional information by differential endocytosis splits auxin response to drive Arabidopsis root meristem growth
Dr Emanuele Scacchi, University of Lausanne

17:10 - 17:50

Open Discussion

Wednesday 23 May, 2012

09:00 - 09:40

Can we make Arabidopsis into Striga?
Dr Yuichiro Tsuchiya, University of Toronto

09:40 - 10:20

A novel carotenoid-derived molecule functions in periodic root branching
Dr Jaimie van Norman, Duke University

10:20 - 11:00

Smoke and mirrors: The curious connection between post-fire germination and shoot branching regulation
Dr David Nelson, University of Georgia


Coffee Break

11:20 - 12:00

Hormonal networks in plant development: Fundamentally simple?
Dr Tom Bennett, University of Cambridge

12:00 - 12:40

Quantifying leaf morphology: perspectives on development, environmental regulation, and natural variation in leaf shape and size
Dr Daniel Chitwood, University of California, Davis

12.40 - 13.30


13:30 - 14:10

Adaptation to the environment in Arabidopsis thaliana
Dr Angela Hancock, University of Vienna

14:10 - 14:50

The footprint of mating system shift and colonization on the genome of a young species
Dr Daniel Koenig, Max Planck Institute

14:50- 15:30

Scratching the surface: Evolutionary developmental genetics of the land plant cuticle
Dr Sam Brockington, University of Cambridge

15:30 - 16:15

Open Discussion


Jeff Schell prize

Arun Sampathkumar has been awarded the prestigious € 2,500 Jeff Schell prize for outstanding research undertaken during his PhD at The Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology. Arun investigated the biosynthesis of cell walls during his PhD and was the lead author on the paper ‘Live cell imaging reveals functional association between actin filaments and microtubules in Arabidopsis’.

In plant cells, actin and microtubule cytoskeleton are involved in several essential functions including cellular growth and morphogenesis. The actin filaments and microtubules were formerly viewed as two distinct networks with separate functions but were found to cooperate in yeast and animal cells. However, associations between these two essential components in live plants cells had not been explored.

The paper reported unprecedented evidence of dynamic interaction between these two components and attracted widespread attention when it was published in The Plant Cell. The paper was selected as the best publication of the month by leading cell biologists for August 2011. The Jeff Schell prize was awarded to Arun in recognition of this article and other research he undertook during his PhD.

The press release (in German) issued by the Max Planck Institute can be found here.

Why physical scientists and biologists should interact!

26 June 2012

The Sainsbury Laboratory hosted a one day physical biology symposium highlighting ways in which collaboration between physical scientists and biologists can aid research.

Computational Biology Workshop

20-31 August, 2012

A group of 30+ invited scientists from around the world who use computational modelling in studying plant and animal biology attended the second annual computational biology workshop at the Sainsbury Laboratory. 

Schedule of Speakers:

Monday 20 August
14.00 Induction programme for invited attendees

Tuesday 21 August
9.00 - 10.00 Jill Harrison, Cambridge
10.00 -11.00 Vijay Chickarmane, Caltech
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: Gene regulatory network models

Wednesday 22 August
9.00-10.00 Julio Saez-Rodriguez, EBI
10.00 -11.00 Richard Morris, JIC
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: Parameter/model inference methods

Thursday 23 August
9.00 -10.00 Markus Grebe, UPSC
10.00 -11.00 Malcolm Bennett, Nottingham
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: Root models

Friday 24 August
9.00 -10.00 Enrico Scarpella, University of Alberta
10.00 -11.00 Przemek Prusinkiewicz, Calgary
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: PIN polarization models

Monday 27 August
9.015 -10.15 Phil Wigge, SLCU
10.15 -11.15 James Locke, SLCU
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: Tutorials/teaching modules

Tuesday 28 August
9.15 -10.15 Petros Koumoutsakos, ETH Zurich
10.15 -11.15 Olivier Hamant, ENS-Lyon
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: Growth/mechanics

Wednesday 29 August
9.15 -10.15 Christophe Godin, INRIA and Jan Traas, ENS-Lyon
10.15 -11.15 Richard Smith, Bern
13.00 -15.00 Discussion: Image processing/experimental templates

