skip to content

Sainsbury Laboratory


Chris Whitewoods

Career Development Fellow

Sainsbury Laboratory
University of Cambridge
Bateman Street

Cambridge CB2 1LR



The Whitewoods Group aims to understand how plants pattern themselves in three dimensions. Specifically, we investigate how plants coordinate their overall leaf shape with intricate internal patterning to produce leaves that are exquisitely adapted to their function, be that light capture for photosynthesis in flat leaves or prey capture for nutrient uptake in carnivorous plants.

To do this we combine computational modelling with genetic and developmental analysis in the flat-leaved model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and the floating aquatic carnivorous plant Utricularia gibba. We have several projects that feed into each other to give an integrated understanding of 3D morphogenesis:

Genetic basis of air space development and evolution

To identify novel regulators of air space formation we perform forward and reverse genetic screens in A. thaliana and U. gibba to identify plants with altered air spaces and the genes that underlie these phenotypes. One such screen identifies sinking U. gibba plants, which have much reduced air space development. We combine this with computational modelling and inducible genetic changes to understand exactly how these genes influence development and control air space formation. We also perform comparative experiments to investigate how these genes have been modified through evolution to control differences in air space patterning between plant species.

Cell division, growth and intercellular adhesion in air space development

Leaf air spaces are formed by cells being pulled apart, but how this process is controlled is unknown. We generate computational models to predict the effect of cell division, expansion and adhesion on air space formation, and test these hypotheses using inducible genetic changes to alter growth, cell wall properties and intercellular adhesion. These approaches allow us to investigate how differential growth and cell adhesion contribute to air space formation in A. thaliana and U. gibba.

Genetic control of growth in 3D

To develop complex shapes such as flat leaves and carnivorous plant traps, plants must control their growth in three dimensions. Our previous work proposed that growth is patterned in three dimensions based on a framework of two interacting orthogonal polarity fields. We are currently testing this hypothesis by identifying the molecular determinants of these polarity fields and investigating how changes in these factors underlie development in the flat leaves of A. thaliana and the cup-shaped carnivorous traps of U. gibba.


Key publications

Whitewoods CD*, Gonçalves B*, Cheng J*, Cui M, Kennaway R, Lee K, Bushell C, Yu M, Piao C. and Coen E. 2020. Evolution of carnivorous traps from planar leaves through simple shifts in gene expression. Science.

Lee K*, Bushell C*, Kiode Y*, Fozard J, Piao C, Yu M, Newman J, Whitewoods CD, Avondo J, Kennaway R, Maree A, Cui M. and Coen E. 2019. Shaping of a three-dimensional carnivorous trap through modulation of a planar growth mechanism. PLOS Biology.

Dennis R, Whitewoods CD and Harrison CJ. 2019. Quantitative methods for like-for-like comparison in analyses of Physcomitrella patens phyllid development. Journal of Bryology.

Whitewoods CD*, Cammarata J*, Nemec Venza Z, Sang S, Crook AD, Aoyama T, Wang X, Waller M, Kamisugi Y, Cuming A, Svövényi P, Nimchuk ZL, Roeder AHK, Scanlon MJ and Harrison CJ. 2018. CLAVATA was a genetic novelty for the morphological innovation of 3D growth in land plants. Current Biology.



Whitewoods CD. 2020. Utricularia: Quick Guide. Current Biology

Whitewoods CD and Coen E. 2017. Growth and development of three-dimensional plant form. Current Biology 27: R910-R918.

Group Members

Intercellular air spaces within the leaf of U. gibba. Large leaf air spaces like these allow aquatic plants to float.


Wild-type U. gibba (WT, left) floats in water whereas mutant U. gibba with smaller air spaces sinks to the bottom of the water column (mutant, right).


A U. gibba trap expressing GFP localised to cell membranes. Transgenic lines like this allow us to analyse development and gene function in U. gibba.