Thursday 30 August
9.15 - 10.15 Eric Mjolsness, UCI
10.15 - 11.15 Alistair Middleton, Heidelberg
13.00 - 15.00 Discussion

Friday 31 August
9.15 - 10.15 Jim Hasseloff, Cambridge
10.15 - 11.15 Ray Goldstein, Cambridge
11.15 -12.15 Discussion: Simpler organisms

Sutton Trust Summer Schools

The Lab collaborated with the Department of Plant Sciences, Science and Plants for Schools and the Botanic Garden in delivering a morning of activities for pupils attending the Sutton Trust Summer Schools. The pupils had in common the likelihood of being the first people in their families to attend any university and a strong interest in biological sciences This was their first day on the summer school, their first set of academic activities together and their first visit to a research lab! They rose to the challenges presented to them with enthusiasm and focus, listening to an undergraduate level lecture on plant poisons and working through a practical involving caffeinating waterfleas. Sainsbury Lab researchers chatted with the pupils over tea and biscuits, hopefully demystifying what research scientists do for a living! The pupils (and the waterfleas!) were animated by the morning's activities, and it is hoped the pupils will be inspired to pursue biological sciences in general, and plant sciences in particular, at undergraduate level.

Plant Sciences Research Days

5-6 December, 2012

The Sainsbury Laboratory hosted a two-day Plant Sciences Research Symposium in December. This event was the annual research retreat of the Plant Sciences Department and featured a series of research talks, a PhD student poster session and an evening flip-chart discussion session.

Pembroke-Kings Summer School

A group of international undergraduates from the Pembroke-Kings Summer School visited the Sainsbury Laboratory to take part in a computational biology workshop run by Henrik Jönsson and members of his group. Even though most of the participants were not reading biological or computer science, they cheerfully took on the challenge of spending the afternoon learning about modeling plant growth using computers.

The group represented several institutions (Harvard, University of Hong Kong, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania), and it is hoped the visit not only added to their experience of cutting edge scientific research, but helped to emphasise the importance of plant sciences to an international undergraduate audience. In addition, their feedback as highly committed undergraduates not reading biological/computer sciences was especially valuable in helping the Lab to adapt an existing talk/practical for new, non-specialist, audiences. In future, it is hoped this exercise can be further adapted to suit teenagers and general adult audiences.

SAPS Train the Trainer

The Laboratory was pleased to host the second Train the Trainer event in collaboration with Science and Plants for Schools. Aimed at PGCE biology tutors and others involved in teacher training, Train the Trainer highlighted a wide range of new plant science based practicals and online resources suitable for secondary school use. The delegates spent two days learning the new practicals, exploring plant sciences websites and chatting with Lab researchers about their research.  Sainsbury Lab staff tried their hand at the practicals as well. As with the previous event, the course was very well received, and the Lab looks forward to hosting similar courses in the future.

Wyke 6th Form College

The Laboratory was pleased to welcome a group of science pupils from Wyke 6th Form College in Hull. They had a tour of the Laboratory and Plant Growth Facilities and had a discussion with staff from Science and Plants for Schools on the design of scientific posters for school classrooms. It is hoped that the pupils came away with the message that plant science is a rapidly developing area of growing interest and investment. For many pupils, this was their first visit to a research facility of any type. Coming just days after the Laboratory was awarded the Stirling Prize,  their visit may have rather unfairly skewed their perceptions of what research facilities are generally like!

Visit by pupils from Sawtry Community College, 26-27 February, 2013

Over the course of two days, the Sainsbury Laboratory welcomed 30 A-level and B-tech biology pupils from Sawtry Community College. They took part in a workshop on the ABC model of flower development, led by Siobhan Braybrook and Devin O’Connor. The pupils were introduced to the ABC model and then given examples of mutant phenotypes.  They worked out in small groups what each mutant’s genotype was and how its gene expression would dictate the flower’s morphology. They then shared their findings with the larger group.

After a tour of the lab and a lunch break, the pupils returned for a hands-on session in small groups, taking apart several types of flowers. They were then invited to share with their classmates their thoughts on which combination of ABC genes might be in play for each type of flower. The session concluded with a short talk on why, from an evolutionary standpoint, plants flower at all, and highlighted the different types of pollinators plant designs have evolved to attract.

Throughout the session, Devin and Siobhan emphasised that the ABC model of flower development is a useful but simplistic model, throwing up as many questions as it answers and only partially explaining an extremely complex series of genetic events. The pupils left with a good grasp of the ABC model of flower development and a new found enthusiasm for plants. Comments included that the day ‘made plants interesting and helped me understand genetics better’. ‘Plants are awesome! I particularly enjoyed the group work and the opportunity to discover/work out information ourselves. Thank you very much’. More importantly, it is hoped that the day provided the pupils with a better understanding of how the process of scientific research takes place in developmental genetics- through observations of loss of function mutants, cross breeding, genetic modelling, and iterative theory building.

Cambridge Science Festival 2013

Science on Saturday, 16 March, 2013

Thousands of people braved rain and wind to visit the Sainsbury Lab and other plant research institutions’ activities at the Cambridge Science Festival. A dozen SLCU researchers were on hand to over the course of the day to take members of the public through the Lab’s outreach displays and activities. Smaller children were challenged to design their own plants suited to different environments and weather conditions. Older children and whole families tried their luck at survival as either a wild or crop plant though the Extinct! computer game developed by the Laboratory’s director, Ottoline Leyser.

Microscopy was in focus with a game where participants were asked to match images of plant cells to the correct part of a plant. A poster described various different types of microscopy and why a researcher would choose one sort of imaging approach over another. This also helped explain why two microscopy images of the same part of a plant look wildly different. To bring this all to life, Devin O’Connor provided a dissecting microscope, camera, laptop and various samples from tomato, maize and Arabidopsis plants so people could do some microscopy work of their own.

Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with one member of the public saying it was fantastic to see an expanding range of activities pitched so that a family of all ages could participate. One child made his way through the SLCU activities twice in a very focussed manner- a future researcher perhaps? The Laboratory will continue to develop and expand its range of activities- over 20% of existing research staff participated in the festival, and with more researchers joining the Laboratory, the pool of ideas, experience and enthusiasm for public engagement will continue to grow.

Science Festival Lecture, 13 March, 2013

120 people braved sleet and hail to hear Dr Siobhan Braybrook <LINK> give a talk on plant architecture, describing how and why plants have the shapes they have, how domestication has influenced this and how plants act as inspiration for new materials and design principles.  Demonstrating the multidisciplinary nature of plant science with elements of genetics, geometry, chemistry, physics and anthropology, Siobhan took the audience through the basic building parts of a plant. Drawn models, photograghs and live plants in the auditorium helped the audience understand how plant phenotypes are expressed differently under the influence of both spontaneous and human induced genetic varation.

She then highlighted the influence of plant arcitecture in human design, inspiring everything from solar panel layouts to non stick coatings. She invited the audience to come and discover for themselves the movement of bird of paradise petals which influenced the design of the Thematic Pavillion at Expo 2012. The enthusiastic audience left the Laboratory saying the talk helped them understand some of the mechanics of plant development and how this was evident in their own plants and gardening habits, gave them a new framework and vocabulary when thinking about plants and had (re)kindled their fascination with the wide range of subjects that can fall under 'plant science'.

Newnham College Women in Science Participants, April 4 2013

A group of 30 A-level pupils spent an afternoon at the Sainsbury Laboratory as part of their participation in Newnham College’s ‘Women in Science’ residential course. The girls were given a challenging task by academic visitor Alexis Peaucelle, and rose to the occasion magnificently. They were given seedlings from various lines of Arabidopsis plants. Arabidopsis is a small plant widely used to study plant biology because it is convenient to grow in the lab. The lines were engineered so that each one showed where a particular gene was switched on.

Working in groups, the girls studied the lines to establish where each gene was on and came up with theories to explain their observations. What sort of genes were in play? The girls grappled with ideas of genes being switched off and on in both time and space and many other concepts. Even the girls who had not taken A-level biology plunged into the task, and in some cases asked the most interesting questions.

After working independently on their seedlings, each group presented their findings to the larger group. This led to further discussions as hypotheses were offered and analysed. Alexis encouraged the girls to develop plausible alternative hypotheses to fit the same observations. The emphasis was on coming up with ideas and discussing them, not getting the ‘right’ answer; ‘We got weird results’ was met with ‘how interesting!’

This exercise was as much about the scientific process as it was about plant genetics. The girls learned to formulate and discuss hypotheses, make close observations, and start to consider the huge range of factors that can influence plant development. The workshop was designed to be a process of discovery, discussion and idea building.

This way of working collaboratively and independently, along with an array of new concepts and vocabulary, made it a challenging workshop for the girls. Their concentration, perseverance and willingness to have a go outside their comfort zone were impressive. Feedback praised Alexis’ enthusiasm, noted that this workshop was a new experience in terms of content and format, and although at times bewildering, it was also a lot of fun! We very much hope to see some of these students back in the Lab in 5-10 years’ time, so they can continue to get interesting, weird results!

Festival of Plants, May 18 2013

The Sainsbury Laboratory joined plant breeding organisations, horticulturalists and other plant experts in the 'Festival of Plants' at the Cambridge Botanic Garden. Researchers from SLCU participatef in a range of events and exhibits timetabled throughout the day, including pop-up plant science demonstrations, short talks about their research and a marquee with activities for members of the public to try. Normal Botanic Garden admissions charges apply. Further information is available here.

Dynamics Networks in plant biology

The Sainsbury Laboratory hosted an academic symposium focusing on dynamic networks in plant biology. Featuring early career scientists from around the world as speakers, this event was free to attend. 

A timetable of the talks is below:

Tuesday 21 May, 2013

12:50-13.10 Welcome and introduction
Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director, Sainsbury Laboratory
13:10-13:50 The “Endless Forms”: Genetics, Development, and Evolution of Flower Colour and Shape
Dr Yaowu Yuan, University of Connecticut
13:50-14:30 Uncovering the genomic landscape of speciation through population-level resequencing of two Aquilegia species
Dr Daniele Filiault, Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology
14:30-15:10 Adaptation and its genetic basis in plants
Dr Marco Todesco, University of British Columbia
15:10-15:30 Tea break
15:30-16:10 The blossoms and the roots of developmental evolution in genotype-phenotype maps
Dr Ulises Rosas, New York University
16:10-16:50 Genome-wide association study of drought tolerance in A.thaliana
Dr Artur Korte, Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology
16:50-17:30 Shifting protein-protein interactions in the evolution of the grasses: when, how, and why?
Dr Madelaine Bartlett, Brigham Young University
17:30-18:15 Open discussion

Wednesday 22 May, 2013

09:30-10:10 Using evolutionary sequence variation to make inferences about protein structure and function
Dr Lucy Colwell, Harvard University
10:10-10:50 Rewiring cell fate decisions to uncover MAPK specificity in the stomatal lineage
Dr Diego Wengier, Stanford University
10:50-11:10 Coffee break
11:10-11:50 Applying system metabolism to improve synthetic metabolism
Dr Arren Bar-Even, Weizmann Institute of Science
11:50-12:30 Mechanical regulation of morphogenesis at the shoot apex
Dr Naomi Nakayama, ENS, Lyon
12:30-13:30 Break
13:30-14:10 Stochasticity and regulation in plant tissue growth
Dr Karen Alim, Harvard University
14.10-14.50 Endodermal cell responses and size control regulate lateral root formation
Dr Joop Vermeer, University of Lausanne
14:50-15:30 Morphogenetic mechanisms underlying germinal and somatic fate acquisition in maize anthers
Tim Kelliher, Stanford University
15:30-15.50 Tea break
15:50-16:30 Unravelling the calcium machinery responsible for the nucleoplasmic calcium oscillation in legume symbioses
Dr Myriam Charpentier, John Innes Centre
16:30-17.10 Intracellular Protein Transport in Plants
Dr Michael Sauer, Spanish National Centre for Biotechnology
17:10-18:00 Open discussion


Dr James Locke wins the CSB2 Prize in Systems Biology

Dr James Locke, Group Leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU), was awarded the Merrimack-CSB2 Prize in Systems Biology this week at the International Conference on the Systems Biology of Human Disease 2013 in Heidelberg, Germany. The Prize, sponsored by Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, is awarded to a young scientist for exceptional contributions to the development and application of innovative new modelling and computational methods as judged by their technical quality, broad utility and fundamental theoretical insight. Dr Locke presented some of his research at the conference during his Award Lecture on Wednesday 12 June, entitled “Stochastic signal encoding strategies in single cells.”

Dr Locke joined the Sainsbury Laboratory in 2012 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. His growing research group is working to develop a quantitative understanding of signal integration and gene circuit dynamics at the single cell level in Cyanobacteria, and is currently recruiting 2 postdoctoral scientists to move this work forward.

Ottoline Leyser, the Director of SLCU, said “We are delighted that James’ work has been recognised with this prize. His work beautifully illustrates how combining theoretical approaches with biological experiments can provide insights applicable across biology, in plant, animal and microbial systems. This interdisciplinary approach is a central pillar of the SLCU philosophy”.

The International Conference on the Systems Biology of Human Disease 2013 (SBHD 2013) took place on June 12-­14 at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, Germany. The conference is organized by the Helmholtz Alliance on Systems Biology in cooperation with the Council for Systems Biology in Boston (CSB2), Harvard Medical School and the Swiss Initiative in Systems Biology SystemsX.

Dr Siobhan Braybrook blogs on celebrating plant science

Dr Siobhan Braybrook has written an entry for the GARNet community blog, explaining the value of pure science research.


'You don’t need to know exactly where you are going in order to end up somewhere cool; you can explore things for the sake of knowledge which gives a lot of freedom; and sometimes you find out unexpected things that end up having massive applied impacts that you might never have anticipated.'


Read the full article here.

Tours of the Sainsbury Laboratory in September- Fully Booked

Please note this event is now fully booked.


Any enquiries regarding tickets should be addressed to the Open Cambridge team:

Call: 01223 766766


The Sainsbury Laboratory is participating in Open Cambridge on Saturday 14 September. Free tours will be given of the award-winning Lab by architects from Stanton Williams and SLCU staff.

From the programme:

10am–11.30am, 12noon–1.30pm, 2pm–3.30pm, 4pm–5.30pm
Tours of the award-winning Sainsbury Laboratory will be given by Stanton Williams architects and the laboratory's staff to include aspects of their plant science research.  Please note that admission to the laboratory does not include admission to the Botanic Garden.
Tour, Adults, Fully accessible. Pre-book*

Festival of Plants Panel Discussion: Biotechnology and Genetic Modification – a Mature Conversation

On Friday 16 May at 16:00, SLCU will host a debate in Cambridge on the potential of GM crops in agriculture in developing countries.


Our understanding of plant biology is rapidly increasing. We have made significant progress in analysing important agronomic properties such as disease resistance and drought tolerance. This knowledge can be applied in many different ways but there is no doubt that, in some cases, GM approaches have the potential to deliver major improvements in crop productivity.

However, in Europe, GM is extremely controversial and this has all but eliminated the cultivation of GM crops here. There is good evidence that the European attitudes to GM are having knock-on effects on GM adoption in developing countries.

To discuss these issues, we are hosting a panel discussion. The three panel members have all contributed to science and policy debates on genetic modification and biotechnology in the context of contemporary agriculture and food production. Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory will give an overview of the technology. Professor Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex, will explore the controversies surrounding the adoption and use of genetic modification and biotechnology, and how civil society and policy actors have framed the science-policy dialogue in this context. Finally, Dr Emmanuel Okogbenin, Director of Technical Operations at African Agricultural Technology Foundation will consider the role, potential and limitations of genetic modification and agro-biotechnology, with a specific focus on Africa.

The panel-style discussion, followed by a structured Q&A session, will be chaired by Susan Watts, formerly Science Editor on BBC Newsnight.

This event is part of the Humanitarian Centre's Global Food Futures Year and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden's Festival of Plants.

Professor Leyser explains "It's time to move beyond the hyperbole surrounding GM and ask instead how we can best use the many and diverse tools and resources available to us to address the pressing issues of global food security".

Attendance is free but ticketed. Tickets are available from 

For press enquiries, please contact:

Craig Brierley
Head of Research Communications
Office of External Affairs and Communications
University of Cambridge
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RP
Telephone: 01223 766205
Mobile: 07957 468218

SLCU to host EMBO Interdisciplinary Plant Science Conference in September 2014

Registration is now open for the EMBO Interdisciplinary Plant Science Conference taking place on 21-24 September, 2014

Plant biology is undergoing a major shift in emphasis from the identification and analysis of component parts toward studies of dynamic systems behaviours, with the goal of understanding the relationship between levels of biological organization. This integrative approach is heavily interdisciplinary, involving computational modelling, analysis of the physical properties of tissues, and exploitation of wide species comparisons. Developmental Biology is at the vanguard of this revolution because of its inherently multiscale focus. This EMBO Conference will focus on recent progress in achieving an integrated understanding of plant development.

Places are limited and participants will be selected based on a range of diversity criteria.

Registration and abstract submission deadline: June 30 2014
Further information is available here.

Quantitative Approaches to Development, 22-23 July

SLCU will host a two day symposium focusing on quantitative approaches to development on 22-23 July.  Featuring early career scientists from around the world as speakers, this event is free to attend. A timetable of talks can be found below.

Tuesday 22 July, 2014

14:00-14:20  Welcome and introduction

                    Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director, Sainsbury Laboratory

14:20-15:05  Steering (or not) towards light: Flagellar photoresponse in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii

                    Kyriacos Leptos, University of Cambridge

15:05-15:50  Resource-aware auxin signalling in Arabidopsis?

                    Micha Hersch, University of Lausanne

15:50-16:10  Tea Break

16:10-16:55  Computational modelling of growth regulation by auxin responses during gravitropism

                    John Fozzard, Nottingham University

16:55-17:40  A simple model of the interaction between tropisms and perceptions

                    Renaud Bastien, Harvard University


Wednesday 23 July 2014

09:30-10:15  Root microbiome assembly: the search for host modulation factors

                    Sur Herrera Paredes, University of North Carolina

10:15-10:35  Coffee Break

10:35-11:20  Extending plants - a novel method to understand the mechanics of development

                    Sarah Robinson, University of Bern

11:20-12:05  Mechanotransductive activation of mesoderm invagination triggered by stochastic apex cell pulsations in early Drosophila embryos

                    Démosthène Mitrossilis, Institut Curie, Paris

12:05-13.30  Break

13:30-14:15  Quantitative Investigation of Transcription Dynamics in Development and Growth

                    Adam Corrigan, University College, London

14:15-15:00  Transcription Factor Kinetics in Living Cells

                    Petter Hammar, Uppsala University

15:00-15:20  Tea Break

15:20-16:05  A theoretical approach to investigate how boundaries are shaped in developing tissues

                    Maryam Aliee, ENS-Lyon

16:05-16:30  Open Discussion

'Today has encouraged me to be a scientist!'

SLCU aims to inspire the next generation of plant scientists.

SLCU was pleased to host participants in the Admissions Office’s Realise programme for an afternoon of activities. Dressed in lab coats and using research equipment, children and their adult companions set up and ran an experiment using plant infiltration, a technique used by researchers and technicians daily at SLCU.  Guided by Thomas Rey and Sandra Cortijo, they noted differences in pressure needed to infiltrate leaves from watered and unwatered plants and the top and bottom of leaves. They drew conclusions on leaf structure and how plants react to drought conditions.  Some participants mastered the technique very quickly, outdoing experienced researchers.

Another activity on offer involved identifying plant parts by looking closely at a range of everyday vegetables, under the guidance of Siobhan Braybrook.  Practicing fundamental scientific skills of observation, measurement, and using agreed scientific terms, participants were asked identify which plant they had in front of them and which parts were present, missing or modified due to human selection.  They were asked to consider which part of the plant humans eat- that brussel sprouts were side shoots of a much larger plant came as a big surprise! The exercise led to discussions on how plants underlie virtually every ecosystem on earth, and how much of a human’s diet is derives from them (yes, even donuts!) and just how much agriculture has driven change in the shape plants over time.  One adult commented that they never expected to see a room full of 11-14 year-olds so fully absorbed by broccoli and cabbage.

SLCU is keen to generate enthusiasm for higher education in general and plant science in particular, and is pleased to support the University's Realise programme for children in care.  It is hoped events like this will help encourage and guide more of them towards university. This particular group of children were committed, engaged and full of enquiry; Siobhan noted that 'I have never had such enthusiastic students!'  A participant wrote that the day had 'encouraged me to be a scientist'; we are delighted that our programme may have played a part in helping this aspiration to become reality.

10 March Science Festival talk: The Janus-faced interaction of plants and microbes

Dr Sebastian Schornack will give a talk exploring the dynamic relationship between plants and microbes.
10 March Science Festival talk: The Janus-faced interaction of plants and microbes

Beneficial mycorrhiza fungi colonising a plant root


As part of the Cambridge Science Festival, Dr Sebastian Schornack will give a talk exploring the dynamic relationship between plants and microbes.  Plants an microbes can be best friends or deadly enemies.  How did these relationships evolve, how do we study them, and how can we exploit them in fields such as plant breeding and biomedicine?  Come to the Sainsbury Laboratory on 10 March to find out.  This event is ticketed; tickets will be available from from 10:00, Monday 3 February.
SLCU will also be participating in Science on Saturday on 15 March. Come and see us in the Plant Sciences marquee in the Downing Site.

Spring outreach at SLCU

Researchers at SLCU have had a busy spring participating in several public engagement events aimed at future plant scientists and the general public.

SLCU’s researchers are developing an increasing range of activities for all ages. During the Science Festival and Festival of Plants, thousands of members of the public were challenged to learn the ABCs of flower development, practice lab techniques like 3d plant scanning and leaf infiltration, assess the impact of temperature changes on seedlings and design their own tree.

Along with activities aimed at children, SLCU researchers have participated in several talks on global food security. Sebastian Schornack’s talk for the Science Festival focussed on the Janus-faced interaction of plants and microbes.  The talk guided the audience through a range of plant/microbe relationships, including plant pathogens implicated in late potato blight, responsible for the Irish potato famine, and bacterial infection affecting rice yields. Feedback from the talk was overwhelmingly positive: The speaker had outstanding presentation skills, enthusiasm and pitched the talk just at the right level.  A great kick-off to my Science Festival experience - if the rest is half as good, I'll be thrilled.

A further series of talks took place later in the spring, with Ottoline Leyser participating in a panel discussion on food security as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival and SLCU hosting two talks on the topic as part of the Festival of Plants. On Friday 16 May, a panel discussion took place on Food Security, Biotechnology and Genetic Modification. The aim was to broaden the discussion on genetic modification and other biotechnologies from the often polarised rhetoric in public discourse to a more nuanced and interactive debate. Feedback from the audience included that the discussion could have gone on for another hour at least!  On the next day, SLCU hosted a talk by Professor M S Swaminathan, one of the founders of India’s Green Revolution and a recognised world expert on sustainable food security.  Podcasts of both these events will be available shortly.

Following this busy outreach period, SLCU is now preparing for a series of public engagement activities in September and October.  The lab will be participating in the University’s Open Cambridge and Alumni Weekend events, as well as the Big Biology Weekend and the Festival of Ideas.  Further details will be posted in the news section of SLCU in due course.

Branching out: from model plants to coppiced trees

Researchers from the Sainsbury Laboratory and Rothamsted Research, funded by the BBSRC Crop Science Initiative, have discovered a gene that contributes to the coppicing response of willows.


Willows (Salix spp.) are of commercial importance as they provide renewable and sustainable biomass for bioenergy. They grow fast, produce high yields with low fertilizer inputs and easily re-grow after being coppiced (cut back to their base). Coppicing response is of fundamental importance as it enables willows to be grown in three year harvesting cycles, affects vigour and yield, stem and crown architecture and the ratio of bark to wood in the stem. Despite its importance the genetic regulation of coppicing response is little understood. The team used knowledge and methodologies from the model plant species Arabidopsis to identify SxMAX4 as the first coppicing response gene known to date. The study is published today in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Although cultivated since the Roman times, and still used for baskets and cricket bats, willows have been subject to only minimal domestication. Luckily, the genus shows huge genetic diversity, from massive trees to small bushes, and there is great potential for crop improvement through breeding. However, improving willows is challenging. Many target traits, including coppicing response, are complex and a good understanding of the genetic basis of developmental processes is required in order to develop improved willow varieties. Studying development in willows is difficult due to their large size, perennial growth cycle and the effort required to assess phenotypes in the field. Also gene function assays that are routinely used in model organisms are not yet established in willows.

Arabidopsis is undoubtedly the best characterized and widely-studied model plant today and there is great interest in transferring knowledge from Arabidopsis to species of commercial importance, such as willows, that are much harder to study. The current findings demonstrate the great results that can be achieved from exploitation of the vast body of knowledge in this model, and of combining plant molecular biology with genetic mapping approaches.

Dr Angela Karp of Rothamsted Research and lead scientist in this study said: “It was known that re-growth of shoots from the cut base after coppicing results through the activation of dormant buds in the coppiced base, and we set up genetic crosses to study this, but the developmental control of this process is very difficult to investigate in willow. In Arabidopsis, many genes are known to control bud activation through a network of interacting plant hormones. We chose to focus on the More AXillary growth (MAX) genes as these are known to have key effects on branching in Arabidopsis. We isolated the genes from willow and Ottoline Leyser’s group introduced them into Arabidopsis plants that lacked functional copies of the relevant MAX genes. We were then able to see the effects of the willow MAX genes in Arabidopsis using a standard branching assay”.

Dr Karp added: “It was really exciting to find that one of the MAX genes, SxMAX4, which affected branching in the Arabidopsis assay, was associated with differences in shoot re-sprouting in willow, and is located in exactly the area in the willow genome that is responsible for regulating this trait. This is the first time a gene has been shown to influence coppicing response and should enable the breeding of plants with desired stem numbers not only in willow but other coppiced trees”.

Professor Ottoline Leyser of the Sainsbury Laboratory said: “This has been a very exciting collaboration for me. I expected that our Arabidopsis work would be useful for understanding trees such as willow, but I did not anticipate quite how similar bud activation in these two species would be. The approach we have used to test willow genes in Arabidopsis could be widely useful for assessing functional genetic diversity in slow-growing species.”




Notes to the Editors

 Rothamsted Research has a willow breeding pipeline and also holds the National Willow Collection, one of the largest collections of willow in the world, both of which are part of Rothamsted's Cropping Carbon Institute Strategic Programme.

 About Sainsbury Laboratory

The Sainsbury Laboratory opened in April 2011, with a focus on elucidating the mechanisms that regulate the growth and development of plants.  Recent technological advances have created an unprecedented opportunity to obtain an integrated understanding of plant development, and the Laboratory has a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary research environment to capitalise on this, bringing together expertise in molecular, cellular and organismal biology, with computational modelling.

 About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research is the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for nearly 170 years. Their mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Their strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.

Rothamsted Research receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)of £27.2M per annum.

 About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Their aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £467M (2012-2013), they support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people they fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Their investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about the BBSRC, their science and impact see:

The Transformational Role of Plants in meeting the Zero Hunger Challenge, 14.00, Saturday 17 May 2014

M.S. Swaminathan will give a talk at SLCU on the critical role plant science plays in tackling the challenge of world hunger.


A plant geneticist by training, Professor Swaminathan’s is widely celebrated for his leadership of India’s Green Revolution, especially over his tenure as Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (1972-1979). His advocacy of sustainable agriculture leading to an ‘ever-green revolution’ makes him an acknowledged world leader in the field of sustainable food security.

Amongst other distinctions, Professor Swaminathan was Chairman of the UN Science Advisory Committee, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute, Independent Chairman of the FAO Council, and President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). He has received one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Vibhushan, and a number of international awards and citations, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the Albert Einstein World Science Award, the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize and the World Food Prize. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1973, and as Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1977.

Professor M S Swaminathan was listed by TIME magazine as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century and one of only three from India, the other two being Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He has been described by the United Nations Environment Programme as “the Father of Economic Ecology” and by Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary General of the United Nations, as “a living legend who will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction”. He is Founder, Emeritus Chairman and Chief Mentor at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India.

This event is part of the Humanitarian Centre's Global Food Futures Year and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden's Festival of Plants.  The event is co-hosted by the Sainsbury Laboratory, the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Attendance is free but ticketed.  Tickets are available from

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